In 1957, Dr. Elliott Jaques presented a paper to the British Psycho-Analytical Society. In it he talked about a pattern he’d identified wherein people in their mid-30s experienced a depressive period marked by a specific set of symptoms such as promiscuity, apathy, excessive concern over health and looks and sometimes a religious awakening or attempt to “find themselves.”
He eventually submitted his paper, now titled “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis” to The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, where it was published in October of 1965. And the idea of the mid-life crisis was born!
These days a midlife crisis is generally understood as something that happens between ages 45-55, and it’s a time when people wake up and realize that their lives are about halfway over. Yup – death isn’t just something that’s going to happen to someone else. It’s going to happen to me too!
But Are They Real?
In the 1990s, researchers started analyzing findings from studies including a huge one that started in 1995 called “Midlife in the United States,” or MIDUS and they found that not everyone has a crisis. In fact, they found that only about 26% of the participants reported having a midlife crisis!
Added to this, most people said that their midlife crisis happened before age 40 or after 50! Since “midlife” would usually be considered sometime around age 45, were these even midlife crises?
And here’s the most telling part. Out of this 26% of people who say they had a midlife crisis, the vast majority say it was brought on by a major event, not their age. We’re talking about things like a death of someone close like a parent or sibling, a divorce, a health problem, getting fired or laid off from a job, or moving to a new place.
One of the original members of the MIDUS team, Margie Lachman of Brandeis University, says “Most people don’t have a crisis. Midlifers are typically healthy, have busy social lives, and are at the earnings peaks of their careers, so people are pretty satisfied.”
Lachman says that many of the people who actually have a midlife crisis are “crisis prone or highly neurotic. They have crises throughout their lives, not just in midlife.”
So why do we still talk about the midlife crisis? Because the idea is just too good! We love a catchy name for a life stage. We’ve got the “terrible twos” and like to say things like, “Life begins at 50.” We label “Boomers,” “GenX,” “Millenials,” and now “GenZ” (I can’t wait to hear what the group after them is called: “ZSquared?”).
In 1976, journalist Gail Sheehy published a book called, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. In a month it was a New York Times bestseller. Sheehy had traveled through America interviewing educated middle-class men and women, ages 18 to 55, about their lives. The researchers she spoke to said that panicking at 35 is normal, since adults go through developmental periods just like kids do.
Is it a Midlife Crisis or a Midlife Happiness Slump?
According to a HUGE analysis in life satisfaction (which covered 1.3 million randomly sampled people in 51 countries) that was published in 2017, happiness is U-shaped.
Basically, your happiness starts a gradual decline sometime in your late teens and continues until sometime in your 40s. Your happiness starts to increase again sometime in your 50s. (For the record, this curve isn’t universal – it’s seen more in high-income countries).
So, even though the research shows we get happier again as we age, there’s this omnipresent belief that happiness just declines in a long downward slide the older we get. So, if you’re in that happiness slump, you likely think it’s just going to keep getting worse and worse and that could definitely spark some midlife crisis stereotypical behaviors like leaving your family for someone younger or pulling the money out of your kid’s college account to get that Porsche you’ve been eyeing.
Is it a Midlife Crisis or Are They Depressed?
Some people experience depression during their midlife years and, instead of calling it depression, it’s labeled a midlife crisis. According to the CDC, in the US, women between the ages of 40 and 59 have the highest rates of depression of any group based on age and gender.
In addition, suicide rates are highest during these years, particularly with white men. In fact, people between the ages of 45 and 54 are more likely to kill themselves than in any other age group!
Depression can show up in a lot of different ways. Most people have the stereotype in their head of someone who can’t get out of bed and who can’t find joy anywhere in life. Although there are certainly some people who fit that description, many depressed people are active members of their community – you see them running the bake sale at school and showing up to work every day.
That’s one of the main reasons depression often doesn’t get diagnosed! You might be looking at your life and thinking there’s no good reason to be depressed so you’re blaming your hormones or expanding waistline for the reason you don’t have any energy and feel like you just don’t want to do anything.
Depression can also show up as angry outbursts and being agitated all the time. You also might notice changes in sleep or eating patterns. In the end, you need to really look at your partner (or yourself) and notice if there have been overall, persistent changes to mood or disposition.
The Midlife Crisis as a Normal Stage in Life
What if, instead of calling it a midlife crisis, we started calling it a midlife transition? What if it’s just something to be expected and not feared?
The late Yale psychologist, Daniel Levinson, was kind of the king when it comes to adult development theory (yes, they have adult development theories, just like they have child development ones).
He said that all adults go through a series of stages as they age and that this midlife transition is one of them. Just another transition to another stage of life.
It makes sense that during these midlife years people would be evaluating where they are. Maybe you’ve been a stay-at-home mom and raised kids and now they’re gone so you’re thinking, “What’s next?”
Maybe you’ve been working in your field for a long time and now you’re done with learning and you’re looking ahead at how many years you have left until retirement. Maybe you’ve started having health issues or gaining weight and you’re needing to address your life differently from a physical vantage point.
How do You Know if They’re Having One?
Whether you want to call it a midlife crisis or a transition, there are still some pretty identifiable signs that you or your partner are having one:
- Apathy is one of the most common signs: You might feel “blah” about everything on an ongoing basis. It might be difficult to get yourself motivated or to feel really happy with things you used to enjoy.
- Resentment and Blame: Maybe you’re starting to resent having to cook meals every night for your family or the assumption that you’ll continue to be the primary breadwinner. Your thoughts are continually coming back to: “What’s in it for me?,” “This isn’t fair!,” or “I’m so tired of this!”
- The Future Doesn’t Look Good: If you’re looking to your future and all you see is more of the same and a feeling of monotony, you might be in midlife crisis mode. Or maybe you’re regretting past decisions and don’t see a way forward that isn’t bleak (“Why didn’t we start saving for retirement earlier?!”). Are you filled with feelings of regret for how you’ve lived your life or decisions you’ve made thus far?
- Jealousy: Are you looking around and think everyone else has it better than you? Or maybe you keep wanting to live someone else’s life? Or maybe you’re always jealous of your partner and thinking they have a better life than you do?
- Making Impulsive or Reckless Decisions: Are you quitting your job or asking for a divorce without thinking past the next few hours? Are you spending money on things you can’t afford without thinking of the long-term consequences? In other words, are you trying to do things to avoid your current reality and create a new one quickly?
- Consistent Boredom or Restlessness: This is linked to feelings of apathy. Is nothing pleasing to you right now? Do you notice that you’re feeling bored or restless often, even doing things you used to enjoy?
- Questioning Everything: Are you asking a lot of big questions like “What’s my life’s purpose?”, “Is this all there is?”, or “Am I doing the right things with my life?” Do you feel like it’s hard to decide what you should be doing next?
What Should I Do?
Tip #1: Don’t Label It.
Even if you’re sure your partner is having a midlife crisis, don’t label it. That’s not your job and it generally puts people on the defensive when we label them, so it’s not particularly helpful. Instead, I want you to do the following:
- Be curious: Ask lots of questions without being sure you know the answer. Don’t try to drive them to a solution you’ve decided on. Instead, ask questions to figure out together what steps might happen next.
- Don’t SAC! This is not a time for offering Suggestions, giving Advice or Criticizing!
- Really listen: Provide a non-judgmental space to allow your partner to talk about their feelings and why they’re upset.
- Check yourself: Your own fear is going to come up during this process. You need to continually check in with yourself to make sure you’re coming from love, not fear! Be loving, open, patient, compassionate and kind. Do not be worried, obsessive, anxious, overbearing, codependent or withdrawn.
Tip #2: Help Them Focus on Purpose:
When you’re asking all these wonderful questions and listening non-judgmentally, you can then move into helping your partner focus on their bigger purpose.
A recent study from the British Psychological Society found that people who experienced a quarter or midlife crisis and became super focused on their purpose in life, were able to come up with creative solutions to get them through this challenging time.
Tip #3: Get Help
Once you’ve asked questions and listened non-judgmentally, you can be in the position to offer a suggestion and the only one I really want you making is to suggest that your partner gets professional help to work through this time in their life. This could be
- Seeing a psychiatrist to be assessed for depression
- Meeting with a counselor for even a few sessions
- Consulting with your rabbi, priest or whatever holy person they’ll listen to and gain comfort from
- Making an appointment for a physical with their primary physician. All of these changes in mood could also be related to something physical. Everything from hormone imbalances, to thyroid problems to early signs of dementia could be on the table right now. Best to rule out anything medical as soon as possible.
Tip #4: Take Care of Yourself
There’s never been a better time for you to be taking care of yourself than when your partner is struggling.
Make sure you’re getting enough rest, that you’re eating well and that you’re seeing your own professional to talk this through.
I always say it’s about attraction not promotion. Make sure you’re appreciating your life fully and checking in with your feelings often. Be the healthy, warm light your partner needs in this difficult time.