Sunday, September 25, 2011

Midlife Crisis in Men and Women

Midlife crisis theories suggest that some people have a very difficult time accepting the realization that their life is half over. Another popular theory is that the root cause of the midlife crisis lies in the way our culture emphasizes youthful beauty and virility.  Couples begin expressing dissatisfaction with their major life accomplishments including careers, families and social status, leading to major upheaval in their established life patterns. Men and women can equally feel as if they have lost meaning in their lives and may also feel trapped.  They realize their dreams may not be fulfilled and that the next phase of their lives does not seem very enticing. They may suddenly take up a hobby as a symptom of their restlessness and/or inadequacy of their previous goals. At this life stage it often seems as though everyone around them is splitting up… which of course is a consequence of their friends experiencing similar midlife difficulties.

The best data available suggests that 5%-12% of middle aged people suffer from the classic midlife crisis-defined as “personal turmoil and coping challenges in people 39 through 50 brought on by fears and anxieties about growing older”. About the same percentage experience psychological upheaval in midlife that is not brought on by aging but rather by major life events such as death of a parent, divorce or job loss.

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Midlife Transition

Erikson stated that the primary psychosocial task of middle adulthood—ages 45 to 65—is to develop generativity, or the desire to expand one's influence and commitment to family, society, and future generations. In other words, the middle adult is concerned with forming and guiding the next generation. The middle adult, who fails to develop generativity, experiences stagnation, or self-absorption, with its associated self-indulgence and invalidism.

Perhaps middle adulthood is best known for its infamous midlife crisis: a time of reevaluation that leads to questioning long-held beliefs and values. The midlife crisis may also result in a person divorcing his or her spouse, changing jobs, or moving from the city to the suburbs. Typically beginning in the early- or mid-40s, the crisis often occurs in response to a sense of mortality, as middle adults realize that their youth is limited and that they have not accomplished all of their desired goals in life. Of course, not everyone experiences stress or upset during middle age; instead they may simply undergo a midlife transition, or change, rather than the emotional upheaval of a midlife crisis. Other middle adults prefer to reframe their experience by thinking of themselves as being in the prime of their lives rather than in their declining years.

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Male / Female Differences

During the male midlife crisis, men may try to reassert their masculinity by engaging in more youthful male behaviors, such as dressing in trendy clothes, taking up activities like scuba diving, motorcycling, or skydiving.

During the female midlife crisis, women may try to reassert their femininity by dressing in youthful styles, having cosmetic surgery, or becoming more socially active. Some middle adult women try to look as young as their young adult children by dying their hair and wearing more youthful clothing. Such actions may be a response to feelings of isolation, loneliness, inferiority, uselessness, nonassertion, or unattractiveness.

Middle-aged men may experience a declining interest in sexuality during and following their male climacteric (male menopause). Fears of losing their sexual ability have led many men to leave their wives for younger women to prove to others (and to themselves) that they are still sexually capable and desirable. In contrast, middle-aged women may experience an increasing interest in sexuality, which can cause problems in their primary relationship if their significant other loses interest in sexual activity. This leads some middle-aged women to have extramarital affairs, sometimes with younger sexual partners.

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So, while midlife crisis affects both sexes, men and women experience it differently and need to develop the different coping techniques to survive this transitional period.

Men go through midlife crisis because they reach a certain age and realize that life is passing them by. They become afraid:
  1. Afraid of the changes that come with aging.
  2. Afraid of becoming ill.
  3. Afraid of becoming less attractive to the opposite sex.
  4. Afraid of not attaining goals they have set for themselves.
  5. Afraid of dying.

Women, on the other hand are thrust into midlife crisis because they reach a certain age and find they finally have the opportunity to do all the things in life they have put off doing while caring for her family.
  1. A woman’s children are grown and all of a sudden, she has the opportunity to do all those things she put off while being a mother.
  2. She and her husband have both worked hard, are now financially secure and she views this security as her opportunity to explore all those things she has put on the backburner.
  3. She goes through menopause, which means both biological and psychological changes. The psychological changes a woman experiences at menopause can cause her to question how she has lived her life and whether she should make changes to the way she lives.

While researching her book The Breaking Point: How Today's Women Are Navigating Midlife Crisis, Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger discovered that "women not only undergo bigger changes than men in middle age, but they also by some measures have a more positive attitude about their prospects in life." One key source was "Turning Points In Adulthood," a chapter in the MacArthur Foundation's "How Healthy Are We? A National Study of Well-Being At Midlife." It shows that men and women are distinctly different in a measure of life fulfillment.

Researchers found that before 50, less women than men feel they have "fulfilled a special dream" in the last five years (24% vs 40%). But after 50, women's fulfillment goes up -- to 36% -- while men's falls to about 28%.

Shellenbarger writes:
The triggers of midlife crisis reflect sex differences, too. Women's midlife crises are more likely than men's to begin with family events or problems, Dr. Wethington says, from a divorce or a parent's death to an extramarital affair, to the realization you haven't met your own standards or goals as a parent.

Whereas male midlife crisis is more likely to be driven by work or career issues, women's turmoil is more likely to be driven by introspection. Women are more likely to attribute their midlife crises to some new insight into themselves through religion, therapy or reflection.

Women are more likely to cite personal health problems as the cause of their midlife crises. This can include worries about slowing down or about losing one's attractiveness, based on the MacArthur Foundation research.

The authors of that study wrote that "major changes or disturbances in (marriage, work, parenting, and family relationships) are triggers of turning points that have a negative impact on them, at least initially.

There is a distinctive gender differences in these triggers. The researchers summarized earlier work that found that men were far more likely than women to consider a career event to be a "life turning point" (38% vs. 17%); education also had a large difference (19% of men considered it a turning point, vs. 6% of women). Women were slightly but not significantly ahead of men in considering parenthood or death of a family member to be important in shaping the course of their life.

Another study asked subjects at various stages of adult life to assess the importance of career, marriage, parenthood, and retirement; it found that work always topped men's lists of turning points. Young women selected marriage, while somewhat older women chose parenthood. Only older women thought work was a major life turning point.

Their own study found that women were more likely than men to self-report a turning point -- whether positive or negative -- within the last five years. In particular, women were far more introspective than men:

"Women ... reported significantly more turning points involving changes in how they viewed themselves over the past twelve months and in the last five years. Women were significantly more likely to report discovering something upsetting about themselves, as well as more likely to report discovering something good about themselves."

So whether you call what happens in midlife a "crisis," "reassessment," or "transition," the causes and effects are usually going to be different for men and women.

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Summarizing this overview, we can conclude that there are some similarities and some differences on how male and female experience the midlife crisis.  While we mostly addressed the differences, there is much in common on how the midlife crisis affects both genders.

Similarities for both include:
1.       Influenced by the youth culture.
2.       Aware of their aging bodies.
3.       Affected by the generations on each side--adolescents and aging parents.
4.       Disappointed by their disposability to society.
5.       Experiencing a lowered self-image.
6.       Feeling unfulfilled in their marriage.

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Sources and Additional Information:

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