February 23, 2018
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The words “midlife crisis” bring to mind images of a middle aged man buying a shiny, red sports car that he cannot afford or a middle aged woman getting plastic surgery in an effort to look young again. These stereotypical images are often played for laughs in film and TV shows, but for middle aged married couples, the midlife crisis can be a real fear. After all, one of the most commonly described reactions to a midlife crisis is an affair. 

Despite the concerns and comedy that surrounds midlife crises, most people only have a vague idea of what the midlife crisis really is or what it means. How common are midlife crises? What do most people really do if they have a midlife crisis? What does a midlife crisis mean for your marriage? 

The term “midlife crisis” was coined by psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques in 1965 with his article “Death and the Midlife Crisis.” It was in this work and other authors’ subsequent works about the newly-named midlife crisis that created the lasting stereotype. Most works had a protagonist who ended up throwing off the shackles of their old life and seeking out what they really desired. In Sue Shellenbarger’s “The Breaking Point,” she says those suffering from midlife crises are filled with “frustrations that erupt….a look, a passing touch, a solitary sexual dream reignite a passion for intimacy. A forgotten yen to see the Himalayas at sunset bursts forth into a full-blown resolve. A thirst to do new, more meaningful work takes center stage, causing a woman to jettison her hard-won career of 30 years.”

More recent works about the malaise some people feel during middle age comes from the conflict between deepening inwardly by jettisoning the conventional and conforming roles assumed in early adulthood and exploding outward in an effort to form more connections in the world. When both people in a marriage are dealing with this same internal conflict, problems can arise that can damage a marriage.

Some problems are the result of the stereotypical midlife crisis: an affair. An affair driven by a midlife crisis is often born of the desire to, essentially, live two different lives at once. The person having the affair does not want to give up their spouse, home, children, friends or comfortable life. They also, however, want to feel the excitement, passion and thrill of an illicit love. These two lives, of course, cannot exist simultaneously without destroying each other. Affairs are eventually discovered, and the cheater’s comfortable life with their spouse comes crashing down. The lover, meanwhile, either becomes an object of resentment or they end up becoming the stable, comfortable partner which is exactly what the cheater was trying to escape. 

People who have midlife crisis affairs generally claim they did not decide to have an affair but that “it just happened.” In reality, however, middle aged cheaters, like all adulterers, made a series of small choices that led to an affair. Unfortunately, these small choices are not always recognized until after everything blows up in the adulterer’s face. 

Affairs are not the only way that a midlife crisis can harm a marriage. During middle age, there are new challenges that partners face. Many spouses have children, and many more couples become empty nesters. Spouses who have children later in life may struggle with the demands a growing family places on them if they are not completely prepared. Empty nesters, on the other hand, may have to relearn their spouse and how to handle living with just their spouse once more. If children were the center of a couple’s relationship, then neither of them may know what to do when the children are gone. Some people cling to old routines while others jump into new hobbies or interests with both feet.

Exploring a new hobby may not seem like a midlife crisis to most people, but it can cause friction between spouses. There is nothing necessarily wrong with sticking with what worked for many years, and there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of the time no longer spent on a child to investigate other interests. The problem can come when the two spouses’ desires do not line up with each other. If one person wants to hold onto routines while they navigate the world of the empty-nester and the other person wants to throw themselves headfirst into a new hobby, things can become strained between the couple. 

The specter of disagreements over spending can rear their ugly heads during middle age as well. Retirement is often looming on the horizon while other large monetary concerns make themselves known. Children may be entering college or striking out on their own and need financial help. People may begin to support their aging parents. Houses often need repairs, and cars that ran for years may finally give up the ghost. When these already difficult financial concerns are set against the backdrop of an empty nest and middle age struggles, spending habits can become a powder keg just waiting to go off. 

Middle age does not have to be a struggle for your marriage. Good communication is likely the reason that your marriage has held strong until you and your spouse are both middle aged. Words do not lose their power simply because you have gotten older. Good communication will continue to be vital to the health of your marriage. Middle age also gives you and your spouse the chance to rebuild or increase your emotional intimacy. Sexual desire has likely decreased as you both aged, but almost everyone desires a strong emotional connection. If you are an empty nester, take advantage of the extra time and energy, and devote that to deepening your connection with your spouse. A little bit of internal struggling does not have to lead to the stereotypical midlife crisis that involves younger mistresses and attractive yoga teachers. Instead, use it as fuel to deepen your relationship with and commitment to your spouse so that your marriage glides smoothly through middle age into the golden years.