Midlife Crisis – Surviving the midlife transition

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Midlife crises happen to men and women when they have got to a stable place in their lives, especially when and because they originally got together through crisis in their younger lives.

What is midlife crisis?

A midlife crisis is a discomfort with and confusion about what appears to be a stable, well-oiled relationship managing ups and downs by acting as a committed survival team. When everything seems settled and comfortable, ticking over with ease, a deep and powerful inner voice screams at one or both partners about all the parts of themselves they have locked up in the cause of survival. Now that survival has been achieved, it’s safer to want to explore the aspects of self that you couldn’t risk before. The voice cannot be ignored and you feel compelled to act on it as your mortality is staring you in the face.

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Signs of a midlife crisis

The signs of a midlife crisis are subtle and creep up slowly. One partner will feel the other pulling away and make attempts to pull them back, causing friction, and lack of honest communication.

Basically one person wants freedom and the other feels abandoned in the process

  1. Midlife crisis for one partner often revolves around the wish to explore and express all parts of their self-identity that have been submerged in the couple relationship.
  2. Midlife crisis creates a fear that one or other partner is ‘missing out’ on life because they got into a committed relationship so early that they didn’t get to taste and try other people, other ways of life, or other careers, and want to compensate for that deprivation.
  3. Midlife crisis shows up as one partner operating more independently in small ways that irritate the partner who feels excluded for no good reason.
  4. Midlife crisis takes center stage when one partner feels that he or she is repeating the worst of their parents and or grandparents lives and want to escape that trap.
  5. Midlife crisis strikes when the death of a relative evokes a need to rekindle ethnic and or religious identities that were identified with the deceased.
  6. Midlife crisis arises when a partner wants to reclaim a part of their cultural, ethnic, religious gender or sexual related identities that were previously denied or disowned.

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Wife going through a midlife crisis

A year after 37 year old Mindy’s father died, she began to feel that a part of her had gone too. She hadn’t been all that close to her dad, who had left her with her maternal grandmother after her parents’ marriage ended in bitter acrimony. But It was Mindy’s father that represented her Middle Eastern origins – something she had disowned being brought with the maternal European side of the family.

As she approached her 40th birthday, she sensed an urgency to acknowledge and own her Middle Eastern background. Now that her dad was gone, valuing something he passed onto her was no longer a betrayal of her mother or punishing him for the way he treated her mother. She joined groups online that gave her an opening into the Middle Eastern life – and began dressing and cooking in those styles.

Mindy’s midlife crisis hit her 40 year-old partner Justin like a tsunami. He thought everything was good. They both enjoyed raising their 8 year-old son Wayne with the love and support of Justin’s family. He always feared her tendency to do things on her own within her career, but now she was entering into another way of life that he wasn’t comfortable with. He feared losing her and pushed her to think about what she was doing to their family.

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Husband going through midlife crisis

Midlife crisis also hit Justin in the gut in an even deeper way. You see he had grown up with parents who fought with each other; a father who was physically abusive and a brother who suffered anxiety attacks in response to the toxic environment. He took on the role of mediator unsuccessfully, feeling like he had to parent his parents. It wasn’t until Mindy was into her ethnic origins that he felt the same cocktail of feelings that he felt as a child – fear of being hurt, fear of having to take care of a child alone ( his brother and now his son) and most of all his sense of abandonment – abandonment of the most egregious form – the emotional abandonment of parents who were preoccupied with their own mess. Mindy’s preoccupation with her lost ethnic identity to the exclusion of her partner and son stirred Justin in that sorest of spots and he felt very threatened. Family of origin issues permeated their lives.

Midlife crisis for both Mindy and Justin created a massive upheaval for the roots of their connection. They had come together as high school friends who supported each other during the chaos in their parents’ lives. Mindy comforted Justin and made him feel worthwhile when he was desperately afraid of the responsibility for his sick brother. Justin made young Mindy feel beautiful and exciting when she had grown up feeling like a nuisance to her parents, dumped on grandparents who themselves just put up with each other. They had formed an alliance that very quickly became sexual, moving in together to escape the hell of their childhood homes.

Midlife crisis in Mindy took the form of less stickiness with Justin and more with her paternal origins. Midlife crisis in Justin looked like he was thrown back into the worst of his past life without a lifeboat!

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Midlife crisis and stifled communication

Mindy felt guilty about her shift of focus but knew it was something she had to do. She didn’t want to hurt Justin and did her thing without a big fan fare. Justin, feeling threatened by the trigger of abandonment went from giving her space to provoking her to hurt and reject him quickly – to just get it over with – while also guilt shaming her with snide remarks to assert his right to her loyalty. He said he wanted to hear and understand her but he was too scared to let it in. Mindy was caught between not wanting to hurt her partner and maintain their bond, while simultaneously wanting to avow her ethnicity and need to join that community.

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Midlife crisis therapy

Despite having been in couples therapy before when they faced troubles in their relationship – this time it was different. There was a big elephant in the room and the very foundation of their relationship in jeopardy. They cared enough to commit to couples therapy with a focus on their joint midlife crisis. In the therapeutic setting, with her needs being understood, felt safe enough to let Justin know about the ache inside her to join her ethnic community, which didn’t mean ditching him. Justin felt seen and heard when he recounted his sense of not feeling good enough and unearthing that sore of abandonment. They began a new style of communication that differed from their original language of survival and protection when they were teens.

Midlife crisis proved to be a gold nugget in an otherwise scary jungle of stinging emotions. Both Mindy and Justin chose to create a new more adaptive and current connection that was more likely to succeed that the old one that no longer had relevance.  The couple found ways of dealing with midlife transitions, avoiding the pitfalls of midlife crisis and breakup – in the right therapeutic environment that supported them as they both grew and reconnected in way that reflected the bigger picture of their lives having survived their early traumas.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2108

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