Middle Age: Transition or Crisis?
We are all familiar with the term “middle age crisis”. Although we all face a life transition in this period of lives, it does not always become a crisis. In middle age we encounter many changes. As our children grow older and move out of the house, we naturally channel our energy in other directions, such as our work, ourselves or our partners. At midlife people’s outlook tends to change: They see their parents aging or even dying, and so may become more aware of their own mortality. Where they once had boundless energy they may now encounter its limits. Instead of looking at the time that has passed since their birth, many start viewing their lives in terms of time remaining. This causes people to reevaluate what they have or haven’t achieved in their lives and to reassess what they want in the future. During this period, questions about our identity and self-image that concerned us as adolescents may arise again: “Who am I?”, “What do I want?” and “Where am I going?”
When this stage is weathered well there may be relatively few signs of “crisis”. Many people are at the peak of their careers. As parents they have the satisfaction watching/helping their teen children become adults. Having established themselves, they now have the satisfaction of providing for others who need help and of seeing their contribution to the community and society as valuable. Some may find this to be a good time to change direction, follow a dream not yet pursued, open a business, or search for new experiences. When navigated positively this period is experienced as a time of continued growth or as a new beginning, rather than as a threat.
For some, midlife transition can also result in anxiety and pain. For those who have difficulty in accommodating change or facing the new and unknown this transition may become an emotional crisis. Children moving out may cause a couple to face the “empty nest” syndrome. Those couples who have failed to create a fulfilling relationship or have been over-focused on their children may now face feelings of emptiness or distance with one another. Couple conflicts that have been avoided until now may surface. Some may feel they have not achieved goals or dreams they wanted and see little hope of ever doing so. For these individuals middle age transition may cause feelings of frustration, emptiness, stagnation, depression or conflict with others.
It is also important to remember the influence of the society and time we live in on our experience. In modern Western culture, youth and beauty are highly valued. The positive aspects of age are rarely recognized. A good example of this is the disadvantage a man or women in their 50’s with decades of work and life experience faces when competing for a position against someone younger and prettier. Unfortunately age and the wisdom and experience that come with it, are undervalued in our society rather than being an asset to be shared. This over focus on the negative aspects of aging causes many to experience it as a loss and a blow to their self-esteem.
This period also brings physical changes in both men and women that among other things affect our sex lives. The body slows and reacts differently than it once did. Men and women’s self-image and self-esteem may be affected by changes in their appearance or functioning. Health problems, medications and hormonal changes may all affect sexual desire and functioning, which in turn may lead to couple problems. As with any transition, a couple’s ability to accept and accommodate change, improvise, communicate, and seek help when necessary is what will determines how well they weather this period. In fact, many may find the quality of their sex improves with age rather than declines. They will enjoy the benefits that maturity and experience bring to sex.
Many turn to therapy for help during this stage of life. They may present with feelings of emptiness, depression, anxiety, couple problems, or sexual complaints such as lack of desire or problems with sexual functioning. Sometimes, people feeling stagnated or seeking change will focus on their frustration with their partner. Complaints of low sexual desire may signify a sense of emptiness in the relationship. A man’s problem in sexual function may be related to a general feeling of failure while his partner’s overreaction may be the result of her fears that she is no longer attractive to him. In therapy it is important to allow the patient’s or couple’s symptom or distress to help illuminate where they feel stuck or unfulfilled in their lives and to enable them to bridge the midlife transition.
Clinical Psychologist and Certified Sex Therapist
Mercaz Levine, Carmiel
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