The Midlife Crisis: A review of the research

By Matthew Bennett; Copyright 2000

C.G. Jung (1923) explained the midlife crisis as the natural progression from the first half of life to the other; however, this transition was not determined so much by chronological age as by the timing of the conscious appraisal of progress made towards self-actualization. Erikson’s (1959) psychosocial development model described a succession of developmental challenges which were sequenced in an invariable progression of discrete stages; however, these stages were not defined by any particular age group. Levinson (1978), in his landmark case-study investigation, constructed a scheme of psychosocial development with specific anchors in chronological age.
Recent empirical evaluations of the chronological question (Shek, 1996; Hopcke, 1992). have cast doubt on Levinson’s assumption and supported the idea of those that hold that the midlife crisis is not age-bound. The variability in age-onset of the midlife crisis has been taken as evidence that the timing of the phenomenon is relative to racial, class, historical, and especially gender factors (Roberts and Newton, 1987).

It is probably futile to search for specific “etiology” of the midlife crisis. Available research has identified a myriad of contributing factors which may mediate the midlife transitional experience. Levinson’s (1978) theory held that the midlife crisis is simply a transitional event that happens at a given age; it is a normative developmental event that the adult human being simply grows into at the appropriate time. Dissenting opinions formulated against this hypothesis have ranged from Kruger’s 1994 study, which claimed that only a small number of people high in neuroticism experience the midlife crisis event and that the crisis construct has outlived its usefulness, to other studies which have attempted to define the crisis as an often identifiable (if not normative) event in the life spans of many adults.

Concerns about the life span ahead: the “female” midlife crisis?

Carl Jung (1922), offering one of the earliest attempted formulations of the midlife crisis phenomenon, stated that “the primary goal of the second half of life is to confront death.” Jacques (1965), who coined the term “midlife crisis,” placed himself in agreement with this formulation, claiming that the crisis is brought on by a realization that the lifespan is limited in duration and that one is moving from a time frame of “time since birth” to “time left to live.” This perspective on the midlife crisis emphasizes the middle-adulthood period as a sobering awareness dawning that one must prepare for inevitable decline and death. In this sense the “confronting death” perspective is future-oriented, and seems a natural result of traversing the chronological halfway point of life.

Yet there is ample evidence that although everyone with a normal lifespan crosses the halfway mark, set by Levinson (1978) at 40-45 years of age, not everyone seems to suffer a midlife crisis defined by a growing awareness of one’s own mortality and fear of death. A particularly high research concordance rate, unusual for the midlife crisis arena, indicates that anxiety about death is more common in female midlifers than males (Shek, 1996; Waskel, 1995; Thorson and Powell, 1988). Why would women become more anxious about impending death at midlife than males? The answer seems to lie in the disparate social and cultural contexts in which males and females live their lives.

There has been increasing diversity in the available life path choices for American women since the late 1960’s (see Helson and Stewart, 1977). During the extensive cultural changes that have taken place since that time, women attained more career latitude than ever before. However, to a great extent, these cultural changes have not influenced popular conventions concerning the aging experience for women; for many, later life is a time to be dreaded because of the loss of social status associated with being a young woman. Scarf (1980) has descibed the aging process for women as a “humiliating process of sexual disqualification.” Barbanel (1988) states that for women, the midlife crisis is symbolically (if not biologically) related to menopause and decline in sexual and physical vitality. She also notes that although men also face a decline in physical vitality, it is not associated with sexual disqualification. Loss of sexual status is by no means the only facet of the midlife crisis facing women. There has been considerable sociological and psychological research indicating that for many women, midlife is a time of interpersonal disconnectedness during which children leave home (if the woman in question has children) and the career has lost much of its excitement or potential for fulfillment (Morris, 1995; Barbanel, 1988; Roberts and Newton, 1987). There is also ample research evidence for the notion that marriage is often more an obstacle than an encouragement in the midlife development of women (see Shek, 1996; Roberts and Newton, 1987; Barbanel, 1988); typically the wife acts to facilitate the dreams of the husband (and children) rather than the other way around. In this way, the woman typically leads an affiliative life focused on the nurturance of the other people in her life at the expense of her own dreams (Gutmann, 1987); although it is also possible that women’s life dreams typically include visions of leading such a life of support for others as well as a career, resulting in the so-called “split dream” (Roberts and Newton, 1987; see below). Shek (1996) reports that in addition to death anxiety, “problems related to others” (i.e., husband and family) seem to be leading contributors to midlife crisis formation.

The evidence of many case studies and community surveys indicate that whether a woman directs most of her life to raising a family or towards cultivating a career, or even towards both, the midlife crisis characteristically prompts her to enter a new phase of self involvement that may typically include altruistic activities or the development of personal interests and hobbies (Barbanel, 1988). Such life choices reflect adaptive responses to the quandary posed by the event of midlife; many women feel adrift and directionless during this time. The painful ramifications of midlife losses for women is underscored by the fact that midlife is the time of most frequent suicides by (white) females across the entire life span; this high suicide rate seems most related to the pain and disorientation of interpersonal disconnectedness (Maris, 1995).

Barbanel (1988) and Gilligan (1982) make a point of comparing typically “female” midlife patterns to the original midlife crisis models of Erikson and Levinson, respectively.
Barbanel notes that the midlife experience of women does not seem to fit the appropriate Eriksonian stage of psychosocial development of “generativity vs. stagnation;” typically women have been involved in generativity all their lives. There can thus be no refuge in taking a new interest in the family or other affiliative concerns as seems to be the hallmark of the “male” midlife crisis (see below). Unlike the typical midlife crisis experience of their male counterparts, female midlifers do not seem to look longingly over their shoulders at connections not made and affiliative relationships not forged; they appear instead to look with some anxiety into the autumn years ahead and become interested in achieving the individuation they were never able to pursue before (see Droege’s study, cited in Roberts and Newton, 1987).

As noted by Gilligan (1982) in her criticism on Levinson’s work, midlife research tended in the beginning to heavily represent the male point of view, almost to the exclusion of the female point of view. Popular images of the male midlife crisis abound in the public imagination and are characterized by images of sports cars and young mistresses (Braverman and Paris, 1993). Indeed, the popular culture image seems to describe middle aged men who are desperately trying to hold onto the youth they feel slipping away; thus they make gestures calculated to make them feel young again.

Recent midlife crisis research seems to suggest that the popular image is only half accurate. Men do seem to turn their attention to the life paths left behind them in the midst of the midlife crisis; however, this re-assesment of the past seems less related to regaining youth as it seems related to making up for developmental achievements never made (see Braverman and Paris, 1993). This process of “making up” what was missed before seems to involve the expression of more passive, sentient, and affiliative concerns which are often de-emphasized in the first half of the male developmental pattern (Gutmann, 1987). According to Barbanel (1988), this taking-stock of one’s life seems to be designed to head off the danger of stagnation indicated by conventional Eriksonian stage theory: a renewal of the self for males at the midlife crisis is derived from a newfound devotion to others. Shek’s (1996) findings seem to confirm the self-corrective nature of the midlife crisis for men: men in his study were more likely to report “problems with self” as a major ingredient of the midlife crisis then were women.

The elements of the typically male midlife crisis experience seems rooted in early developmental issues and their social contexts. Gilligan (1982) states that where woman strive for attachment early in life, men strive for separation. Gutmann (1987) supports this theory, indicating that as males become adults they are socialized to become confident, independent, and goal-oriented. Given the presumption that men tend to de-emphasize affiliative and nurturing concerns in favor of work and career, it would seem reasonable to assume further that the more energy is devoted to career, the less is available for the nurturance of wife or children. The research of Howard and Bray (1988) confirms that this seems to be the case: among middle aged males, measures of nurturance correlated inversely with job responsibility. This work-family trade-off is a well known in the imagination of popular wisdom with images of workaholic husbands and fathers and neglected women and children. In general it seems that men’s choice of life path that emphasizes competence and success offers them “an environment with reliable rewards which can be used to compensate for interpersonal deprivation” (Braverman and Paris, 1993, p. 651). When the career begins to lose its full compensatory power, as seems typical for men in midlife crisis, the men are left with their feelings of emptiness which have been covered up by work all this time.

The relationship between devotion to career and devotion to family raises interesting questions about analogous experiences among women. As women achieve more responsible positions in more businesses with greater frequency, one may wonder whether they tend to fall into more typically male midlife patterns. A recent survey of Fortune 500 women executives (Morris, 1995) indicates that women who had previously become successful in business and subsequently identified themselves to be suffering a midlife crisis identified their experiences as analogous to those of men in similarly highly placed positions. Many of them even expressed newfound sympathy for the traditional male executives who lived in the “rat race” and didn’t have time for their families. Yet beyond these superficial similarities, evidence is emerging that the developmental patterns of women who follow more traditionally “male” life courses do not merely develop the psychosocial configurations of the male midlife crisis experience (see Adams’ study in Roberts and Newton, 1987). Many women begin to diverge from the typically male experience of development during what Levinson termed the Age Thirty Transition. Even among those who strongly emphasized career development in the early stages of adulthood, many women appear to emphasize interpersonal connectedness around or shortly after age thirty.

The mentor relationship was one of the original concepts included in Levinson’s (1978) stage-of-life theory. Although in its original sense the mentor relationship was meant to be a universal social phenomenon common to both sexes, it seems that there may be significant gender differences in the choice of mentor and subsequent mentor-protege relationship. Braverman and Paris (1993) find evidence that men tend to seek out “father figures” from within the work environment who act as facilitators and aides to the career development of these men. However, these researchers believe that men eventually “outgrow” these mentor figures as the need for their specifically career-oriented sponsorage decreases. Although it is natural and expected within the work world for mentor relationships to change, and perhaps recede, as the protege rises to positions of responsibility himself and the mentor is no longer needed, what of the men who include their wives and/or lovers among their mentors? Levinson identified the ideal woman, in terms of a man’s needs, as one who fulfills the role of mentor to the man. Braverman and Paris (1993) assert the thesis that midlife crises for men often involves marital problems: when the psychological system of smoke and mirrors which has served to distract men from themselves throughout the first half of life begins to break down, many men then turn to their wives with new demands of empathetic support. When this proves too much for the woman to bear, the man may turn to a mistress, falling into the “two woman problem” (Braverman and Paris, 1993), or may simply withdraw. In either case, the marriage suffers and further problems are generated to add to the midlife crisis constellation typical for men. It is worthwhile to note that here we have the other side of the “problems with other” that has been found to characterize the female midlife crisis experience (Shek, 1996; see above). If the husband and wife enter midlife crisis phases around the same time, they will often follow a predictably divergent interpersonal pattern which is deleterious to the marriage or love relationship. As Braverman and Paris (1993) point out, “disengagement in response to empathic failure is….a familiar phenomenon in the psychotherapeutic situation, but it is not readily manageable in a marriage.” It would seem that given the nature of the male-typical midlife crisis, the woman’s experience of living with a man undergoing his crisis is often a crisis in itself; women seem to typically shoulder the burden not only for their developmental concerns but their spouse’s as well. Such an observation may help explain various observations that have been made indicating that women suffer more midlife crisis problems than men in general, and that women are less satisfied with marriage than men (see Shek, 1996).

The male in midlife crisis then, appears to turn outside himself in order to counter feelings of stagnation. This change does not, of course, necessarily entail taking a lover or withdrawing from the wife and family. Braverman and Paris (1993) indicate that these maladaptive midlife crisis changes are seen most often in men with deprived personal backgrounds. Barbarnel (1988) indicates that many men follow a more adaptive response to their midlife crisis by becoming more involved with the next generation: at this stage of development, many men are seen getting more involved with little league or school issues of children or even grandchildren. In either case, the “male” midlife crisis pattern can be seen as a kind of new focus on life as it has been led, and an attempt to correct mistakes that have been made or areas of life that have been, until now, overlooked.

Personality variables: complicating the picture

There is little that is empirically certain in midlife developmental research. Most researchers opt for Levinson’s general approach in constructing a general, universal scheme of development that seems to typify the experience of many men and women within a certain age group. This approach may seem unsatisfying especially for clinicians, who are after all interested in the welfare of a given individual rather than of broad categories of people. As noted above, general developmental patterns may be used as a context for understanding the experience of a single patient; especially inasmuch as it is possible to differentiate the usual midlife experiences of men and women as similar but distinct patterns. However, there has been some research aimed at isolating personality variables which may mediate the midlife crisis experience; these variables may well complicate the general male-female patterns which can be discerned elsewhere in the literature. Research conducted by Stewart and Vandewater (cited in Helson, 1977) serves to remind that there is much more than gender at work in the decisions made in constructing life pathways: for example, these researchers show that personality variables may influence the extent to which women are concerned with generativity issues. Such focus on individual differences may help ensure against the kind of sweeping generalizations about gender differences which have been the matter of some debate in the midlife crisis research (see Gilligan 1982).

Unfortunately, the research available on personality variables in the midlife crisis construct has been extremely limited. Most of the progress made in this area has been made by Shirley Waskel (1995, 1992, 1991), a gerontologist for the University of Nebraska who works in a neo-Jungian theoretical framework. Her research generally employs the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (1984) to identify possible mediating roles of such personality variables as introversion/extroversion or thinking/feeling. This research indicates correlations between death anxiety and education level, gender, and midlife crisis intensity for certain personality types (Waskel, 1995). Other researchers have indicated that midlife crisis experience can be mediated by such factors as sexual orientation or disease (Hopcke, 1992) or by personality types characterized by self-reflection (Johnson, 1996).

Conclusions

There is convincing evidence that the existence and characteristics of the midlife crisis, if it occurs in a given life, depend partly upon social contexts and cultural expectations. This seems only natural, since the midlife crisis seems so much concerned with where an individual should be by a certain time in his or her life….and should is a sociological word. Yet there is also evidence that the human organism seems programmed from within itself to pause and take stock of the life path and the decisions made along it. How this episode of self-analysis takes place, and when and by whom, still remains the object of investigation in an area that is difficult to research through experimental, or even empirical, methods.

Inasmuch it is possible to be certain of aspects of developmental phenomenon at midlife or any other period, research indicates that the male and female experience of the midlife crisis is qualitatively different. Inasmuch as it is possible to characterize these differences, the female midlife crisis appears to amount to the more difficult and intense of the two, and seems to be defined to greater extent by the actions and needs of others. The female crisis also appears to be characterized by a future-focused re-appraisal of the life course during which a more satisfactory role for the self is sought; this re-appraisal often seems to involve anxiety about inevitable death.

The male crisis seems to amount to a more past-focused assesment of the lifespan during which lifelong investments of time and energy (typically centered around career) are reconsidered, and concern emerges around making up for areas in which development seems incomplete (typically in affiliative or nurturing aspects of life). Although certainly influenced by social and cultural forces, the male crisis typically does not involve assessment of limitations imposed by (and sacrifices made for) others, but rather a re-evaluation of choices that the self has made during the passages of development.