Seemingly out of nowhere, you wife says she wants a divorce. You are mortified, but mostly shocked. You definitely did not see that coming. Perhaps you now begin to notice that she has been behaving a bit differently of late, but this only adds to the mystery. You hear from her about all kinds of discontent in the marriage – some of which you can see where she is coming from – but she is just “wants out” and is not interested in marriage counseling. Moreover, she is pushing for a divorce as quickly as possible, with you confused by the great hurry.
Your life goes into a tailspin, as you try in vain to understand where this is all coming from. If she is between 35 and 45, there is a good chance that she is undergoing a “midlife crisis.” There are clear signs by which you can tell. This chapter will explain the signs and present the reality you are facing if married to someone experiencing this tumultuous process.
We know from the psychology of human development that people evolve during their life. This development is not always gradual and even; often it involves noticeable transitions. For example, children leaving the home to study or to get married can trigger a period of reflection and adjustment. Sometimes people reach a point in their life when they feel there is a need for a career change, or they decide to finally splurge on that long-hoped-for vacation to Australia.
People can hit a significant birthday – say, the fiftieth – and recognize that they are not getting any younger, so they decide it is “now or never” to fulfil a life dream. This is a normal part of adapting to changing life circumstances. People are expected to grow emotionally as they get older, as well as to get slower and weaker. These changes, or the awareness that they are coming, can trigger a desire to a pursue particular goals. This, we call “life transitions.”
Sometimes, however, the person experiences a major rupture in their life. Mostly below consciousness he or she “freaks out” about how much of their lifespan has passed in what feels like a disappointment, and this triggers a major rebellion or backlash. This is called a “midlife crisis.” The easiest way to think about a midlife crisis is as the person reverting to being a teenager. Most of the attitudes and behaviors we associate with a bad case of adolescence are present in a person undergoing a midlife crisis.
The problem is that even the most extreme antisocial behavior of an adolescent generally has minimal consequences because they have little real responsibility and not a lot they have accomplished that they can destroy. By contrast, a person going through a midlife crisis is likely to have a marriage, children, home, career, and so on. All of those accomplishments are liable to being disrupted if not demolished. A midlife crisis is really scary and extremely damaging.
Signs of Midlife Crisis
Someone going through a midlife crisis is likely to be highly impulsive, often buying expensive items that would never have happened under normal circumstance. A man may purchase a sports car or a Harley Davidson motorcycle; a woman may purchase an exorbitantly priced channel handbag or Gucci shoes. People experience a midlife crisis are prone to engage in a range of immature behaviors can include drug and alcohol misuse, and similar self-destructive activities. A person experiencing a midlife crisis is very likely to have volatile mood swings, when this would previously not have been the case.
They may also engage is a range of reckless relationship behaviors, especially violating otherwise recognized boundaries between the genders. This behavior is usually done surreptitiously, but is also not uncommonly done publicly without regard for the consequences. Very common is that these violations of marital norms are done in private, but with so little thought as to almost guarantee eventual discovery by the person’s spouse.
Someone in this state is capable of doing truly atrocious and stupid things. In a case I dealt with, the person manufactured a car collision and accused her husband of deliberately driving his car into hers’. Had he pressed charges, she would have been arrested and perhaps worse. But in this crazed state, these considerations are brushed aside. As is common with adolescents, rather than discuss what is bothering them (not that they understand anyways), they retreat into themselves and deny there is anything going on. Anyone who will not go along with their impulses is framed as an obstacle to be overcome.
At the heart of midlife crisis is boredom or discontent with life. It is common for people to quit their high-paying, highflying corporate job to do something they have a passion for. They feel restless and want change. Sometimes travel to exotic locations will be sufficient for them, but typically is goes beyond that. They are liable to question settle judgments about life and values, as well as question whether they are married to the right person and other kinds of personal relationships.
Sadly, in this state of confusion and irritability, they are not only likely to neglect their marriage, but often lose a large degree of interest in their children as well. As is the case with adolescents, blame is allocated in all directions, but never at themselves. Thus, they can become offensive, even abusive. Usually, the peak of this process is a decision to abandon the marriage, often as hastily as possible.
One of the most tragic features of a midlife crisis is the effect it has on the person’s rational faculties. Their maturity and good judgment “goes out of the window.” They think very short term, seem uninterested in considering consequences, and seem unconcerned about destroying a lifetime of relationships. Appeals to them to slow down and to think carefully before they act are rejected out of hand. There are few restraints, if any, when a person is in the full throes of a midlife crisis. While not everyone who has a midlife crisis will experience it as intensely as described above, a good number will. If divorce is on the table – and there are no other reasons for this – the chances are that this is what is going on inside your spouses’ head.
The Good and Bad News
The good news is that a midlife crisis will by definition come to an end. It lasts somewhere between a year and two years. Eventually, the madness drains from the system and clearer thinking becomes more realistic. People who get through this period without too much collateral damage can get back on track, with whatever appropriate life adjustments they have made along the way.
The bad news is that many people going through a midlife crisis cause so much mayhem and chaos that by the time they are through the damage is irreversible. Something like half of all people who undergo a (full-blown) midlife crisis end up divorced. Someone married to a person going through this may find it impossible to live with the utterly unacceptable behavior. Without question, it will test even the most resilient and persistent person on the planet.
If you are being subjected to this kind of whirlwind by the person you are married to, now you know why. Hopefully, that along provides some relief. Now that you understand that it is a genuine mental illness, you can see your spouse as a victim of a condition that he or she has no control over. It will help you take the offences less personally and think more clearly about the best course of action.
If this is happening to you, what should you do? This is not easy. The main question is how severe is your partners’ midlife crisis. If it is of the extreme variety, then sadly there is not a lot you can do. You may be able to stall giving a divorce until hopefully he or she returns to their senses, but that may prove impossible. It may be possible to curtail the most extreme impulses, such as by asking the bank to put limits on the credit cards, but it is quite probable that ultimately these measures will fall short.
You may try to protect yourself and your children from the whirlwind of anger and restlessness, but you may come to the point where it is no longer tolerable. It may help to know that this is an illness that passes on its own and will eventually dissipate completely. But in many cases, the way your spouse is behaving when at the midlife crisis is in its full intensity is just unbearable.
If your spouse can in any way be persuaded to accept help, that is obviously the best thing possible. If not, you need to get help to cope with this situation. You cannot survive it alone. You are going to have to be strong for your marriage and your children, whilst taking barbs, attacks, betrayal and practical headaches.