His midlife crisis is coming, along with the red-hot sports car …
and his crisis is more statistically predictable than his erectile dysfunction.
(5 min read)
If you are a “thirty-something” woman this essay could be worth a decade of your time and trouble. And it could go a long way to easing your partner’s “bottoming out” in some of the more predictable consequences of a midlife crisis, including erectile dysfunction. Or his wandering function. Depending on the sources of his stress.
“I wished I’d known in my thirties what was going to happen, I would’ve understood, could’ve helped.”
One chart, one essay, one book – to avoid a decade of disruption
If ever knowledge was to make a woman a queen, then this one chart, one essay and one book could be the key to the king’s ransom. The ransom being found in the knowledge that his midlife crisis is not only predictable but common, manageable and does not have to be life-altering. In fact, life can be very good – better – on the other side. If you understand it.
The chart: The Happiness U-curve
It’s a simple curve but it’s anchored in decades of research, worldwide, with a consistent recurring pattern. We humans go through a “midlife crisis,” which is nearly always in the age range of 39-57, with an average nadir between 46-50 years. It’s sometimes called the “happiness curve” and although it doesn’t apply to everyone, it applies to most. It’s statistically valid and illuminating.
The essay, written by Jonathan Rauch in a 2014 issue of The Atlantic (25 min read), sets out a personal narrative about working through the “temporary slump in middle age.” It is revealing, educational, insightful, and if you haven’t reached this stage yet, it could be prescient.
“All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” – U-curve survey
Why is middle age a bummer?
There are multifarious reasons why many of us go through a midlife crisis and the outcomes vary, but one of the most threatening can be to a loving partnership. Too often the hot, red sports car is accompanied by a hot, sexy rider. As Esther Perel points out in her book, The State of Affairs (see book review and essay, Why Happy People Cheat), people cheat even though they are still “happy” and in love with their partner. Often, it happens in midlife, at the bottom of the curve. And it should be anticipated, and planned for – together – because it is as biological as it is illogical.
“It can lead to crisis, but it is not, in and of itself, a crisis.” – Jonathan Rausch
Jonathan Rausch creates a wonderful landscape that demonstrates how life can change for the better after the midlife speed-bump and that “the best is yet to come.” With real-life stories and lots of evidence, he explains how this natural human “slump” is far more common than not. For women too. Armed with this information and the stark reality of the U-curve, it is a mistake for anyone to head into midlife without the knowledge of this looming, rocky patch. If not, it’s like going on a sailing trip with a leaky boat, no maps, no compass and no life jackets. It does not have to be this way, it’s a crisis that can be handled if you are well-informed and prepared.
U-curve researchers also found parallel evidence in a “strong hill-shaped pattern in the use of antidepressants, peaking in people’s late 40s. Being middle-aged ‘nearly doubles’ a person’s likelihood of using antidepressants.” The book explains the why.
The good news
The best news is knowing about it before it happens. Because with knowledge and love, it’s a crisis that most couples can navigate to the other side. It’s about understanding that “there may be an underlying pattern in life satisfaction that is independent of your situation. In other words, if all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times.”
It’s biological. It’s natural. It’s to be expected. So the smart thing to do is be prepared – both of you. Read the essay and the book.
“People’s satisfaction with their life increases, on average, from their early 50s on through their 60s and 70s and even beyond.” –
It’s all downhill – and that’s a good thing
The big ‘Five-O’ actually has more positive than negative meaning. Stanford University psychologist Dr. Laura Carstensen and seven colleagues found that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade”—a finding that is “often met with disbelief in both the general population and the research community.” But the evidence is in, life after fifty gets better. Because we stop comparing ourselves to everyone else, stop competing against fabricated goals, stop judging ourselves, and we begin to adjust our values, adapting to the reality. A reality we begin to see more clearly after coming through the knot hole of midlife.
Here’s another telling graph, this one showing our stress levels, from Dr. Carstensen’s TED Talk. She shows similar ones for anger and worry, and the result is the same. All decline across aging, often reflected in erectile dysfunction and disinterest in sex – at home. What’s so damn obvious is the fact that it takes us so long to figure it out and get better. The biggest drop-off of stress – improvement – is around 50. Geez, it takes us half a lifetime to start to get it right. Unless, we know in advance this is the innate path and go to work learning how to change it.
On the other side of midlife
For those of you already through the midlife crisis and looking forward, you should watch Laura Carstensen’s 11 minute TED Talk, “Older People Are Happier.” As she says, “A sweeping downward course [getting worse in old age] is grossly inaccurate.” This can also give those approaching, or in, a midlife crisis some longer-term perspective so they can see the upside of the U-curve.
“The age U-shape in life satisfaction is driven by unmet aspirations that are painfully felt during midlife but beneficially abandoned and felt with less regret during old age.” – Hannes Schwandt
The expectation gap closes
We can come out the other side stronger if we don’t go into it blindly, unknowingly, ignorantly. Hannes Schwandt of Princeton University has compared the expectations of younger and older people (those on both sides of midlife) and his study uncovered the folly in expectations: “Younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction. So youth is a period of perpetual disappointment and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise.” And in the middle is the doldrums of midlife.
When a partner is struggling with life’s expectations, it is important to openly and honestly address them, plus ensure that the expectations surrounding love and sex are not ignored, misconstrued or misunderstood. The essay, Why Happy People Cheat sheds a light on the multi-faceted, complex emotional needs that drive a person, men and women, to cheat.
“Middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery.” And without a supportive environment and partner, a red sports car is a go-to alternative.
For those in their thirties, if you can learn about what’s coming and understand the fundamental problems of midlife, then you have a chance to approach the problems as opportunities in disguise. Talk through how the coming “storm” could effect both of your careers, parenting, social life, financial situation, and, of course, your sex life. Because in difficult times, if there’s going to be fissures they can effect all of these, and most likely, money or sex.
It’s about getting through it, not being ignorant of it, avoiding it, burying it.
We do not have to be researchers to see the value in understanding the Happiness U-curve and the downward stress curve and how knowledge can help women and men, who, despite being in loving relationships, need a mutual understanding of the midlife crisis.
This essay and the book can give couples an opportunity to write a positive story about this critical stage in their lives and navigate the natural human weaknesses and pitfalls that endanger a relationship. None more susceptible than the sanctity of love and sex.
The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic (25 min read) >>
Buy The Happiness Curve book at Love & Sexcess Bookstore, page 2 (25% off) >>
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