Older man dumps his wife because he's discovered love with a much younger woman; they ride off in his new convertible. Older woman cries constantly, throws things, has a nervous breakdown and an unclean house as she contemplates his betrayal and her loneliness. Generalized and sometimes glib, depictions of midlife crises sell movie tickets and earn Oscars. While there is continuous debate among health professionals about whether the midlife crisis is a real phenomenon, one thing is certain: the transitions that trigger this behavior are not easily condensed.
The term "midlife crisis" was coined by Canadian psychoanalyst and social scientist Elliott Jacques. Midlife is defined as between the ages of 30 and 70, but the focus of Jacques' research refines the range to between 40 and 60. During this time, people experience many transitions that call lifestyle choices into question, including work, relationships, and finances. Sometimes, factors can combine to result in crisis.
To better understand this topic, it is important to distinguish between a stressor and a crisis. A stressor is an event or experience that stimulates a heightened response. A crisis occurs when the usual mechanisms used to cope with stressors no longer work. During midlife, multiple stressors can trigger a crisis, varying factors including education, gender, and interpersonal relationships. While all crises are caused by stressors, not all stressors trigger crises.
A middle-aged man with an identity crisis is usually the face of the midlife crisis discussion. One trigger often cited is the realization he has made all the "right" decisions in life as a man, only to feel trapped by them. He then grasps at evidence of his vitality in a way that goes against society's and his family's expectations. The result is not always as extreme or prolonged as movies make it out to be, but it can cause upheaval.
Midlife crises for women are often seen as more individualized. To better understand them, analysts identified three sources, of which a crisis is usually a combination. Physiological changes, such as menopause, interfere with mood and energy levels. Emotional changes stem from experiencing loss, either of a loved one or a self-perception. Finally, societal pressures weigh in, such as negative perceptions of women of a certain age, as popularized by Western culture and media.
At the core of the stereotypical midlife crisis is the sudden personality change after a long marriage, for example, and the idea that others are looking down at you as a failure. Adversely, studies show that personality stabilizes during the midlife years, and individuals are more likely to enjoy the deeper ties rather than break them. The idea that people are looking at you as a failure, because you lack proof of stunning successes, is a myth in itself that can, ironically, become a triggering stressor.
Dr. Margaret Huyck, a psychology professor at Illinois Institute of Technology coined the term "gender expansion." She stated that as women become more assertive later in life, men become more vulnerable to psychological stress. She surmised that the root was in their perception of their parents' relationships. These men saw their mothers as domineering and their fathers as weak. As these men got older, they unconsciously projected their perception of their mother onto their wives, leaving them to fill the role of their fathers.
As gender roles continue to evolve, psychologists find that overload and daily stressors play roles in midlife crises. As women have more demand on their time at work, the demands on men's time at home may cause challenges along socioeconomic lines. While those of lower educational status may experience the same number of stressors as those with higher educational status, individuals on the lower end often rate their experiences as more severe. This perception may increase the risk of tipping into a crisis.
Amherst psychology professor Dr. Susan Whitbourne found that early life choices impact the sensation of being 'stuck' in midlife. Generativity is the sense of work productivity and the wish to leave a legacy for future generations. In a 34-year study, Whitbourne learned that those who changed jobs in their 20's and 30's found more satisfaction in generativity terms during midlife than those who stayed in the same job for 20 years.
Some cognitive dysfunction is expected with age, including short-term memory loss and reasoning speed decline, beginning in the forties. Continuous stress over this natural evolution releases cortisol, which can damage the hippocampus, where memory and learning are processed. The perception of becoming increasingly prone to "senior moments" triggers insecurities and dissatisfaction with one's state of being, causing a snowball of stress.
Seeing children move out on their own is rewarding for many parents, but it requires readjustment of one's relationship with oneself and their partner, which can lead to major life changes. The dynamic of struggling to remember who you were to yourself and each other before children can cause anxiety and strain.
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