Midlife Crisis: Is it a Phase or Significantly More?

March 11, 2014

I coach a number of men who, like me, are at or approaching the five-decade mark. Midlife crisis time.
Harry just signed the lease on a very expensive and flashy convertible. Randy has a renewed interest in recreational drugs. Matt has suddenly become obsessive about fitness and nutrition. Alan is having a great time with his new young buddies at electronic music festivals. Tony received yet another shipment of books on spiritual awakening, letting go and discovering his passion. Bobby’s talking about going to Burning Man. Paul’s relentlessly pushing his wife to visit a swingers’ club.
What do you make of all this? Are these guys just your typical middle-aged dudes who are having a midlife crisis and just need to be humored until the phase passes? Or is there more to it than that?
In my experience, there’s always more to it. After raising a family and building a business or career, men begin to reevaluate and search for greater joy and purpose for their second half of life.
As a culture we tend to classify, generalize, categorize and otherwise minimize people and their actions for expediency’s sake. It makes for clever TV and radio sound bites and lively cocktail banter. But it does us all a disservice. As you can see from the examples above, the range of potential new activities are as diverse as the men’s personal challenges.
These men are not clichés. They’re trying to work things out, find answers, be less sad and angry, discover greater satisfaction and joy, and heal. The problem is that most men don’t have a clear understanding of what they’re actually experiencing. Meanwhile, they’re getting little to no valuable guidance along the way.
That’s why many men sometimes act out in destructive ways–often in secret–like abusing substances, engaging in physically dangerous activities or crossing boundaries of infidelity.

It Can Be Terrifying

It can be a terrifying experience for women. “What happened to the man I married?” many women have been known to say. He’s still there, but he isn’t as arrogantly self-assured as he used to be. Doubt, fear and life’s blows have weakened him, causing him to focus on his failures and regrets. Or maybe he’s been unhappy for so long, for whatever reason, he’s only now managing to take some action, albeit desperately, to make a change or at least call attention to his struggle.
Many of us want a more passionate and intimate relationship but have no idea how to communicate that desire or overcome the years of frustration and resentment to make it happen. So we may unconsciously–and foolishly–risk losing what means most to us in the long term for a moment of immediate gratification.
I’m fond of telling men it’s generally not what we do that’s the problem, it’s where we’re coming from that’s more important. The new behavior may not be patently offensive, socially immoral or physically and emotionally dangerous. But it’s the change in our behavior and the way our loved ones experience us that can create problems or highlight the existence of our own more critical issues.
One reason men can lose themselves in some of these new behaviors is that they’ve been disconnected from their own emotions for years. They’re simply not clear about what they’re feeling. Shame and fear of embarrassment can further compound their isolation and their commitment to stay the course regardless of the potential negative consequences.

What Do the Men Need?

What men need is to stop doing this all alone. Trying to steer a ship in the fog can have devastating consequences. Careers are ruined, businesses crumble, families are destroyed, relationships are poisoned and even lives are lost when men insist on rejecting all support and moving full steam ahead into the unknown. This may sound a bit dramatic but some of you have seen it happen to friends and family or lived it in your own homes.
Men, don’t let your ego (shame or false confidence) prevent you from seeking a sounding board of some kind. Other men have gone through what you’re going through and can offer perspectives that just might allow you to keep what’s dear to you while you seek your answers and learn your lessons.
Ladies, don’t dismiss, shame or ridicule your man. This is a difficult situation for a spouse who cares about her husband and may be dependent upon him emotionally or financially. Tell him how you feel. Encourage him to ask for help. But remember, there’s often much more at play than what appears on the surface.
So is he going through a phase? Probably. Is it a problem? Well, sometimes a car is just a car. But if there is more to it, what’s this phase all about, and is he getting the wisdom and support he needs to make sense of it all?