Causes and Symptoms (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
Before the nature of the midlife crisis can be explored, it is first helpful to identify what is meant by “midlife.” As the average life expectancy has changed throughout history, so has the period termed midlife. For example, current human life expectancy in the United States had risen to 77.5 years of age; this breaks down to 74.8 years for men and 80.1 for women of all races. These figures are more than twice as long as the average life expectancy during the time of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and more than three and a half times as long as someone in ancient Greece could have expected to live.
Life expectancy changes as it is influenced by any number of factors, including nutrition, health care and prevention, stress and lifestyle issues, historical period, culture, race, individual variability, gender, and social context. Consequently, there is no precise age at which midlife commences. It is also difficult to state unequivocally when the possibility for a midlife crisis ends. Nevertheless, some developmental theorists, such as D. J. Levinson, suggest the period from forty to forty-five is the time of the midlife transition or “crisis.” Others have indicated that this time period may last until the age of fifty-three. Yet the results of these studies, collected primarily from Caucasian males in the United States, may not be applicable to the general population.
Other researchers, Carol Gilligan among...
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Treatment and Therapy (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
Medical science has contributed to the understanding of the concept of midlife crisis through research, theory building, and the development and testing of treatment strategies, including the use of medication and psychotherapeutic techniques. Yet there are no specific treatments for a midlife or any other kind of crisis because the needs of the individual and the family group vary considerably. The range of possible treatments or clinical applications of medical science to this area are largely in the form of supporting the preexisting resources and coping skills of the individual and his or her family and other social support systems.
As with other life skills, an individual’s ability to cope with and manage crises depends on the nature of one’s character and personality, past experiences in managing crises, and degree of social support. The more well developed the person’s character and coping mechanisms, the more numerous his or her experiences in successfully resolving past crises, and the greater amount of perceived support from family and friends, the more likely he or she will be able to resolve conflicts and crises in the present and future successfully.
Since midlife crises can differ from those in other stages, because of the particular tasks to be negotiated at this stage, resolution may involve the need to address certain tasks constructively. An individual may be called on to reevaluate or...
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Perspective and Prospects (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
In many areas of medical science pertaining to human behavior and emotional experience, important ideas from different theories are often integrated to yield a more comprehensive understanding. Congruently, several theoretical frameworks shape approaches to and perspectives on the understanding of midlife crises. Evolutionary theory, human growth and development, sociocultural theories, theories about the life cycle, behavior theory, family systems theory, learning theory, and theories of stress and coping all contribute to this understanding.
The theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin provides the understanding of human beings as living interdependently, as well as adapting to their changing environment. The development of effective coping strategies ensures survival and promotes human community. Midlife crises present the individual and his or her social context with an opportunity for testing the effectiveness of these strategies.
The work of psychologist Abraham Maslow emphasized the tendency of human beings to strive toward the maintenance of life and the promotion of growth. An individual negotiating transitions in life taps into this growth motivation in order to maximize and enrich personal experience. In the midst of crisis, basic necessities of life are the first priority. Once the fundamental needs for food, shelter, and physical survival are satisfied, an individual will strive toward...
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For Further Information: (Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition)
Bee, Helen L., and Barbara L. Bjorklund. The Journey of Adulthood. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2009. A comprehensive text that explores the major theories of adult development and covers health and medicine, behavior genetics, cognitive development, social psychology, and social development in the context of adult development. Topics related to midlife crisis include dealing with stress, conceptualizing the transitions of adulthood, and adult anxiety and depression.
Berk, Laura E. Development Through the Life Span. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2002. This book examines basic theories, research findings, current applications of theory, and social policies as they relate to development across the life span.
Gaudette, Pat, and Gay Courter. How to Survive Your Husband’s Midlife Crisis. New York: Berkley, 2003. Uses personal stories and an engaging sense of humor to explore the reasons for midlife crises and to offer resources for support.
Gilligan, Carol. “New Maps of Development: New Visions of Maturity.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 52 (April, 1982): 199-212. In this article, Gilligan begins to map out her alternatives to previously accepted theories of adult development. These alternatives are based on comparative research that contrasts male and female experiences. The author suggests that a woman’s development cannot be...
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Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Midlife crisis (also known as the midlife transition) in Western societies often involves a period of self-doubt that can afflict people during the midst of life, usually during their forties (but as early as their thirties or as late as age sixty). Self-doubts often involve the passage of youthful ambitions and hopes, as the recognition dawns that certain career and romantic goals are no longer attainable, along with the anticipation of old age and its limitations. When a midlife crisis afflicts women, it is sometimes related to menopause, which is often called the change of life.
Less than 10 percent of people experience severe enough psychological problems during a midlife crisis to seek some sort of counseling. Although the condition has never been formalized as a diagnostic category, a minority of those who believe they are afflicted with it may require psychotherapy. Although rare, some manifestations of midlife crisis can be severe and may include suicide attempts.
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History of the Idea (Psychology and Mental Health)
About the same time that Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, argued that adulthood was a largely stable state bereft of important changes, a lesser-known author, French folklorist Arnold van Gennep, in The Rites of Passage (1909), described ancient ceremonies that celebrated an individual’s transitions as passages of life. He saw such changes not as crises, but as opportunities for a person to accumulate new knowledge and, thus, new status in society. Western society lacks rituals that guide most people through life’s transitions.
The idea that people may experience dramatic psychological changes in midlife was first introduced to the theory of psychology during the 1930’s by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Jung compared midlife to noon in a diurnal cycle. About “noon” in the cycle of life, he theorized, significant change is most likely to take place in the human psyche. Jung did not see midlife as a time of crisis, however, but one in which people could rediscover qualities that had been underdeveloped or neglected during the first half of life.
Since the 1970’s, the concept has received copious popular attention that provoked academic research, indicating that most people experience a midlife crisis in a mild way. At that time, Gail Sheehy’s popular book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (1976) enhanced discussion of midlife crisis in much of the Western,...
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Causes and Consequences (Psychology and Mental Health)
Midlife crisis may be intensified by the death of a family member or lover, or career-related stress. Midlife crisis in men is more likely to be triggered by work-related issues, but menopause in a partner can contribute to a man’s yearning for a younger partner, contributing to marital infidelity. Such crises also tend to last longer in men (three to ten years), than in women (two to five years). Midlife concerns for women are more likely to involve changes related to menopause, children leaving home, or demands related to caring for live-in parents and children at the same time. However, the midlife profile of an increasing number of women in the workforce may more closely resemble that of men.
People, ideas, and possessions that once brought excitement and joy may be rejected as boring and out-of-date. A sense of excitement may be sought in unusual (and sometimes risky) adventures. A spouse may be rejected as an impediment to a new life; formerly enduring love may be questioned, as those who experience midlife changes (usually men, in this case) seek new, hopefully passionate, intimate relationships.
Men who define their self-worth according to job performance may be more prone to midlife crisis if they lose a job in middle age. Women, who are more likely to define self-worth through human (especially family) relationships, may feel inadequate when these change, even through ordinary stages of life, such...
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Cross-Cultural Attributes (Psychology and Mental Health)
Some critics contend that midlife crisis is more of a psychological urban legend than a reality. People experience identity concerns at other ages (most notably adolescence), and concern about aging is hardly unique to middle life. Major life changes, such as a divorce or loss of a job, can provoke acute psychological reaction at any age. For the majority of people who do not experience a pronounced midlife crisis, the years thirty to sixty can be a time of general happiness and achievement that may be recalled in old age as “the good old days.” Some critics argue that the very popularity of the term “midlife crisis” may prompt some people in that age group to elevate ordinary anxieties to a psychological condition.
Midlife passages may be more stressful in societies in which people (such as ethnic minorities in the United States) must negotiate more than one culture in their daily lives. Stereotypes in the media complicate such situations. Ethnic traditions often come into conflict with mainstream values, creating additional anxieties. Such anxieties often bring people to more avid practice of traditions involving rituals that help define cultural expectations.
In many cultures, the attainment of middle age is not usually accompanied by unusual psychological stress and turmoil. Therefore, midlife crisis has been recognized as a cultural construct specific to technologically advanced Western...
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Conclusion (Psychology and Mental Health)
Whether it is real or imagined (or a combination), change in midlife, if properly understood and managed, need not result in depression or fractured relationships. It can result in profound personal redefinition and growth, leading to a richer later life. The shedding of old identifies often leads to the forging of new ones. Today many psychologists have come to agree that life’s major struggles do not end in childhood and adolescence; redefinition extends to the end of life, and crisis, or transition, at midlife or even later can be part of such a change. The idea first posited by Freud that adulthood is a “mature” or stable state of life when large-scale change ceases is no longer common intellectual currency.
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Colarusso, Calvin A. Fulfillment in Adulthood: Paths to the Pinnacle of Life. New York: Plenum Press, 1994. A view of midlife transition as a developmental stage in the cycle of life.
Polden, Jane. Regeneration: Journey Through Mid-life Crisis. New York: Continuum, 2002. A popular treatment of midlife transition by an author who believes it to be a stage of growth, not a crisis.
Sharp, Daryl. The Survival Papers: Anatomy of a Midlife Crisis. Toronto, Ont.: Inner City Books, 1988. A case study of midlife transition, No. 35 in Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts.
Sheehy, Gail. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976. A popular book that turned midlife crisis into a household phrase during the 1970’s.
Shek, D. T. L. “Midlife Crisis in Chinese Men and Women.” Journal of Psychology 130 (1995): 109-119. Study of midlife transition in Chinese culture.
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Midlife Crisis (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
As a major evolutionary stage in middle adulthood, the midlife crisis corresponds to a change, a transition, or an existential turning point that is not necessarily pathological and takes place somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and fifty.
Based on a more or less deep questioning of oneself it may contribute to the possible emergence of psycho-pathological disturbances that in all probability stem from the personal history and constitution of each person (depressive reactions, suicide or attempted suicide, manic or hypomanic defenses, and psychotic outbursts). Somatic complaints may also often come to the fore.
From a psychopathological point of view, the mid-life crisis has its roots in a complex interweaving of different biological, psychological, and social factors. Some Anglo-Saxon authors (among them Eliott Jaques and Daniel J. Levinson) have studied the factors that may contribute to the fragility of the mind; in particular reduced physical performance, the approach of menopause in women, or a painful awareness of the time that has already passed.
From a psychodynamic point of view a role may be attributed to the reverse parental identification with the children, who are approximately going through adolescence when their parents are having their mid-life crisis. These reverse identifications run an implicit risk of causing depressive moods by virtue of the fact that they are based on an existential impasse.
In relation to the midlife crisis it is worth referring to Carl Gustav Jung's already quite old writings, particularly the article titled The Stages of Life. Having described the "archetypes" that constitute the collective unconscious (the true substrate of the psyche, an immutable structure, a sort of symbolic heritage that is proper to all humanity), Jung then went on to complete this view of the psyche with the notion of "psychological types." Here he described individual characters that are organized around the introversion/extroversion dialectic and are centered by a process of individuation that leads the human being toward a unification of the personality through a series of metamorphoses or stages, among which the midlife crisis occupies a relatively important position.
The concept of crisis has lost some of its importance in modern psychopathological writing both in relation to adolescence and to this midlife period that is sometimes called maturescence and then considered to be a sort of second adolescence or a third phase in the separation-individuation process. Nowadays we tend to lay more stress on the processes of psychic mutation or transformation with reference to the concept of "catastrophic change" (René Thom), but without the harmful aspect that is often associated with the term crisis.
See also: Catastrophe theory and psychoanalysis; Horney-Danielson, Karen; Psychobiography.
Jaques, Eliott. (1965). Death and the mid-life crisis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 46, 502-514.
Jung, Carl Gustav. (1930). The stages of life. In Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harvest Books.
Levinson, Daniel J. (1978). The seasons of a man's life New York: Ballantine Books.
Millet, L., Pon, J., and Millet-Bartoli, F. (1994). La crise du milieu de la vie. Paris: Masson.
Porot, Antoine. (1952). Manuel alphabétique de psychiatrie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Ellman, Jon P. (1996). Analyst and patient midlife. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 65, 353-371.
Segal, Hanna. (1984). Joseph Conrad and the mid-life crisis. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 11, 3-10.