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The older we get, the more those milestone, round number birthdays make us feel some type of way. It seems like one minute, you’re celebrating your birthday at the corner bar with your best buddies and the next, you’re having a quiet dinner with your family to commemorate the occasion. As in, the family you made with the woman you married. And even if you’ve celebrated birthdays this way for the better part of a decade, blowing out those candles with the big 4-0 attached can cause a type of panic that can impact your health, emotional state and even your long term relationship.
I’m talking about the midlife crisis, of course. You’ve likely seen tropes of this phenomenon play out in movies and TV sitcoms — the older guy who buys a sports car, starts partying too hard and flirts with women half his age. But how true is this depiction, really? Are midlife crisis really a thing? And if so, why do they seem to impact men over 40 specifically? Here’s everything you need to know about why men act strangely after 40.
1. What Is A Midlife Crisis?
Death is inevitable, and none of us are making it out of here alive. But reaching a milestone birthday that marks the halfway point of your life is unquestionably uncomfortable. “The midlife crisis period typically consists of an individual somewhere around 40 years of age questioning decisions that they have made and the current state of important areas in their lives such as career, relationships/marriage, and family/children,” explains Alithia Asturrizaga, LCSW.
During this time of introspection, men are faced the harsh reality that there are some goals and experiences that may never be within reach during the remainder of their lifetime. “Most men who reach middle age, or midlife, take stock of ‘chapter one’ of their lives and look ahead at their futures,” psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish explains. “They do a kind of mental weighing and measuring of what they have achieved so far, what is still possible to accomplish in their futures, and what they will never have in their lives. It is a time of letdown, disappointment and regret sorrow for the things they dreamed of having during childhood that they now must face will likely not happen.”
What Real Men Say: “I was a mess when I turned 40,” says Tony, 52. “I own my own business, and it consumed so much of the first two decades of my life — and at 40, there was still no end in sight as to when I’d be able to step away from it for more than a few days. Coming to terms with the fact that you haven’t been successful at what you set out to do some twenty years earlier can really get you down. There were mornings I had trouble getting out of bed.”
2. What Causes A Midlife Crisis?
As far as what causes a midlife crisis, Asturrizaga says regret can play a major role. “It seems that when people reach this age they often feel fully entrenched in the responsibilities of adulthood and a sense of their youth being behind them, combined with concerns about old age approaching more rapidly and an urgency to make the most of what remains of their lives,” she explains. “In this intermediary position it makes sense that people often have concerns about whether or not the decisions that they have made have created the life that they had always hoped to live.”
Asturrizaga also says that the midlife crisis doesn’t discriminate. “I have seen men from all different types of situations in terms of career level/success, relationship/family status, etc. experience midlife crisis-type issues, so it can happen to anyone,” she explains. “However, a person’s overall mental and physical health does affect the severity of midlife and other transitional issues. The more stable and healthy an individual is overall, the better equipped they will be to handle a midlife crisis in a healthy way and derive positive meaning from the experience.”
Dr. Ralph Esposito says a decrease in testosterone could also contribute to the problem. “As men age, their testosterone levels tend to decrease,” he explains. “As they age, their eating habits, exercise habits and lifestyle catch up with them, and they start making less testosterone. Testosterone has a lot to do with mental health. In studies and in practice, we see that low testosterone is associated with fatigue, brain fog, low mood, low muscle mass and decreased libido.”
What Real Men Say: “The big surprise and relief at turning 40 was self-acceptance,” says Kenny, 53. “Life was no longer an obsession about looking better, having more, chasing and seeking the approval of others. My new beginning came with a switch of perspective from a fearful and needy ‘am I?’ to growing into my authentic ‘I am.”
3. What Does A Midlife Crisis Consist Of?
Aside from the general malaise, there are a few symptoms commonly associated with a midlife crisis. “Feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, fear, and hopelessness commonly occur during this period,” says Asturrizaga. “If an individual does not openly deal with and work through these emotions they may draw inward to cope with their feelings, which can result in anger, isolation and conflict with those closest to them.”
Substance abuse can also occur during a midlife crisis. “Alcohol use is one, trying to drown the ennui or depression out,” says certified counselor Bruce Bibee. “Also, the ‘trying to get it right through a do-over,'” whether that’s with a new car or new partner. “This can also manifest as introducing into a conversation the one thing they are proud of so far in life,” he says. “For example, ‘I was the high school quarterback.’ ‘I’m a Vietnam vet’. ‘My kids are all college graduates.’ Generally, it’s growing state of disenchantment with your job, family, life in general and eventually disorientation about one’s meaning and purpose.”
4. How Can A Midlife Crisis Impact Your Relationship?
As you might have guessed, a midlife crisis is bad news for your relationships — particularly long-term romantic ones. “If an individual does not openly deal with and work through the emotions underlying a midlife crisis they may draw inward to cope with their feelings, which can result in anger, isolation and conflict with those closest to them,” says Asturrizaga. “This is when long-term relationships may be negatively impacted. For example, if a man isolates himself and holds back from talking with his significant other about the symptoms and issues that he is going through, his partner may experience feelings of jealousy, uncertainty in the relationship, and feeling left out. There may be increased conflict in the relationship due to the partner feeling alienated and ‘cast aside,’ and the man feeling misunderstood and unfairly criticized.”
Also, this period of self-reckoning might cause you to see the flaws in your relationship. “Some men may reach the conclusion they’re unhappy in their relationship or marriage and have been for a very long while,” says author Kevin Darné. “Essentially feeling as though they missed out on life, ‘settled,’ or simply chose to “go along to get along” without doing what they truly wanted. A man may ask himself, ‘Do I really want to spend the rest of my life living like this?’ If the answer is no he may decide to terminate the relationship.”
What Real Men Say: “I left my wife when I turned 41, and we ended getting back together a few years later,” says Kevin, 49. “Both of us had stopped taking care of ourselves, and I think turning 40 made us both realize that we needed to make big changes. The easiest, most obvious change felt like it would be to divorce. In retrospect, we both weren’t holding ourselves accountable for why things had stopped working between us.
If you — or someone you love — is going through a midlife crisis, consider using the power of the written word and psychology to help. Sometimes we all need a pick-me-up to energize our mood, inspire our next move and make the difference we crave to truly appreciate the next stage of our life. Here, a few books to consider that could transform how you feel, what you think and well, perhaps, who you are:
Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife
Described as ‘provocative’ and ‘hopeful’, this book turns midlife on its head. The author believes that instead of approaching our halfway point as an inevitable end, we should view it as an opportunity to reinvent the wheel, discover a newfound purpose, zero-in to our relationships and truly focus on what brings us joy. In addition to psychology, the book also dives deep into the ideas of biology, genetics and sociology, as well as first-person experiences.
Midlife: A Philosophical Guide
If you find yourself craving those old college days, this book choice may wet your whistle and feed your need. How come? It’ll remind you of an elevated philosophy class from freshman year, as the author challenges readers to reconsider, reframe and re-define midlife. Not only will you hear from the writer himself, but also legendary, inspiring philosophers and authors, including Aristotle, Schopenhauer, John Stuart Mill, Virginia Woolf, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Midlife Career Rescue Series
Though some men battle thinning hair, a thicker waistline or the sad dissatisfaction from a loveless marriage in their 40s, others find their careers to be the most disappointing. Difficult but true, many people lose track of who they really wanted to be on the way to success, paying bills and saving for a retirement they may never see. If this sounds like you, this series could be exactly what you need to read. Whether you need to demand more respect, quit and start over or take a leap of faith and brand out on your own, these books will encourage you to do it all.