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Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

Middle aged madness

Posted by Ron Coleman on January 15, 2008

sinatra-at-midlife.jpgThe New York Times has an article questioning the application of the term “midlife crisis” to excuse philandering males:

[Y]ou have to admit that “I’m having a midlife crisis” sounds a lot better than “I’m a narcissistic jerk having a meltdown.”Another patient, a 49-year-old man at the pinnacle of his legal career, started an affair with an office colleague. “I love my wife,” he said, “and I don’t know what possessed me.”

It didn’t take long to find out. The first five years of his marriage were exciting. “It was like we were dating all the time,” he recalled wistfully. But once they had a child, he felt an unwelcome sense of drudgery and responsibility creep into his life.

Being middle-aged had nothing to do with his predicament; it was just that it took him 49 years to reach a situation where he had to seriously take account of someone else’s needs, namely those of his baby son. In all likelihood, the same thing would have happened if he had become a father at 25.

Why do we have to label a common reaction of the male species to one of life’s challenges — the boredom of the routine — as a crisis? True, men are generally more novelty-seeking than women, but they certainly can decide what they do with their impulses.

It’s true, that, but it really only begs the question. The article seems to be based on a premise, not exactly spoken out, that people who refer to midlife crisis mean to excuse immoral behavior. I have never gotten the impression that this is how people use the term, however.

I think they are just talking about a real phenomenon that the psychologist who wrote this article acknowledges exists: Men reach a point where they face a different set of feelings and choices from those they have faced before, typically in middle age. They then choose either to resist the bad choices or they don’t.

This is midlife crisis. For people who never confronted such a moment in their lives — where things they thought made them happy, no longer do; or where drives they thought were quiescent or that they never even knew they had, resurface or are born — this is already a sort of crisis. And if they don’t behave, why, they will then turn this crisis of the spirit into a crisis greater still. It is possible also to take this moment to build on what one has.

That remains, always, the choice.

Now, I am only in my early 40’s (for two more months!) — so this cannot be about me. What do you think a blogger like me is, anyway — a narcissist?

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30 Responses to “Middle aged madness”

  1. I have never heard of anyone using the term ‘mid-life crisis’ about anything other then an explanation for bad decisions. Some are more benign, buying that sports car that you really can’t afford and isn’t practicle, and some are more destructive, such as leaving the wife for the hot 20-something secretary, but it is always about a poor judgement.

  2. john said

    It’s a bit more complex than portrayed, but those who face it and are prone to being impulsive or selfish usually respond by doing something stupid. For my part it was just the realization that my life is essentially half over and it really is too late to chuck everything and try writing full time. The understanding that your responsibilities to your wife and your kids preclude doing anything like that can breed some resentment or even rebellion in the best of men, but most of us just get over it and move on.

    Though if I had a half-million in investments I could fall back on I’d probably give the writing gig a whirl even today.

  3. pennywit said

    John —

    If you had a half-million in inevestments to fall back on, writing wouldn’t really be a poor decision for you. A little bit of airbrushing, and that “mid-life crisis” becomes a “writing sabbatical.” Entirely respectable.

    –|PW|–

  4. cosmicconservative said

    Let’s see, I just hit my 48th birthday and I have not yet felt any of the “urges” that I so frequently hear are associated with a “mid-life crisis.” What I have experienced is easier to explain and does not require any hyper-technical psychological terminology to explore or explain.

    In our culture it is fairly common for adults to not experience mortality in a meaningful way for many years. For a lot of people my age, their grandparents died when they were children or in their teens, and they weren’t that connected to their grandparents anyway. And most of us have healthy parents who are going to live close to the expected lifespans of 70+ years, so when most of us are in our 30s, our parents are still relatively hale and healthy and don’t seem to be on the verge of passing away.

    For a lot of us though, that changes dramatically in our forties. Now our parents are getting close to that expected lifespan and many of our parents are not as active nor as healthy as they used to be. We see our fathers getting pacemakers and our mothers getting hormone therapy and hip replacements. And they LOOK old. Suddenly we are confronted with incontrovertible proof of our own mortality.

    Many of us lose parents in this time. Even if we don’t, we still experience it through the loss of our spouse’s parents or we see our close friends whose parents struggle with life threatening diseases or pass away.

    So it is fairly common for an American married male to be confronting mortality directly for the first time when he’s approaching his mid forties. I know that is what happened to me. My father had his first heart attack when I was 46. My father-in-law had his first heart attack when I was 45. I’m not 48 and my father passed away last year from cancer and both of my wife’s parents are visibly in declining health to the point that one of my sisters-in-law is moving in with them to take care of them.

    I know that I never really gave any deep emotional thought to my own mortality until recently. Of course I had intellectually contemplated it, but it was only watching my father go from an active and respected attorney to a cancer-ridden terminally ill patient in two years that I really began to internalize the reality of my own mortality.

    One of the things that such contemplation made me look at is where I was in my own life, and it is impossible not to compare that to where I had hoped to be.

    Now it is my personal opinion that I have not really suffered from “mid-life crisis” symptoms as I’ve seen many of my peers do so because I never really had set a whole lot of great expectations for my own life. My circumstances when I was growing up were humble enough that what I have accomplished personally and professionally are actually somewhat better than I had expected for myself, so in general I am able to look at myself in the mirror and say “you did OK, kid.” Couple that with having to raise an autistic child and my whole life for over a decade has been all about confronting reality and dealing with expectations that are constantly reset.

    But other guys my age that I know personally aren’t in the same situation. Many of them set expectation such as “Make my first million by age 30” or “Have a gorgeous wife that is the envy of my peers” or “Be a rich and successful actor/writer/singer etc..” Most of them never had to confront real life the way I did when we discovered our son’s autism and so have really never reset those expectations, even as it was clear that they were not meeting them. For most of them their lack of meeting their lofty expectations has been a growing source of frustration and resentment, but has generally been held at bay through the vicarious experiences of their children (and their dreams) and through personal diversions such as buying fancy cars, a big house, a large-screen TV, or whatever else gives them a sense of satisfaction that they haven’t WHOLLY abandoned their lofty goals.

    But most of them, when they hit their forties, see their children grown up, moving out, and pursuing dreams of their own, so they lose that vicarious sense of opportunity and expectation at the same time that they are seeing their own life becoming a finite thing that is no longer on the uphill path, but now on the downhill slide, and they look over at their ill, aged or buried parents and the reality of their situation hits them like a freight train of regret. Suddenly they realize that they have to reset their expectations and they need to do it fast.

    It is unfortunate but some of them decide to blame their situation on their commitments to their family, especially their wives. “I’d have made a million just like I planned if you had been more supportive!” Even if they don’t say it, many think it. And for some that justifies “getting back” at their spouse as they reset expectations to include “A decent sex life with a sexy woman.” I know a lot of guys my age who are deeply dissatisfied with what life, kids and marriage have done to their wives. “She used to be gorgeous” is not an uncommon sentiment among late-40s men. And since our society essentially says that men get “distinguished” as they get older, and there are plenty of younger (or just single) women who pursue older men for their money, it is not unusual at all for an older guy to find himself the target of the affections of an “other woman” just as he is realizing how far below his lofty expectations his life has turned out, and how little time he has left to try to do something about it.

    Now, I don’t think any of this is an “event” in a man’s life like menopause is for a woman, and those who call it “male menopause” are, I think, attempting to “explain” the choices that are made by such men as being somehow outside of their control.

    I don’t have a problem with setting lofty goals, without them most of us would probably just lay in bed playing on our game consoles until we got evicted into the street, but my problem is that the goals are set without the expectations being tempered by an acknowledgment of reality. You see this a lot in 30 year reunions (which I just did this year) where guys show up with hair pieces, driving rented fancy cars and bragging incessantly about lives that in many cases are wholly fiction. We have been taught that it is not enough to go back and mingle with your high school friends to whom you bragged about becoming the “next Hemingway” and instead say “I am a middle manager at a local building supply company and I live in a modest home with my wife and two kids and for us going out to Applebee’s is a splurge night out.” We have been taught that something is “wrong” with not becoming the “next Hemingway” and many of us have a problem admitting, even to ourselves, that we aren’t ever going to finish that novel in our desk drawer, much less win a Pulitzer prize and get on the cover of Newsweek. I think that’s a problem for our society. I wish that people would respect the incredible achievement that any person has accomplished when they get a decent job, raise a decent family and live a decent life. We can’t all be Hemingway, and there is no need for us to feel we have failed if we wake up one day at the age of 47 and realize that unless something drastic happens, it is not going to happen for us.

    Happiness, as the old saying goes, is not getting what you want, it is wanting what you have. And if more of us could be happy with what we have, “male mid-life crisis” would not be part of our vocabulary.

  5. cosmicconservative said

    Heh, typo city. I meant “I am NOW 48”.

  6. Ron,

    It occurs to me that -these days- if a woman in her mid-40s suddenly decided she didn’t feel fulfilled in her work or personal life, and struck out on a radical new path, she’s “discovering” or “empowering” herself. A man, on the other hand, is assumed to have entered a second childhood.

    I’m just sayin’…

  7. jaymaster said

    I think I’m becoming an expert on this topic. I’ve recently been tempted by things I’ve never even noticed before. (42 by the way)

    And I’ve exceeded my dreams and goals is just about every aspect of my life. So there’s no disappointment there.

    And nothing has changed in my life in the last 5-7 years. Other than I’m getting older, and I see it, and feel it.

    Something different is going on.

  8. Ara said

    At some point you accept the idea that there is more of your life behind you than in front of you.

  9. Really? I can see if you’re 70 accepting that, but during middle age? There could even be more years behind you, and maybe certain aspects of life, but I am certainly looking forward to a lot more life here at 44!

  10. Ara Rubyan said

    My point (and I do have one) is that the 35 years between 18 and 53 wentbyveryquickly, my friend. I’ll be 55 in April; if I live to be 90, how fast will the next 35 years go by? And what will I do to make the most of it?

  11. Ara Rubyan said

    P.S. You know how fast that first 35 years went by? Some (most) days, in my head, I’m still 19 years old.

  12. Jack said

    Being at the age I am, I am still, like many modern men, very unsure of a few things.
    Let me elucidate for theoretical clarification…

    1 Why, when people get married do they think that their “feelings about it” must determine everything else about it?
    2 Why, when they get married with the phrase, “til death do you part” do they think that their feelings about that obligation mitigate the obligation?
    3 Why would they assume (men or women) because they are changing that they couldn’t go to their spouse and throw in together at some common achievement mutually, or even some individual achievement with the help of the other? (Or in other words who says routine is the natural outcome of marriage, or of work, or of raising children, or of anything?)
    4 When did people become so weak that they make every decision based upon their feelings and emotions? (I, being middle aged, can easily remember a time where my father, my grandfather, and my great grandfathers would have thought that the pursuit of a thing based merely upon emotional desire made them into an outright pansy, and if being emotional were the chief impetus to any action, against let’s say, “doing what is right,” then all of my male forebears had a word for that, pansy. And other P words which are not euphemisms for polite.That is to say that women were allowed to some degree, though not to the extent of sacrificing the right thing, to cry and worry and whine over the natural courses of life, but as a boy hanging around men I never once heard, “boy, you’re having a crisis, what you need is some you time. Go fetch yourself a whore and some laudanum.” Instead I heard “son, in life sh*t happens and when that’s the case, you can be a coward, or you can be a man. So if that’s your choices then for God’s sake, be a man will ya.”)
    5 Where did this crisis idea come from anyway? (You’re kid is dying from some dread illness, and nobody seems to be able to stop it, now that’s a crisis. Your hometown is nuked while you’re on assignment, now that’s a crisis. You’re wife is raped and left for dead, now that’s a crisis. – Getting older and seeing a woman who sets off your doorchimes with her brass knockers, that’s living. Wanting to run for the hills because you’re bored with the rut between you and your old lady, that’s pansy. Go out and do something in life worth doing, and spend your time and energy there, instead of living inside your own head all of the time. Who cares what’s going on inside your head anyways, that’s why God made people the way he did. I can barely stand my own stupidity sometimes, imagine I had to endure yours cause it leaked out of your head all of the time like grease out of a cheap burger grill? Look, modern man is incredibly, and I mean incredibly, self-absorbed. Every little thing to him is a big deal and he spends 99% of his time in his own head, reflecting about what he sees there. Course a looking glass is only as good as what’s being reflected, ain’t it? But if I had to do that, that often, I’d probably blow mine off, and to no great loss either. But I got something to say to most modern men, so what? So what’s the freaking big deal about you? The minuscule navel gazing of modern folks disguised as deep introspection sorta reminds me of something often said about the Sophists, and probably unfairly in comparison to us, “if they could spill words in any cause then the oceans could not drink up the talk they could waste on themselves.” But your little thing is no thing to me, and your stupidity is no crisis to me, not even close. For that matter my stupidity is no crisis to me either, it’s just stupidity. It’s just a weakness, nothing more grandiose than that, and I don’t have to accept a weakness in myself all meek and mild, I can also kill it. Now I’ve seen some bad things happen to others, and I’ve endured a few bad things myself, and that’s life, but it ain’t no freaking crisis, it’s living (and dying, and murder, and war, and machete slaughter on occasion) and the way things are. If you don’t like the way things are the world won’t beat a path to your door with a sure fire remedy, but then again, that’s your job ain’t it? So quit your dime store bellyachin and stand up like a man and pick something worth changing and for God’s sake, throw in like a man. Like you really mean it. Those busy doing have little time for speculating on how little they’re doing.
    6 Where did the idea originate that a routine is permanent? What, is this ancient Egypt? The Nile floods every year, like it or not, and live with that? This is the United States of America, and the 21st Century (in some places anywho). If you don’t like the way things are, then change em (my recommendation is for the better, but that’s your choice) and go make what you want to see happen, happen. But just do it in a way that benefits everyone. Nothing is stopping you from doing that but you. There ain’t no law preventing it, and there ain’t no crisis either. Just problems and solutions. Good solutions and bad solutions.
    And that ain’t no bloody crisis, that’s just life.

    So get to it already.
    It’s your job sunshine, nobody else’s.

  13. Ara Rubyan said

    When did people become so weak that they make every decision based upon their feelings and emotions?

    Assuming this isn’t a rhetorical question, the simple answer would be…since the dawn of recorded history.

    The complex answer involves a tiresome discussion of Freud’s notion of the id, ego and super-ego.

  14. Jack said

    “The complex answer involves a tiresome discussion of Freud’s notion of the id, ego and super-ego.”

    That’s modern man alright Ara.
    If there’s a tiresome dicussion, he’s first on top of that.
    Lickity split, and shoeshine Charlie.

    If it’s solve a real problem or help save the world, he’ll get around to that when he’s finally figured himself out. Which, if history is any judge, might just take awhile.

  15. Jack said

    “You’re kid is dying from some dread illness, and nobody seems to be able to stop it, now that’s a crisis. Your hometown is nuked while you’re on assignment, now that’s a crisis. You’re wife is raped and left for dead, now that’s a crisis.”

    By the by, I hate Microsoft spelling and grammar programs. It turned four separate “yoru” typos into two different: you’re and your. I don’t mind the getting the grammar wrong part, it is Microsoft after all, as much as the getting it wrong in two different ways from the same original error.

    There’s a good story in they’re somewhere, I just know their be.

  16. Ara Rubyan said

    Arrrh!

  17. You’re 55, Ara? I sometimes feel embarrassed finding out someone I’ve perhaps been less than polite to online is actually older than I am. Yes, I have colleagues your age… but they’re, you know, ten years older than I am.

    I actually feel as if these years move fast, whereas the first 30 or so go back as if into ancient history.

  18. Fern R said

    What role do you all think that women play in contributing to “mid life crises” or whatever you want to call them? Of course every person is ultimately responsible for their own actions, but considering that wives have some self-interest in preventing their husbands from having a mid-life crisis, what, if anything, can a wife do to help alleviate the problem?

  19. Jack said

    “What role do you all think that women play in contributing to “mid life crises” or whatever you want to call them? Of course every person is ultimately responsible for their own actions, but considering that wives have some self-interest in preventing their husbands from having a mid-life crisis, what, if anything, can a wife do to help alleviate the problem?”

    Take him to church, tell him to grow up, and give him a good spanking. Then follow that with lots of martial sex.
    I’ve never heard of sex hurting a marriage, unless it’s outside of marriage when it’s happening.

    Other than that if you have something you want to do in life, some kinda project or projects you want to undertake then go to your old man and tell him. Then ask him to help you with them. You know I know this is a forgotten practice nowadays, but it is the duty of a husband to “husband his wife.” So if you got something you wanna achieve, work at it with him. (I’m just assuming you’re a gal because of the name, and the question.)

    And the same is true in reverse too. If the man wants to do something then let him work it together with his old lady. That’s what she’s there for.

    Otherwise I think a lot of this crapola is just the fact that men nowadays are built more out of cotton candy and sheepskin than muscle tissue and rock-gut. I remember a day when if some fool went loco over turning forty or fifty then every man around him would take turns kicking his face for him til he caught his breath again. Especially if the only thing he had to go loco over was turning forty or fifty. If tuning forty or fifty puts a man in a tailspin he can’t pull out of with manly effort on the wheel then chances are that man has never faced anything really more harsh than a gentle, westerly summer night-breeze off the coast of the Keys.

    So, send him off on some kinda adventure where his real survival will be at stake.
    That’ll cure him of his hound-dog blues, and his, “gee, if only my life had some real meaning.”

    Nothing makes a man feel more alive and grateful for what he’s got than really risking it on the chance he might not make it back home to enjoy that anymore.

    So, my advice is, have him hang around some men who spend more time conquering problems than complaining about em, get him involved in a real adventure just so he can do something more exciting than driving to the local grocery store, eating cream filled doughnuts, and puttering wistfully about the city, work with him on things you can do together (some mutual goals) and bed him down every chance you get. That never hurt nothing either.

    And if you want my personal opinion on the matter, get him out of the city ever chance you get. Few things both corrupt a man’s natural manhood and wallflower him over like the big city. The city is like a disease, if you live in a ghetto, then it kills ya fast and violent, if ya live in a nice area, then it does far too much for ya and so kills ya slow and ugly. You walk outside and you grab an axe and chop something down and you wrestle with your animals and then go back inside after bending and building things with your own hands and you and your old lady lay hands on each other, then that’s real living like God intended. It’ll fix what ails ya.

    But if a man has gotta blame his woman for his problem, then he ain’t treed the right possum. He’s hunting polecat with a cattleprod. Sure, she can make his life a living hell if she really wants to, and vice-versa I might add, but if that ain’t really it, and it’s really just a matter of his own personal pomp and circumstance, then that’s his groin to girdle up like a man, not her’s.

    Wives are wonderful friends and companions, but they sure ain’t built to be a substitute man when a man is coming up short of himself.

  20. Ara said

    I sometimes feel embarrassed finding out someone I’ve perhaps been less than polite to online is actually older than I am.

    Ron, I couldn’t even begin to guess at how to diagram that sentence.

    Jack:

    But if a man has gotta blame his woman for his problem, then he ain’t treed the right possum.

    Lickety split and shoeshine Charlie!

  21. Jack said

    “Lickety split and shoeshine Charlie!”

    You know, that’s kinda catchy.
    I might just use that sometime.

  22. Ron, I couldn’t even begin to guess at how to diagram that sentence.

    Ara, give me a break. I’m just a kid!

    I wish that were the only purposely obscure sentence in this post…

  23. Being but a young whiper-snapper, I am going to stay out of this ranting by you bunch of geezers. 🙂

  24. Ara said

    Age is just mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.

  25. OK, Ara. I was going to bump this thread up because of the quality of the ongoing discussion, but if that’s the best you’ve got I guess we’re done here.

  26. Ara Rubyan said

    What’s the matter — never heard of Satchel Paige?

  27. jskirwin said

    Pick up a gun and learn to shoot.
    I did.

  28. Fern said

    Other than that if you have something you want to do in life, some kinda project or projects you want to undertake then go to your old man and tell him. Then ask him to help you with them. You know I know this is a forgotten practice nowadays, but it is the duty of a husband to “husband his wife.” So if you got something you wanna achieve, work at it with him. (I’m just assuming you’re a gal because of the name, and the question.)

    That’s interesting advice and something I hadn’t thought of before. I thought I would regret asking about the role women play in midlife crises, but your response made me glad I did. That and “But if a man has gotta blame his woman for his problem, then he ain’t treed the right possum.” I uh…have never been analogized to rodent before, but hey, I’ll take it. 😛

  29. […] Oh yeah, we did deal a little with this topic, here, after […]

  30. […] what exactly do we mean when we talk about midlife crisis? Less, I think, than was suggested in an article in today’s New York […]

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