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Sexuality And Midlife Crisis

Wall Street Journal contributor Sue Shellenbarger has written “The midlife crisis is a cliche — until you have one.” She should know. After the death of her father and the end of her 20-year marriage, Sue started to question everything in her life. In her 50’s she took up skiing, rock-climbing, running, and in her words “generally regressed in every area of [her] life.”

Because the signs of a midlife crisis seem so cliche, it is difficult to compile a list of symptoms to watch for in the behaviors of a loved one. The key is not to focus on any one behavior but the overall pattern. Sue exhibited classic signs of midlife crisis, questioning everything in her life, making changes for the sake of change, and exhibiting overly impulsive behavior; however it was the extremes that she went in each area that were the key to labeling her as having a “midlife crisis.”

“[In a midlife crisis] people make radical changes without thinking them through, bailing out of a relationship or career,” says Dan Johnston, the author of Lessons for Living. “Then they go and duplicate that relationship, job or career elsewhere, re-creating the problems.”

Another complicating issue is that the concept of midlife crisis being a single condition is misleading. The popular notion of midlife crisis mistakenly clumps together three or four different but related issues, ranging from depression to a reassessment of one’s life. “Midlife crisis” is best thought up as an umbrella term for what are really several different problems. To best help an individual experiencing a “midlife crisis” (or something that looks and feels like a midlife crisis) one should understand what are the underlying issues.

Putting this complexity aside for the moment, here is a short check list summarizing the major attributes commonly associated with midlife crisis. The list was compiled from a variety of sources including psychiatrists, psychologists, authors, life coaches, as well as men and women who have gone through the experience themselves. Some of the items are more applicable to men but, as we saw in the case of Sue Shellenbarger, women can experience them too.

So use the items below as a guideline for looking at behavioral changes in midlife that might be indicative of an underlying problem — then ask what might be the real root cause:

1. Change for the sake of change. They feel unusually restless and express a feeling that they are running out of time. As Johnson noted above, sometimes they will just duplicate the same problem elsewhere. They can feel suddenly dissatisfied with their previous goals feeling like nothing they have been working toward really matters. For example, they no longer care about the promotion they’ve been working so hard to get.

2. Impulsive behavior and impetuous decisions, especially about money and/or their career. This is related to point 2 above. Faced with the sudden interest to live their life to the fullest, a man may decide that a new Porsche makes perfect sense (despite it being well outside of the family’s finances and a decision he would have not likely made before the change in his behavior). He may decide that he absolutely must leave the job he was quite satisfied with just a few months before. Everyone changes in life but during a midlife crisis these changes can be extreme and seemingly come out of nowhere.

3. Questioning everything in one’s life and saying that they “feel trapped.” The later is easy to pick up with the terminology they’ll use in everyday life, including “obligations,” “no end in sight,” “burdened.” They feel that their job, family and everything else in their life is a never-ending series of demands on them.

4. Changes in the sexual relationship. Understand that this change can be the result of a lack of interest (whether from the stress, anxiety or depression associated with the crisis) or it could be hormonal (lower testosterone levels in the men). It is also possible that they are having an affair since that is another (albeit cliched) aspect of some midlife crises. There are a whole slew of things to watch for if you suspect your mate of having an affair including noticing a “wandering eye,” unusual phone calls at home (hang-ups) or on their cell, and most importantly them just being around the house less. (Note: adding to the confusion, experts will note that an increase in sexual desire is also a potential sign of infidelity so the key is to note sudden and significant changes.)

5. Sudden obsession with appearance and spending inordinate amounts of time in the mirror. When a man who prides himself on his old t-shirt collection starts dressing for success and leaves the barber he has been going to for the past decade for a high-end salon, then it’s time to take note of the underlying cause of his new found vanity. It could be nothing more than a desire to upgrade his appearance or it could be some much, much more, As with point 5 above, an appearance obsession can also be the sign of an affair.

6. Excessive reminiscing about their youth and previous loves. The Internet (especially Classmates.com) has been a boon for people to be able to reconnect with high school friends. However, more than a fleeting moment spent thinking about a high school flame and overly fantasizing about how great everything was then versus now or “what if” scenarios of major decisions they’ve made are all midlife crisis symptoms.

7. Increase in alcohol consumption. It’s no secret that many adults will turn to the bottle when problems seem insurmountable. It can be hard to know what is going on in someone else’s head but it is not so hard to see how many stiff drinks they down every night.

8. Sleeping more, loss of appetite, and general malaise. These are all signs of the type of depression that can accompany a midlife crisis.

9. Obsession with mortality. This can be triggered by the death of a loved-one or a close friend. Whatever it is, when the focus turns from the deceased to themselves and then lingers that is the sign of a problem.

10. Self-admission. They simply say, “I think I’m having a midlife crisis.” This is far more common that many people think. Given the immense amount of media coverage on the subject, when someone starts to encounter the gut-wrenching feelings of a midlife crisis they will often be quite open in their pleas for help from people they think can help them. Midlife crises are not funny or fun for anyone involved.

Recognizing these changes is easier than figuring out why they’re happening. It may have nothing to do with middle age. Men and women can be unfaithful in their marriages without being in a midlife crisis. A husband can decide that it’s time that he bought the car he’s always wanted without it being an affect of impulsive behavior. Most importantly, people can become depressed during their midlife years for a variety of reasons not having anything to do with a midlife crisis. However, the midlife years can be a time of tremendous stress and change in career, family, and health. A trigger such as a divorce, death in the family, or a job loss can have a dramatic impact.

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