The term midlife crisis has become a cliché, the subject of movies, Oprah and Geraldo television shows, back yard gossip, and dinner-table conversation. But it is also a term used by serious professionals to describe a dramatic, relatively uncommon form of midlife psychopathology experienced by certainly less than 10% of the population.
A true midlife crisis is a revolutionary event that, like a Class V hurricane, utterly destroys everything in its path, leaving behind a trail of broken marriages, shattered careers, distraught children, and bewildered friends.
A person in the midst of a true crisis acts suddenly and impulsively, throwing away relationships and careers that often took many years to build in a frantic attempt to escape what has become unbearable. Reason is abandoned and advice from spouses, relatives, friends—and therapists—to stop and think before making major decisions and burning bridges falls on deaf ears, so intense is the urge to escape from the intolerable present. One woman described her husband’s midlife crisis as “the death of our family.”
It behooves us to use the phrase midlife crisis carefully and with understanding. Is all change that occurs at midlife a crisis? Absolutely not! For some individuals the feelings and events at midlife engender very little change. Other engage in a private, low-key self-questioning; a greater number seem to go through a more obvious transition. Some men and women, however, experience rather dramatic change.
In the late 1970s, researcher Daniel Levinson and his colleagues described the midlife transition—a profound, sometimes agonizing, reappraisal of all aspects of life that affects everyone who approaches and traverses the early forties. For a few the searing examination of success, disappointments and failures is not particularly painful, but for many the questioning of assumptions, illusions, and vested interests is difficult in the extreme.
The basic developmental conflict underlying both the midlife transition and crisis is the dawning realization that personal time is running out and major changes, if they are ever to occur, must be made now!
Those in the midst of transition, for the most part, conduct their agonizing reappraisal at the level of thought. If they do decide to abandon a marriage or a career they do so carefully, thoughtfully, after considerable assessment of the consequences. Those in the midst of a true midlife crisis act—abruptly and precipitously—so as not to think about past choices, present responsibilities, and narrowing future opportunities. The grim reaper can be cheated, a lost youth recaptured, the brass ring snatched the second time around in a different city with a younger partner and a new career.
“Is That All There Is?”
The Dynamic Pressures behind Midlife Transition and Crisis
Is that all there is?” asked vocalist Peggy Lee. “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, then keep on dancing.” Have I squeezed every ounce of pleasure out of life? Seen all there is to see? Had it all? For each of us the answer is the same, a resounding no! But this disappointing realization can be tempered by pleasant memories and a valued present. I haven’t had it all but I’ve had my share and there’s more to come. I think I’ll just keep on dancing. These are not only the thoughts of the sick or selfish, they emanate from responsible, caring people as well; generated by a confluence of universal midlife concerns that fuel the midlife transition and crisis. These thoughts and anxieties are generated by the following changes and life events.
Midlife Physical and Psychological Challenges
Changes in the body: such as wrinkles, gray hair, cellulite, near-sightedness and occasional impotence generate anxiety because they are reminders that time is running out.
This change in time perception is experienced as the remaining hours of life being rapidly used up. Total time left becomes a preoccupation as thinking shifts from time lived, to time left to live. Those in transition react to this awareness with dignified pain, those in crisis with frenzied panic.
The distance between career aspirations and achievement is another indicator that time is running out. As they feel the heat from hungry younger rivals eager to replace them, middle-aged workers double their efforts to cover their backsides. This is particularly true for those with limited educations or redundant jobs who have reached the highest levels possible for them and been shunted aside or pushed out the door into the sometimes desperate world of middle-aged unemployment. Particularly in poor economic times job insecurity may puncture the complacent illusion that life will remain the same forever and force a serious questioning of all aspects of relationships, values and goals.
As children leave home and expose marital relationships to an intense dose of sometimes un-wanted togetherness, commitment to marriage and family are put to the test. Each partner must assess his or her relationship to determine whether it has the necessary ingredients to justify continuing. Have the partners developed similarly? Do they have enough in common? If estranged, can they reestablish their relationship?
The churning concern that time is passing by rapidly may reignite the youthful quest for the ideal love. The yearning for the thrilling satiation of adolescent infatuation drives many into preoccupation with first loves and others into extramarital affairs or divorce. The realization that one cannot go back in time, cannot magically restore youth or re-experience perfection, drives some to distraction. A fifty-nine-year-old, recently divorced man became incensed when I questioned whether he could, at his age, re-experience “you know, that total feeling of love, when you walk around in a daze all day long and nothing else matters but your lover.”
When children break through the biological barriers of immaturity and undergo the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde metamorphosis from infantile innocence to raucous physical maturity, they shatter the parents’ sense of calm and continuity and become the harbingers of uncontrollable change and uncertainty. In her novel The War Between the Tates, Allison Lurie captured the parental predicament perfectly.
“They were a happy family once, she thinks. Jeffrey and Matilda were beautiful, healthy babies; charming toddlers; intelligent, lively affectionate children. . .Then last year, when Jeffrey turned fourteen and Matilda twelve, they had begun to change; to grow rude, course, selfish, insolent, nasty, brutish, and tall. It was as if she were keeping a boarding house in a bad dream and the children she had loved were running into awful lodgers—lodgers who paid no rent, whose leases could not be terminated. They were awful at home and abroad; in company and alone, in the morning, the afternoon and the evening.” (p. 12)
Middle age, in the middle, between two generations, often responsible for both—both serve as constant reminders of the passage of time, one by maturing, the other by aging and dying. As Mom and Dad, those childhood guarantors of an endless, safe and predictable future, become dependent, wither and die, they expose their children to a similar fate as they now become the oldest generation, the first in line, closest to the grave. Freud described the death of his father as a profound experience that stimulated a major internal reorganization. The same is true for all of us as parental death forces us to shed some of the last illusions of immortality and accept a limited life span and a lesser position in the cosmos.
A Significant Watershed
In childhood every birthday is a momentous occasion signifying the un-ambivalent wish to grow, to mature, to be older. As childhood passes into adolescence, certain birthdays take on more meaning than others, but still signify the attainment of new privilege and status. Sixteen—“and never been kissed” 18—“I’m an adult now; I can vote and go to war, ha!” and 21—“No more fake I.D. cards, I can drink legally!”
As the 20s—“Twenty five, God, that’s a quarter of a century!” pass into the 30s—“Thirty, I guess I can’t even pretend to be a kid anymore. Is it true that you can’t trust anyone over 30?” Birthdays become a source of ambivalence because they mark the passage of time that no longer signifies growth and the attainment of privilege but now demarcates aging and loss of the endless future of youth.
And then comes 40, the watershed birthday, the unequivocal indicator of middle age. “I never thought I’d be 40; now that’s really old!”
The lifting of the denial of death is a central and crucial feature of midlife. Both Arthur Schopenhauer and Albert Camus vividly described the awareness that struck them in their late thirties—that they had already lived half of their lives and that death was inevitable. Each of us faces this reality in our own way. Bach accepted his cantorship at Leipzig at thirty-eight and began to compose. Albert Schweitzer chose midlife as the time to retire from his career as a concert organist in Europe and become a physician in Africa. Major shifts in self-image, love relationships and career directions frequently are provoked or facilitated by the lifting of the denial of aging, and the realization that the halfway point of life has been reached. Suddenly, it is clear that life is half over and that the race against time cannot be stopped.
Turning Forty in Therapy
An Example of a Midlife Transition
The following clinical material was provided by a clinician-friend of mine. His name is purposely withheld to insure his privacy and that of the patient. The clinical material, itself, has been thoroughly disguised.
The sessions before, during and after Mr. D’s fortieth birthday provide a unique opportunity for us to have access to the inner most thoughts of a man who was struggling with the midlife, transitional issues of marriage, family and his past and future. Unlike someone in the midst of a true midlife crisis, he was attempting to understand the reasons behind his behavior with his wife and daughter and his involvement in an extramarital affair.
Mr. D. entered therapy when he was 36 and turned 40 twelve months before the termination of his treatment. The therapy hours during the few weeks on either side of his 40th birthday reveal how time and aging perceptions colored his reactions to his 40th birthday and illustrate the midlife conflicts and childhood experiences that were behind his efforts to make his midlife experience a transition and not a full blown conflict.
Presenting symptoms and background: An intelligent, articulate businessman, Mr. D. sought help after a year of depression, self-doubt, and intermittent resentment toward his adolescent daughter. The onset of his depression coincided with her pubescence.
The patient was the older of two children. A sister was born when he was two years old. His mother was loving, but hot tempered and would occasionally “knock heads together.” The father, a successful builder, was caring and available in early childhood. At three, Mr. D. recalled, he happily helped his father build the house they lived in during his childhood. When he was ten, his parents divorced. From that point onward, he viewed both mother and father as angry, aloof, and emotionally unavailable.
Mr. D. was a wanted child, the product of an uncomplicated pregnancy. He was breast-fed and was reportedly within the norm of all early maturational and developmental guidelines. There were no childhood surgeries or major illnesses. “My mother ran the place. . .we all had to act by the numbers. . .she was rigid on dinner manners and clean rooms.” At five, while roughhousing in a tree house, his three-year-old sister fell and almost died. This event shaped the family destiny (“my mother always said that’s why father left”) and was so elaborated by the patient that he forever after felt like a “rotten kid. . .a potential killer.” Soon after the accident, father began working some distance from home. At six, mother also went off to work and during many evenings Mr. D. was left with baby sitters. Despite these changes “the boy did OK until my parents divorced. . .I got real depressed. . .all my friends still had fathers.” He rarely saw his father during his adolescence. His adolescent sex life consisted of intercourse with a series of girls—“love ’em and leave ‘em.” After high school he joined the Army. “I believed the ads about making a man out of me.”
After serving in the Army Mr. D. returned home, entered college, married during his junior year, and was content for the next three years. . .I made the dean’s list and felt comfortable with her and her family.” Marital discord began when a daughter was born and when undesirable job changes occurred. However, basic compatibility persisted until a year or two before treatment began, until his daughter reached puberty.
The two years of psychotherapy that preceded Mr. D’s 40th birthday were focused on his childhood, particularly the effect of the parental divorce when he was ten and his growing realization that although his wife was very good person, like his father, he felt unfilled in his marriage. A year after the treatment began he became involved with a younger woman. Mr. D. considered leaving his marriage, as his father had done; and might have were it not for the efforts of the therapist to get him to explore his feelings thoroughly before making such an important decision, and his desire not to do to his daughter what had been done to him.
Mr. D’s Fortieth Birthday
Three weeks prior to the birthday: He came back from time spent away with his girlfriend and began to complain.
Mr. D.: “I drove back in a hurry. I wanted to see my wife. . .but I was in a bad mood as soon as I got home. . .all we did was argue, she makes me so mad. . .over trivia.”
Therapist: “What feelings are beneath the anger? As you mentioned, you were angry over trivia.”
Mr. D.: “I just don’t enjoy being with her. . .I don’t know if she even has to say anything. . It’s almost as if I am not supposed to be in love with anyone. . .I try to talk with my wife but get nowhere, constant arguing. . . I don’t seem to be able to change. . .I wonder if I give my daughter enough.”
In the next session Mr. D. began by looking further at withholding, but now from himself.
Mr. D. “My daughter was out so we got it on. . .but somehow there is much more emotional release with my girlfriend. . .I smile after orgasm. . .yet rationally, I don’t want her. . .it is almost as if I’m not supposed to show satisfaction, pleasure with my wife. . .guess I don’t trust. . .don’t see her as my friend, afraid to share my wish for warmth.”
And then in his first reference to aging, Mr. D. mentioned the following:
Mr. D.: “I guess I can’t be a kid screwing around with my wife; yet I can be a kid with my girlfriend.”
Therapist: “Only kids are allowed to express warmth and passion with women, not men?”
Mr. D.: “Men and women are so screwed up. . .my girlfriend will sit next to me in the car with her pants off, but that’s kid stuff. I guess I never had a grownup man to watch. . .no affection at home.”
Later, while talking about the marital separation of a friend, Mr. D. mentioned that he was feeling more assertive as a man.
Mr. D.: “It pisses me off that I was such a milque toast in the old days. . .I’m angry at a lot of things these days, but I don’t think it is at my wife.”
In the next session Mr. D mentioned that his girlfriend was upset over his recent indifference. “The affair is coming to an end.”
Two weeks prior to the birthday: After describing his “dutiful participation” in church services with his family Mr. D. reported a dream.
Mr. D.: “I was playing poker with one of the ladies at work. ..I had a full house but didn’t bet as much as I should have. She laid down four aces. . .I was so mad I almost hit her. After reporting the dream he began to express his thoughts about it. “I could have killed her, but why. . .I only bet a quarter. . .she reminds me of how my mother had to have everything her way. . .or maybe I set the game up to lose. . .recently I’ve thought a lot about those repetitive dreams of failing the design course in college. . .why in hell do I have these failure mode situations. . .I graduated years ago.”
Mr. D. is determined to get beyond his conflict of “years ago.”
Mr. D.: “I was talking to an older business man in town and found out that he is human. . .he has good kids and works hard. . .my daughter is great, too.”
Therapist: “What allowed your warmth with him now?”
Mr. D.: “Everyone seems a little more human. . .in the past I felt hugging a woman was like molesting her and hugging a man was for queers. . .I saw everything in terms of sex as a kid. . .as an adolescent. It was all I had.”
One week prior to the birthday:
Mr. D.: “I don’t want a divorce. I used to. . .I get a lot of joy out of marriage. Heck of a day yesterday.. .I talked with a new junior associate who began working for me. . .she is only 25. . .a lot younger than I thought. . .I’m feeling older and older, oh well.
In the next session, the last before his birthday, he mentioned the birthday for the first time.
Mr. D.: “My birthday is coming up. . .I don’t want a cake.” Later in the session he commented, “I think I want to take a vacation for a day or two . . .the senior partner has been out all week. I wish there were more sunny days. . .I wish it were September and I could ride a bike around with the sun in my face.”
First week after the birthday:
Mr. D.: “I don’t feel like letting people fawn over me as if I can’t take care of myself. . .I can’t depend on my partner or my wife. . .no one else will cover my ass.”
He went on to describe his reaction to a surprise 40th birthday party attended by several couples that his partner had organized for him.
Mr. D.: “Forty candles on a cake are too many. . .but they were a nice group of people. . .one of the ladies was crying.”
Therapist: “Why do you feel she cried?”
Mr. D.: “A sad affair birthdays.” ( a long silence) “I kind of think that the thing with my girlfriend is over. It is not a very satisfying relationship.” (later in the session) “I’ve been irritated with everyone and myself since I have the feeling I don’t do the things I want to with my life. I feel pushed at home and in my love life. I feel like saying, fuck off world. I’m pissed at everything including coming here but I stick to it to make my life better.”
In the next session Mr. D. complained about feeling sick and weak.
“Mr. D.: ”I’m frosted at my parents for putting me in school a year early. I was smart enough but I just wasn’t ready emotionally.” (later) “My partner has been a real disappointment in life. Maybe I put him in a role he didn’t fit. Maybe I confused my girlfriend in the same way. She is a burden. I find it difficult to remember that she is only 26. There is quite a disparity between 26 and 40. The needs are different. I don’t want to start all over again. I’m also irritated at turning 40. It beats the alternative but I’m tired of all the problems. I spent my whole life learning how to grow up.”
In the first month after the birthday:
Mr. D. presented a dream.
“Mr. D.: “At the stadium, quarterbacking a professional football team, crowded stands. . .I was on the better team but couldn’t pass to save my ass. It was halftime and I was talking to Ed. He had a lot of money bet on the point spread, and I was going to try to increase the lead so he could win. I wasn’t starting in the second half but when I got back in the game I threw a touchdown pass even though all the men in front of me were taller.”
Mr. D. associated to the dream. “ I’m putting myself on the winning team but I’m not the biggest or the best man. I’m about average height even though I’m bigger than my father was when I was a kid. Of course, I wasn’t as a boy. I used to be self-conscious about being short as a kid. In fact, I still have difficulty seeing myself as big. My inferiority complex keeps me thinking small.”
Mr. D’s assumption of manly prerogative (he’s the quarterback) now that he’s at “halftime” is an indication of movement toward accepting his midlife status and his role as a leader of his family and friends. He is growing into his midlife, adult skin. The theme continues in the analysis of another dream that occurred soon after.
Mr. D.: “At work with the partners around a table at the cafeteria discussing applications for new men. I was advocating certain people but the senior partner had only trivial bullshit putdowns. Then I walked off to lunch with my wife.
He associated to the dream. “Actually it occurred to me recently that I’ll be senior partner when he retires in 3 or 4 years. It is the part of me that is still sorting out manhood.” Later in the session he said, “I don’t think I want to replace my wife anymore. I enjoy life more with her. Home is fun again.”
An Assessment of Mr. D’s Midlife Transition
This midlife transition was more difficult than most. Many individuals experience what Mr. D. was dealing with through thoughts and feelings alone. Although many do, most do not need to have an affair, separate or divorce, or abandon jobs that they have spent years learning, leading to positions of power and prestige.
In this material, concerns over age, stage of life, loss, and growth are everywhere. The patient accepted his 40 years with anguish and ambivalence—“Forty candles are too much.” Although the joys of fatherhood and a successful profession were some compensation for aging, his mood was more one of acceptance and resignation than joy. Objective adult pleasures pale next to childhood wishes in much the same way that earthly joys pale next to anticipated heavenly delights, which include, of course, the promise of immortality. Nevertheless, with the help of therapy, Mr. D. decided that he might as well enjoy “the nice group of people” that were with him at 40. On balance, the adult condition was more pleasurable than his childhood experience and illusionary adult reenactments. References to the aging process largely disappeared during the remaining months of the therapy. He focused, instead, on his pride of family, success in career, and how he could do more for those around him than was done for him. While serving many functions, his adaptive attitudes and altruistic inclinations also served to deny his ultimate death and irrelevance.
The Gauguin Syndrome
The Gauguin Syndrome was introduced as a concept by my co-author, Robert Nemiroff and myself, to dispel some of the myths and simplistic thinking that surround the concept of the midlife crisis.
Charles Strickland, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919), which is supposedly based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin, is one of the most selfish villains of literature. A successful English banker, Strickland suddenly, without warning, abandoned his family and his work and went to Polynesia to be a painter. Like Gauguin, he eventually dies in the tropics. Actually, instead of the classic Gauguin scenario of a middle-aged man deserting his wife, children and career to escape to Polynesia for self-fulfillment and endless sex with with native women; we should refer instead to the myth of Gauguin since investigation reveals a very different version of the painter’s life.
The facts suggest a situation of considerable emotional, marital and occupational complexity. Gauguin was bored with the banking business and felt that he had gone as far as he could go in that field. He had been experimenting with a career in art for years, first as a patron of the early impressionists and then as an amateur painter. A considerable period of transition occurred between the two careers. Likewise, his marital problems did not arise suddenly. He and his wife, Mette, had been changing at different rates and in different way over a span of years—he evolving a mode of self-expression while she became increasingly involved in middle-class society. Before going to Tahiti he spent years imploring her to join him, but she would have none of it.
Gauguin’s midlife metamorphosis becomes even more understandable in light of his family background and childhood. His maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan, was a fiery revolutionary who eventually came to regard herself as an outcast, a pariah and missionary of social change. There is evidence to suggest that Gauguin identified with his grandmother, especially in her revolutionary-outcast role. On his mother’s side the family was part of Peruvian aristocracy; his father died while the family was on route to Peru to join the household of the Peruvian Viceroy, Gauguin’s maternal uncle. Part of Gauguin’s childhood was spent in a materially abundant, colorful aristocratic environment in which his mother flourished, and he always retained an image of her in that exotic setting. Later he painted her many times as “Eve” in a tropical paradise. Because of a change in the political situation the Gauguin family abruptly returned to France when Paul was seven. The boy’s golden world dissolved, to be replaced by the gray and pallid environment of Orleans. During adolescence Gauguin shipped out as a sailor, as if to try to recapture his early Peruvian experience. While he was at sea, his mother died.
Such early experiences, including identification with a grandmother who was a revolutionary and an outcast, a lifelong yearning for a Peruvian paradise lost, and early separations and deaths likely played some part in his later attempts to master loneliness and separation. Thus, Gauguin was driven by powerful emotional forces that resulted in a midlife attempt to work through his early emotional traumas. The Gauguin myth has compelling appeal to men oriented more toward action than introspection, men who in their middle years would rather change their life circumstances than themselves, seeking a rebirth simply by traveling to a new place.
Author, Nancy Mayer (1978) described the painful reality Gauguin faced: “In fact, there was nothing noble about Gauguin’s life—and very little that was very pleasurable. He was actually a driven, self-destructive man who failed tragically in his flight into fantasy. And though he set sail for his tropical paradise with a wish to be ‘reborn,’ and redeemed, he actually spent the last years as an embittered exile who never gave up his desperate desire to be acclaimed by the society he supposedly despised.” (p. 179)
Thus, be comparing the myth and the reality of Gauguin’s life, we illustrate the tendency to simplify and romanticize midlife crises and change in attempts to avoid the painful confrontation with the past that is an inevitable part of developmental progression in midlife.
A True Midlife Crisis
The same experiences that bring on the midlife transition also precipitate midlife crisis in susceptible individuals. The following description of an actual midlife crisis is presented to give the large majority of adults, who (fortunately) will never have such an experience, a standard against which to compare their own experience.
Dr. R. came to therapy “to pick up the pieces of my life and start over.” Aged forty-four, he had come to San Diego from an East Coast city approximately a year ago “to get away from everything and everyone who ever meant anything to me.”
“I just got up one morning and said this is it. I took $100,000 out of my pension plan, drove to the airport, and threw a dart at a map of the West Coast. It landed on San Diego, so I bought a ticket and here I am.”
After a couple weeks of walking on the beach, Dr. R. called his frantic family and told them he wasn’t coming back. He told his wife to forget about him and to keep everything. He refused to talk to his children but agreed to contact them later. He gave his wife no explanation for his actions. As he described his reasons for leaving during the course of our therapy, “ he said, “I didn’t have one. I still don’t. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Dr. R. went on to explain that although he couldn’t explain why, life had become unbearable. “You’re going to laugh like everyone else, “ he said. “They thought I had it all, a nice wife, big house, three kids, and a great practice. I used to think so too, but it all began to smother me. I couldn’t do what I wanted.”
What he wanted only became clear to both of us as therapy progressed. Foremost was to actualize the search for his first love but almost two years after leaving home he had not made any serious attempt to find her. After she rejected him he married his wife on the rebound. “My wife’s a great lady,” he said. “Don’t get it wrong. It’s not her. It’s me. I want to feel that overwhelming rush in my crotch again.” Bar hopping and one-night stands soon became repetitive and empty. “I got the feeling in my crotch but not in my heart. I want to really care again. My wife never made me feel that way.”
And he was sick of his patients. “They clawed at me. They never got enough. There was always another one. I wanted time for myself. If I didn’t leave when I did I was going to wake up one morning and discover that I was sixty-five and hadn’t done anything that I really wanted to.”
“My kids weren’t any better. They kept needing more and more. I couldn’t stand the thought of working for ten more years to put them through college. There’s enough left in the pension plan to see them through. They’ll be OK. I still don’t feel the need to see them but I have talked to them on the phone a couple of times. They’re really pissed at me.”
Although the underlying causes of his midlife crisis became clear to me—a paternal death when he was five years old, a neurotically inhibited sexuality during adolescence and the death of his devoted mother on his forty-fifty birthday—Dr. R. had little interest in exploring causes and refused to consider thinking about returning home. What he wanted from me was empathy, support and acceptance of his new life, which consisted of living alone in a rented apartment, daily surfing, and occasional ventures into bars. “I’m going to keep doing this until my money runs out and that won’t be anytime soon.”
Despite my best efforts Dr. R. left therapy after a year of stubbornly refusing to examine what had happened to him. “Thanks for you help,” he said. “I feel a lot better.” “I’m glad you do,” I thought, as I felt my frustration at failing to make a dent into his irrationality; and as I pictured his wife and children and visualized his and their uncertain future.
A More Severe Midlife Crisis
The patient, Mr. L. was a 42-year-old man who walked into an outpatient psychiatric clinic after experiencing several days of up-surging rage, love, guilt, and anxiety associated with memories of childhood. He described his mental state as “the rats are running,” a resurgence to a flood of disturbing thoughts about his parents. For example, he visualized his father’s death and a maternal reproach—“you killed him.” The fantasy set off a string of thoughts about his emotional distance from his parents and his failure to please them. Breaking through to them seemed urgent and hopeless. Vague suicidal ideation and the intensity of discomfort led to a desperate need for help before his business and social life were affected. Mr. L. saw his reaction as a reemergence of a problem that had begun four years before and led to a year of psychotherapy at that time.
Psychiatric examination: On the day of his first clinic visit Mr. L. was casually dressed, his hair disheveled. At times he raised his forearm across his forehead as if warding off an attack. Speech was pressured but thoughts were logical and coherent without evidence of bizarreness, delusions, or hallucinations. Completely oriented as to time, person and place, Mr. L. demonstrated variation in mood ranging from good humor to depression.
Family: The patient’s father was from a middle-class family that contained both distinguished, accomplished individuals and several alcoholics. Father was described as a bright, stoic man who only told his son on three occasions that he loved him. Mr. L. felt he grew up without his father, who worked constantly and communicated by a “series of grunts.” Mr. L’s mother was from a poor family. Ashamed of her background, she “married up.” A domineering woman, she controlled her husband and family “like a field marshal.” She expressed only anger and disappointment and encouraged her children to think of themselves as part of a respectable, hard-working family that would endure, successfully, under all circumstances. His parents’ marriage appeared sterile and empty to Mr. L. Father rarely talked to mother either, possibly because for the past 10 years she had insisted on sleeping alone.
Mr. L. admired his siblings, particularly the several who have become particularly successful, and he loved an older sister who took care of him during his early years, providing the warmth, affection, and nurturing that mother did not.
Some developmental highlights: Born during the Depression, Mr. L. suspects that he was unwanted, yet his early memories place him in the center of attention. One vivid recollection was of his mother taking him into bed and patting him warmly on the back. Most pleasant remembrances focus on his older sister caring for him. He recalled strong maternal reactions to his aggression, including verbal abuse and later, whippings that bordered on child abuse. Mr. L. relates his emergence as a practical joker to those beatings, feeling he had little other way to express his anger. Some of the “jokes” had serious consequences, such as dropping a heavy book on his brother’s nose while he slept, digging holes and covering them with leaves and branches, and building a snowman around a fire hydrant and asking his friends to drive into it. Practical joking had continued to the present. Recently Mr. L. and his girl friend went separately to a bar; pretending to meet for the first time, they talked loudly about sex and left together.
Mr. L.’s childhood tendency to play tricks was accompanied by a vivid fantasy life. He described his clear recall of movies he had seen. He would lie in bed recreating the movie in exact detail, with him as the main character. Although the intensity of such activity had diminished, it continued to the present. For example, after a business meeting Mr. L. would relive it in his mind, changing events to determine a more successful outcome.
Mr. L.’s mother was prejudiced against certain ethnic and religious groups, a fact she hid in public. Although he never confronted her, Mr. L. was angered by his mother’s stand and chose to retaliate. In high school he became the first non-Jewish member of a Jewish fraternity. Later in life he married the girl next door, a woman from an ethnic group and family disparaged by his mother.
In high school Mr. L. was interested in dramatics but avoided participating because he felt inferior to those students who were involved. Instead, he joined other clubs but never assumed a position of leadership. Mr. L. had a number of friends of both sexes but did not become sexually active during these years.
After high school Mr. L. spent four years in the service. He blamed his father for that, since father took him to a recruiter when he could not make up his mind about college. During the enlistment he married a woman with “the four Vs—volatile, vicious, vituperative, and vivacious.” He also went to night school and eventually earned a Master’s degree and started a business. Despite his feelings about his wife, Mr. L. felt that his late twenties and thirties were good years. His business and marriage had prospered and he fathered three children.
The crisis: When Mr. L. was 37 he found himself drawn to his 12-year-old son’s religious and musical activities. Questions arising from his son’s Sunday-school classes stimulated his own latent interest in religion. And he found himself preoccupied with the lyrics of a popular song that stated that if a person didn’t like what was in the world he could change it. Mr. L. realized that he was an incomplete human being who had never expressed himself fully and who had the power to completely change his personality.
He began to have regular family meetings during which he would tell his children his true feelings, including involvement in an extramarital affair. His wife objected to this practice and began to withdraw sexually. Mr. L. attempted to stay involved with his family but slowly began to lose self-confidence because he felt that his “new self,” as he called it, and his new values could not survive his wife’s criticisms and his own doubts. At that point Mr. L. began to experience a great fear of people and decided to leave his family. He recalled that his wife literally tore the shirt off his back in an attempt to restrain him as he went out the door. After providing financially for the family, Mr. L. disappeared into the woods, holing up in a mountain cabin. During the next two months he avoided all human contact, spending his time in the cabin in deep thought. On those occasions when he went out to get food he suspiciously covered his tracts so that his whereabouts would not be discovered.
His thoughts focused on childhood and his parents, for “the rats were running.” He ranted and raved to himself, experiencing intense rage, guilt and anxiety. After two months Mr. L. began going to a library where he would read theology and philosophy. He was struck by a statement that humans are different from other animals because they make love face to face, and also found himself intrigued by references to writings about people and the evolution of ideas. Thoughts of death were prominent during that time as Mr. L. “wrestled” with the concept of his own mortality. He felt “close to Christ” but also arrived at the intellectual decision that suicide was a viable choice for man. After six months Mr. L. became panicky and began psychotherapy, working on self-assertion, self-esteem, and reducing guilt. He remembers it as a rebuilding period.
Mr. L. returned home on Christmas Eve to a tearful reunion with his family. Over the course of the next year, despite the “absolute loss of a sense of humor,” he reestablished his business, resumed a social life, and made a brief attempt to reconstitute his family. The latter was unsuccessful, followed by a divorce. Mr. L. left all of his material possessions to his wife, including their bank accounts.
Psychotherapy: Mr. L. entered an intensive psychotherapeutic relationship with a conviction that this time he could come to grips with his feelings in a more definitive way and gain some peace and stability in his life. He worked particularly on his feelings about his parents and began to realize that in midlife the problem lay in his feelings about his parents, not in his parents themselves.
Comment on Mr. L.’s crisis: This man did have a true midlife crisis, according to the definition that such a devastating event is a major and revolutionary turning point in life that is accompanied by significant emotional turmoil and changes in relation to family, career and self. His self-imposed retreat from others was, in part, an attempt at self-definition. In the midst of his self-centered regression he ignored the needs of his family and only focused on himself, while grandly considering the philosophic questions of life including the religious meanings of life and death. Once reconstituted Mr. L. returned to his family and discovered that his change made it impossible for them to understand him and for him to need them. Like Moses, a changed person, a different self had come down from the mountain with a new plan for life. Over a period of several years he continued to work on redefining himself by forging new relationships and a new career in an attempt to cast off aspects of the old or “false” self and make himself into a new man. As with Dr. R. in our first example, the change came at great cost to himself and his family. Was either man really better off? I’ll leave the answer up to the reader.
And Then What?
This book has, hopefully, made the reader more aware of his or her mortality and its effect on development, but hasn’t addressed the ultimate question—What happens after death? At this point science and developmental theory exit and religion enters. Atheist or agnostic, monk or minister—all ponder the same question and arrive at different answers. The true believer, who is at one with the notion of a higher being, feels a special kind of fulfillment, enriched by an answer to the mystery of death. The nonbeliever at midlife ponders the un-ponderable and accepts the realization that he or she will never know, but finds fulfillment by reveling in the beauty and wonders that life in the here and now has to offer. But believer or not all must pass through the rapids of midlife and hopefully look back on these tumultuous years with a sense of calm, a new definition of self and a determination to live the remaining years of life with inner peace and emotional intimacy with others.