Midlife Crisis: Growing to Maturity

October 27th, 2011
This article is featured in the Rites of Passage (Nov/Dec/Jan 2011-12) issue of Circuit Rider

When the term midlife crisis comes up, it is often the punch line to a joke or a tired cliché, often with the speaker rolling his or her eyes: “Oh, he’s just going through a midlife crisis.” For those actually having a midlife crisis, it is anything but funny, and the idea that only men can have one is quite outdated. But, what is a midlife crisis anyway? For that matter, what is a crisis?

Wiktionary says that crisis comes from the ancient Greek, krisis, meaning a crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point; an unstable situation, especially one involving an impending abrupt change. The midlife crisis is a uniquely Western experience and concept. Many cultures value wisdom and experience, but the West, and particularly the United States, values youth. So while people in non-Western cultures experience a sense of arrival and fulfillment in middle years, those in the West often experience crisis.

Pastors and psychologists have long known that people often question their lives, to the point of crisis, at various points along the way. Many of these crisis points coincide with major physical, social, life changes, and decision points. A young person going through puberty is in crisis: hormone changes, body changes, and mood changes. Another crisis point is known as the quarter-life crisis, as young adults from their late teens into mid twenties, struggle with what to do with their new freedom: college decisions (if, where, and what to study), entering the work force (can I get a job, and doing what), experimenting with alcohol, drugs, or sex; and looking for a life mate. There are many other rites of passage that become crisis points without a catchy name like “midlife crisis”: having children, job changes, moving, divorces, death of a family member or friend, etc.

The Midlife Crisis

The midlife crisis may happen around age forty-five, give or take fifteen years, and can be triggered by just one thing, but is more often a combination of psychological, biological, sociological, and/or spiritual causes that converge to form the crisis.

Often, disturbing physical changes set it in motion: things start to droop and sag, stamina decreases, conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes show up, lumps are found, reading glasses are needed, and we are told to get mammograms, prostate exams, and colonoscopies.

Hormone changes are also happening—for women and men. Menopause has long been recognized as a significant life transition, and for many women the changes resulting from declining levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (yes, women do produce some!) are significant. Men have a parallel experience with andropause, except the effects on men have only recently been recognized and acknowledged outside of the medical community. Changes in testosterone and estrogen (yes, men do produce some!) in men can cause mood swings, decrease in sex drive, occasional or frequent erectile dysfunction, and fat deposits that look like breast development. A person experiencing these changes can become acutely aware of his or her own mortality.

While these biological changes are taking place, we often start to question decisions we have made in the past: Did I choose the right mate? Did I take the right career path? How did I end up with this mountain of debt?

Which brings us to the spiritual issues: all these issues come together and we ask, “Is this all there is? Is this my life until I die?” The answer to both questions may be YES—if there is no change. The mind starts to play a downward-spiraling loop: I bought into delayed gratification, but where is the gratification? I am supposed to have arrived in life by now, and I realize I am not going to be CEO/owner of my own business/have the perfect marriage/have kids that live up to my dreams and expectations. I am now aware of my limits and many of my dreams are just not going to happen. I am also now aware of my mortality, and question if my life really counts for anything. What I once thought of as important I now see is just fleeting “stuff.” And the big ones: does God really exist? What does God want for me? How do things, marriage, children, family, job, and God all relate—especially for me?

This turmoil can manifest in many ways: depression and despair because people fear they are a hopeless or helpless case; juvenile actions because they feel that if they act/dress/look like a teenager, they can deny that they are aging and are therefore mortal. Desperation can lead to rash and harmful decisions, and behaviors that look downright silly to others. The person in crisis thinks, “I have exercised delayed gratification to get fill in the blank: and I still don’t have it,” followed by “I don’t think I’m ever going get it” (feelings of despair and depression) or “I am going to get it even if it wrecks my life” (risk taking/rash decisions/self-centered behavior). This is when an observer sees the motorcycle or the new girlfriend and asks, “What is he thinking?” and the reply is, with rolling eyes, “Oh, he’s just going through a midlife crisis.”

The Pastoral Response

Given all of this, what is a pastor to do? Prevention is a great place to start. The questions one often asks during a crisis are questions that would have been worth asking and addressing much earlier: What do I want? How do my choices impact others? What do I believe? If I believe that, then how does that affect what I do? What is God calling me to be or do?

Prevention can take many different forms. An adult Sunday school that challenges beliefs and behaviors, and encourages people to find their answers, is a good start. Small groups have been a boon to many churches, in which fellowship and authentic sharing are encouraged. A broad focus on health, nutrition, life changes, support groups, church counselors, and sermons that address life issues from the pulpit are all helpful components. One point to emphasize is that these questions and feelings are normal and call us all to reexamine our lives, at least periodically. The aging process, life changes, and questions about our relation to ourselves, others, and God cannot be avoided: they are life itself. If these things are examined and addressed on a regular basis, we can experience an evolution of ourselves, rather than a revolution, or crisis.

When a person comes to you, or a spouse on his or her behalf, and you see signs of a midlife crisis, here are some guidelines on how to proceed:

Slow down (unless there are warning signs of suicide, in which case, get them professional counseling immediately, or call 911). This is a normal part of life, and in the long run a good thing. Ministers often ask congregants to rethink their lives—well, now you have it! Have the person make an inventory of what is good about his or her life/situation, and what the issues are. Use paper and pencil or a whiteboard to write it all down and examine the list. What would he or she like to address? What needs to be addressed NOW, and what can be worked on over time? Next, what are ALL the ways forward? What things can be done in the short term to bring relief and some forward motion to a new stage of life?

Has the person had a physical exam in the last year? There are often medical reasons compounding the current distress, and addressing the physical with the mental and spiritual issues (since they are all intermingled) is a good start.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Going away for a weekend with a mate or trusted friend may be a great first step. Some solutions may be disastrous for one and fine for another: buying a new Corvette convertible may be fine if the money is available, but if the action starts a debt spiral and the loss of a house, that is obviously a different situation.

When people in crisis say they want out of their marriage, that is often a subtext to wanting a better marriage but not knowing how to get it. This may be the time that they are finally ready to address issues in a marriage that have been present for years, or even decades, and counseling with you, or a referral to another professional (have some names ready to give), may be the way to go. Going on a vacation without the kids, establishing a sacred date night, and generally doing fun things together can be a big boost. A twist on an old adage sums it up: “If the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, get busy and water your lawn.”

For many, old habits may be catching up with them. Intake of alcohol or “stress relieving” activities, like cybersex (e.g. pornography, dating chat rooms, sexting, etc.), may spin out of control. The computer, smart phones, and the web have opened up “affairs” to a level never dreamed of before. The web is said to be the triple-A-train of sex addiction: the web is Affordable (free), Available (everywhere), and Anonymous. And, according to Family Safe Media, women are far from immune to cybersex: 1 in 3 visitors to adult websites are women; 9.4 million women access adult websites every month; 13 percent of women admit to accessing pornography websites at work. Many times in my counseling practice a couple comes in because of an affair, and through the counseling process I find there has been a long series of affairs over the marriage and the problem is really sex addiction. Sometimes what may look like a midlife crisis may be addiction or compulsive behavior of some type. When this is the case, have some referrals handy to give for the specific type of addiction counseling that is needed.

As with so many other issues in life, the answer of how to address a midlife crisis is to take a team perspective. The pastor is not the only solution, but you can be a crucial component of the solution. Physicians, group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and counselors are also parts of the solution. Of course, the most important person on the team is the person having the midlife crisis. Help people facing such a crisis to normalize the strong feelings they are having, because this struggle is normal, and one that should be ongoing through life, hopefully bringing individuals to a fuller Christian maturity.

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