Recently we were talking with a woman whose husband is in the grip of a midlife meltdown. Actually, she wasn’t the first; there have been a string of them over the years, all unique in their story line, but also sadly similar.
The so called ‘midlife crisis’ has been stereotyped over the years with caricatures of balding men awkwardly climbing into their racy convertible with a woman twenty-years their junior. A forlorn wife and children watch from the sidelines as they await the inevitable unravelling of his newfound exuberance when his money dries up and his women move on.
It used to be a behaviour that society roundly condemned, appropriately siding with the abandoned wife and children.
But it’s different now. And in lots of ways.
The breakout behaviour is no longer exclusive to men; women also are abandoning their marriages in increasing numbers to pursue excitement and fulfillment in new unions.
Nor is it just a single affair with a work colleague or an old flame of the opposite sex – the sexual experimentation often includes multiple and varied encounters.
And importantly, it is no longer the abandoned spouse who receives the sympathy and support of the community, but the ‘flinger’ who is often applauded for his or her courage to pursue their dreams and be ‘true to themselves’. Lines like ‘it takes more courage to leave an unhappy marriage than to stay’ glorify this behaviour and turn those who break their wedding vows into the heroes.
What is going on and why is it that midlife seems to be the trigger point for so many?
Volumes could be written on this topic, and indeed they have. Let us look a few factors.
To start with, we want to challenge the presumption of unhappiness in the marriage. No doubt, the individual in question is unhappy, but is it the marriage that makes him or her so?
With the exception of abusive relationships, most unhappy marriages are actually unhappy people who just happen to be married. Because personal discontent will often cause friction in our intimate relationships it shows up most clearly in marriage, but that doesn’t mean the marriage itself is causing the unhappiness.
Today, it seems all too easy to blame the marriage for problems that arise elsewhere in our lives. We all know from medicine treating the wrongly diagnosed problem leads to complications not solutions and so it is in our marriage. Pulling the pin on the marriage when it’s not the underlying cause of our unhappiness adds to our pain, rather than resolve it.
Studies on human flourishing and wellbeing demonstrate that authentic and enduring happiness is an inside job. Projecting our unhappiness onto another is not only unjust to that person, it is profoundly disempowering.
This widespread practice is breeding generations of ‘victims’ – people who believe that their wellbeing is out of their control and someone else’s responsibility. It is destroying perfectly good marriages and families as the ‘victims’ seek personal fulfillment in all the wrong places: often in the arms of someone outside the marriage.
The only place that we can resolve our personal angst is within. And the reason why our unresolved childhood frustrations often emerge to make mayhem in our midlife years is because these are common points in our life where triggers lie in wait.
For example, someone who suffered a trauma in childhood such as abuse or a loss, may find themselves in all sorts of turmoil when their own child reaches the age at which their original trauma occurred. Their subconscious pushes the issue to the surface and demands it be addressed. This is not the spouse’s fault, though the process will introduce all sorts of stress into the marriage, especially if the issue is systematically suppressed or acted out in unproductive ways such as through addictive or escapist behaviours, angry outbursts or withdrawal.
Midlife is also often the time when a job loss can lead to permanent unemployment with all its consequences for our self-esteem and self-identity. A close encounter with death, either in the death of a parent, a peer, or a personal health scare can similarly trigger long suppressed fears.
This is the stuff of life and none of us can escape it.
Despite the plethora of happy snaps of our friends on social media, the reality is that we all have times of internal angst. It’s normal, and moreover it’s healthy, to have these seasons of internal anguish. For these are the moments of psychological significance and are better understood as growth spurts – intense periods of psychological work that help us to become better, more mature, more whole people.
If you, or your spouse, are doing it tough, please be reassured: if you embrace the invitation to growth there is great blessing at the end of it. Make it your habit to turn to God to be strengthened by grace rather than to your ‘addiction’ of choice (work, alcohol, drugs, sex, porn, shopping, gaming etc). Get professional help if you need it but do not let your unhappiness lead you to false Gods. Double down in prayer and you will be doubly blessed.