Ah, the stereotypical male midlife crisis — it summons images of a middle-aged man cruising in a red convertible, trying to recapture the feeling of lost youth. Who can blame him? We all want to cover those grays, one way or another. And hey, it’s only in midlife that a lot of us can finally afford that shiny sports car.
In my experience working with couples, there are two general types of male midlife crises. One is authentic. The fear of death, regrets, marriage issues, a longing for meaning or new adventure — these can strain on a marriage and can lead to depression, especially for men who may be reluctant to seek support. Yet if a couple is devoted to their shared life, they can get through it together.
To me, this is more of a midlife transition. It’s common, natural and it can be a good thing. It’s what marriage is all about. Supporting each other and navigating life’s transitions together. That makes a marriage stronger.
But there’s another type of male midlife crisis. This one features less authenticity and more self-serving manipulation. This one makes a marriage weaker. It’s not marked by marital transition, but by marital terrorism. Fewer men do it, but those that do leave a trail of destruction in their wake.
Here’s how it often plays out. A man begins to notice the effects of aging: body changes, a loss of energy, perhaps performance worries. He embarks on a new fitness regime, typically one that positions him among younger women (i.e. a mid-morning spin class). This fitness regime becomes obsessive.
As he looks and feels better, he begins to criticize his wife’s appearance and lifestyle, often comparing her to women twenty or forty years younger than she is. He begins to blame her for their marriage problems and his unhappiness.
He begins to spend more time around his new female friends and establishes a close “friendship” with one of them. He tells his wife that this woman really “gets him” and that he feels he is very compatible with her in terms of energy level, appearance, and so on. The insinuation is that his wife isn’t “woman enough” for him.
His ego and self-focus inflate to the point of outright cruelty to his wife. He may insult her or their marriage, and may become estranged from his children. He begins to re-write their history, always focusing on the bad, so that he can justify his behavior. He acts entitled and impulsive. He’s moody and unpredictable. He behaves like an adolescent or displays an almost child-like type of self-pity.
As a result of his baffling behavior, his wife is held hostage. He sends mixed messages. One minute he wants to move out, the next he doesn’t. He says, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you” or “I don’t know what I want” or “You’re the perfect wife, I don’t know why I don’t feel passion for you anymore.” He uses his confusion and uncertainty to indulge his every whim, whether that’s escaping the obligations of married or family life, or sleeping with another woman.
He may truly feel these emotions and this confusion; however, he allows these to run rampant so that he has an excuse to keep doing what he’s doing.
As a result of his baffling behavior, his wife is held hostage. She doesn’t know which emotions and behaviors on his part are authentic, and which ones may be self-serving — the whole thing is just too scary to have that kind of clarity. She lives in a constant state of anxiety, uncertainty and heartache.
She falls into a cycle of hope and despair: he says something kind and she is hopeful, but then he says something cold and she despairs. She is afraid to assert herself. After all, his words and behavior suggest that he has one foot out the door. So she spends her days wondering, worrying and tip-toeing around the minefield of his mixed messages and short fuses, hoping the bomb doesn’t go off. If she says or does the wrong thing, he might leave for good.
And of course, that’s what he wants her to think. It is the only way he can continue to do what he’s doing. It is the only way he can have the safety net of his marriage while still indulging in the thrill of swinging through the air with a new playmate.
That’s why I say this type of male midlife crisis isn’t marked by marital transition. It’s marked by marital terrorism. By profound self-indulgence and a deep disregard for the fear and pain it inflicts on a wife.
Now, all of this begs the question: do women have midlife crises like this? Yes, absolutely. But in my experience, not in the same numbers and not with the same frequency of sexual affairs with younger partners, which can rip the heart out of an aging woman like little else can.
What is the takeaway from all of this? Well, I think it’s for wives to wise up. To see a husband’s midlife crisis for the self-focused, self-serving power play it can be in some cases. It’s also to make sure that you get the proper help. Don’t let a counselor, coach or psychologist pander to your husband’s behavior. Too many counselors gravitate toward the husband’s needs because he’s the squeaky wheel and they don’t know how to handle him.
Many also do this because of the research that shows rates of depression go up in some midlife men. They may automatically assume their male patient is a candidate for this, even without evidence. Yet depression is also on the rise among midlife women; however, this trend doesn’t receive the same attention. That needs to change. A husband’s destructive midlife crisis can be one of the greatest threats to a woman’s emotional and financial well-being in mid and later life, and her well-being is every bit as important as his.
So support your husband, by all means. Just make sure that supporting him isn’t destroying you.
You can see more from Debra at her website.