Every day, at Couples Therapy Inc, we help men come to grips with a restlessness inside that threatens to destroy their marriage. It's a special kind of couples therapy, which demands that each spouse re-examine their lives, their priorities, and the values they hold dear, and not sell themselves short, or their families. Perhaps they're called "Midlife Crisis Men."
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Thomas looked through his law school "update" of classmate achievements. It told him what his graduating peers were now doing, and he reflected on what he was doing. He sat down and stared at the wall for a long time. When his wife tried to talk to him, he joked, but she could tell he was upset.
"I know it's not how I wanted to live my life," he told her, "but I can't help but feel like a loser compared to them..."
Thomas was a successful lawyer in his own firm, but he had not become a leader of government, the head of a large corporation, or a Chief Justice. Neither, (had he thought to himself, quietly) had he married a woman as successful or glamorous as his peers. Many, he noted, seemed to be on their second marriage, and married to a "younger model." It was a thought he quickly discarded and felt ashamed for thinking it.
...He started drinking wine at dinner, something he had never done before...
Yet, he seemed to find fault with Carrie over the next month and began making disparaging statements to himself about her, his life, and his chosen career. He suggested that they might be better off to leave Chicago, a city that wasn't "home," but both of them had grown to love. Nightly, he started to drink wine with dinner, something he had never done before. And he started to spend longer and longer hours on the internet, rather than come to bed with his wife, a tradition they had agreed to years before.
Carrie told herself to be patient. Thomas was often in a funk after reading "that darn update."
But when she discovered texting between him and a former sweetheart, everything broke loose.
Do you feel as if you or your husband or wife is going through a midlife crisis? Could it lead you (or them) to leave your marriage? I'll be talking about this and other issues in this post including:
For many adults, it is a time to stop, reflect, and pay attention to the internal gnawing inside that tells them "Something's going on." Part of the challenge is to be in enough touch with yourself and to be able to be honest enough, to look head on into that feeling and make necessary, but often difficult changes. For many people, those changes are in their individual lives:
Of course a "mid-life crisis," is, by definition a crisis that occurs at midlife. But a "life crisis" at any age are defined as instability in mental and emotional health, affecting the individuals for a year or longer. And can alter the course of their lives. So a life crisis can really happen at any age.
Psychologist Nic Beets, from Couple Work in Auckland, New Zealand says:
"A mid life crisis is a good and normal thing to have. We should pause in mid-life and reflect on the choices we’ve made and consider if they are serving us well. The danger is in thinking "I’ve done the wrong things - married the wrong person, taken the wrong job, lived in the wrong city..." Then we are likely to rush out and do something else - take a new lover, buy a new car etc etc. The real profit comes from reflecting on who I have been and the way I have been being. Reflecting on this honestly helps us see the ways we have been undermining or thwarting our committed relationships."
So from this perspective, the danger in a midlife crisis comes from jumping into action, rather than understanding that each decision we've made in our lives is neither "good" nor "bad" in itself. They've been decision points on life's path. Regret can be problematic, and create its own set of difficulties.
Thomas, the lawyer we met above, was 45 years old, an age where men often go into crisis. And he was middle aged. Many men in a midlife crisis have suffered from some distress previously in their lives. Interestingly, men who have changed careers or jobs earlier in their lives, seem to have a lower percentage of "crisis" than other men. Men living in China and India don't appear to be "Midlife Crisis Men."
“The shift from one era to the next is a massive development step and require transitional period of several years,” said Daniel Levinson, in his best seller "Seasons of a Man's Life" (1977). Levinson outlined five phases of a man's life:
The fourth phase of Levinson’s model is called Becoming One’s Own Man, or BOOM phase, is what is commonly called "A midlife Crisis." In this stage, the man feels constrained. He sees where he's come, and he feels the limitations. He may begin to have power struggles with the authority figures in his life. He wants things to get "real." He wants to reach his potential. He wants a life that is true, and rich and genuine.
But along with this, he is also aware of the amount of responsibility he already has and may feel a great sense of burden.
In a study I completed in graduate school, we learned that many of Levinson's study subjects were themselves fathers, who had children in adolescence. Just as his teenagers are struggling with a sense of "Who am I?" and "What do I want from my life, who do I want to be?" the father can often struggle with these same questions. Levinson reports that men believe they have one last "push" in them to succeed (although that is more perception than reality).
If he has reached the "C" level, he wonders if he's in the right corporation. If he's running a corporation, he wonders if he should be owning it, or starting another one.
If he is in a career, he realizes, like Thomas, that people in the world around him have more authority and prestige than he does. And in the deep recesses of his mind, Thomas also feared that he had made the wrong choice in so many areas of his life...most terrifyingly in his marriage.
In the song: "Father and Son," two men struggle with an age-old story of dreams versus practicality.
How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It's always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.
I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy,
To be calm when you've found something going on.
But take your time, think a lot,
Why think of everything you've got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.
All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,
It's hard, but it's harder to ignore it.
If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them they know, not me.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.
Now, in a midlife crisis, both Father AND Son are the same person. Perhaps, as in Thomas's case, the man's father is aged and in poor health. For many men, a crisis occurs at the loss of a parent or a close friend. At the death of a parent, people in middle age realize that they, themselves are mortal. It can be an unsettling thought that won't leave them.
And even if the parents are still alive, they are aging, and for many adults, roles are reversed: Thomas's father now needs Thomas to care for him and make adult decisions.
Yet, inside of Thomas, there was a storm raging, the restless part that says: "There's a way and I know that I have to go away."
Another voice was also present inside him as well. This is the more mature and rational side. He was telling himself: "...take your time, think a lot. Think of everything you've got, for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not."
Thomas needed to express both sides of himself. Had he been clearer, he might have sought out the help of an individual or couples therapist to talk about his ambivalence. He also needed his wife on his side to do it. He had tried, he told me, to tell her that he wanted to make changes, but she seemed to "dismiss them." In reality, he himself dismissed them, because he was also internally ambivalent.
Unfortunately, like so many men in his situation, he split off these two sides of himself, and externalized them, when through Facebook, he "reconnected" with a former girlfriend, Nicole. For Thomas:
More on that in a bit...
Thomas was not the only male in the family struggling with rebellion and ambivalence. Thomas's son, Timothy, was now 17 and looking at colleges. He had so many choices ahead of him, and Thomas did an outstanding job of helping his son to carefully consider the options. But he son was also struggling with his own ambivalence about leaving a home, where he had two supportive, loving parents. That ambivalence showed up in fights with his mother, Carrie.
Carrie told me that she felt like she had two teenagers at home, not just one. When she'd ask for cooperation around household tasks, that used to be "no big deal," now their son, put up a fight. When she'd turn to Thomas for support in talking to Timothy about compliance, she'd hear: "Go easy on him, he's just got one more year at home..."
Even Thomas himself seemed to contribute to, and intensify the chaos of what used to be an orderly home. He'd come home late for dinner, and seem angry that Carrie wanted a "heads up." Instead of asking for consideration on his part, he now framed her requests as "controlling." Then Timothy would come home even later, and start making his dinner all over again, as the kitchen was put back in order.
Carrie was upset, but mostly just confused.
Until she saw the texting with "that woman."
"That woman" was Nicole. Nicole was a woman Thomas knew many, many years ago. Back then, he had decided (for good reason) that Nicole was an inappropriate life mate. She initially contacted Thomas on Facebook, and at first, their contact was limited to a few public exchanges. But as Thomas's own internal turmoil grew, so did his conversations with Nicole. Eventually, he began to have "private chats" with her. Then phone texting.
He shared his "crazy dreams" of getting out of law completely. He told her how much he loved to work with wood as a teenager, and she remembered. She had kept a jewelry box he had made her, and sent the picture of it. Thomas felt lighter and freer talking to her. She didn't "poo poo" his ideas like he had imagined Carrie would do... ("But Timothy will be in college!"). Did he want to get closer to Nicole? Absolutely. But more than that, he wanted to get closer to the way he felt when he texted, and later talked to her. He wanted to feel like he once did like he wanted his son to feel: anything is possible. Your dreams have value.
Understandably, when Carrie discovered the emotional affair, she was hurt and angry. It had been over two months since Thomas had approached her for sex, and she told herself it was the stress of his busy law practice. Now she suspected he was having sex somewhere else. Fortunately, she was wrong, but it brought them into couples therapy.
Canadian therapist Sue Potts says: "Couples who don’t work actively on keeping their passion alive, can hit a "mid-life relationship crisis” and start looking elsewhere for their fun. This could include online sexual encounters, real life affairs or a compulsive hobby that preoccupies all their spare time."
In Thomas's case, it was an internal withdrawal from his wife, that lead to a mutual complacency. Carrie knew he was withdrawn, but she saw it as temporary. She herself was peri-menopausal and coping with her own issues of aging, and a teenage rebellious teen, she didn't have the "energy" to reconnect with her husband and investigate what was wrong. She was waiting for it to blow over. Instead, it blew up.
And how could Thomas explain it? He didn't want to give up what was making him feel alive and passionate again. He had already felt deadened by the burdens of life. The unfortunate part was that Thomas believed it was Nicole, and not his own internal discontent and desires, that he wanted. His frame was wrong. He told his wife that she was being unreasonable, in demanding that he "give up" this "harmless friendship."
After all, they've "never even kissed."
Absolutely. I see it and try to stop it all the time. Too often, these are like runaway freight trains. Sometimes they appear to the spouse to "come out of nowhere" but to the person leaving, they'll say: "This has been brewing for a long time..."
They show up differently for men and women. For men, like Thomas, it may have started with a feeling of a general malaise. His unsettled feeling about his job, watching his son's excitement and fears about going to college, that update from his former law school, and perhaps his wife's own increasing irritability going through peri-menopause, caused him to unconsciously fall into an emotional affair with Nicole. Had Carrie not found out about it, it might have turned into a sexual involvement.
But for many men in Thomas's position, he would have been shocked to learn, only a year earlier, that he would "fall in love" with another woman and leave his wife. He would have told you he was a happily married man...and he would have been right.
While some researchers suggest that men can have "midlife crises" that last 3-10 years, there may not be "stages" per se. We may see a variety of preoccupations such as new hobbies, gadgets, boats, etc. They may seek to place themselves in the company of younger people, whether that's in the role of mentor, parent, or sexual partner. They may experience depression or have deep feelings of remorse over past wrongs. They may also have a preoccupation with appearance, and a desire to appear or dress more youthfully, impact baldness or get more physically fit.
They may also put pressure on their own children to "make up for" things that they, themselves "did wrong," whether that's in athletics, academia, or some other area.
Of great concern is the use of drugs or alcohol to treat the angst and anxiety or depression they are experiencing.
The sooner the man comes to grips with the issues in his life that he feels the desire to change, the sooner he can move from crisis to resolution.
Thomas's marriage was in crisis, yes. However it was difficult for both of them to realize that Thomas really needed to painfully reflect not only on was not his marriage, but his entire life's goals. Reappraising one's life is tough at any stage, but Thomas now had to do that with an angry wife and facing the potential of separation or divorce.
But for many couples like this, we needed to sort out "dreams" from "realities," and allow Thomas to articulate what he actually needed, from the fantasy of what he thought he wanted.
After that, he has to heal and repair the damage done to his marriage, that came from his actions.
It is sometimes tempting for a man in a midlife crisis to consider divorce...or at least the most positive aspects.
But they forget about what Steely Dan calls: "The Things I Miss the Most."
"I don't miss the funky attitudes. And I don't miss the fights:"
If you're not into Steely Dan, the song talks about a man who's divorced, and how he thinks about what he misses:
...and of course, if you have resources...
Recommitting to a marriage often involves facing into the benefits of staying married, and looking to be able to incorporate into one's MARRIED life, the things they hope divorce will promise: time alone, a renewal of friendships, re-establishing a power balance in the marriage, etc.
On this, the statistics are pretty clear: No.
Gottman says only 3% go on to marry and of those, over 70% end in divorce. That notion of "rebound" comes in here. If you don't know where you are going, or what you want, you'll probably end up somewhere else. And life dreams usually aren't found in another human being. They develop in the work two people do to build a genuine life.
Not in the same disrupting degrees. Only 10% of people would suffer to the extent that they need support or help. But 10% is a huge number when you're talking about "everybody." What's important to understand is unlike the teenager, Tom, adult Thomas has many options, and is restricted by only his own internal demons. Will there be trade-offs if he wants to become a woodworker, and give up law? Of course, but these might be trade-offs he or Carrie might be willing to make if it means he'll find greater job satisfaction and both find greater marital happiness.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year in Boston and on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues her work in sex therapy.
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