Will used to love his wife dearly but now he can't stand for her to touch him. He wonders if he ever really loved her. Mark's job used to challenge him but now he wants to quit. He says he has no future there; it's boring. Karen quit her job to stay home with the children. But they are so busy with school activities and friends that they don't seem to notice her. She feels worth less and thinks about leaving home.
And Tim constantly daydreams about flying his Cessna on an around-the-world trip. He's even thinking about taking his secretary along. "After all," he reasons, "she is sympathetic and understanding, not like my wife who only nags me." Will, Mark, Karen and Tim are in their 40s and are surprised by these emotional changes. They have been Christians for many years and active in their churches. But now they refuse to attend services. Their Bibles are falling behind the other books on the shelf. God seems remote and uncaring.
These four people are experiencing a common phenomenon: midlife crisis. "Midlife is a time when people reach the peak of a mountain range in their life and ask, 'Now that I've climbed the mountain, have I achieved what I wanted to achieve? Do I feel fulfilled?' It is a time," explain counselors Jim and Sally Conway, "of re-evaluating values for the coming years. “This re-evaluation, which commonly takes place at ages ranging anywhere from the late 30s to the mid-50s, causes most people to experience crisis.
The Conway’s, who have pastored churches for over 30 years, direct Chris tian Living Resources, a midlife counseling and teaching ministry started in 1981. They receive almost 1,000 letters and numerous phone calls each month from men and women who are trying to resolve their midlife crisis or understand their mate's crisis. The letters and calls are pleas for help:
"My husband has been depressed for over a year."
"I want to escape from my job and family.
"My wife has run away and doesn't want to care for our family anymore."
"My husband is having an affair and says he doesn't love me."
The Conways understand. They both had similar thoughts as they struggled through their own midlife crises. Several books on the subject have emerged as a result of their experiences: Men in Mid life Crisis, You and Your Husband's Mid life Crisis and Women in Midlife Crisis.
When Mrs. Conway first began to re-evaluate her values, she did not under stand what was happening. "I felt frus trated and lonely. I became engulfed in self-pity and jealousy. All these emotions during the last half of my 30s made me feel hopeless. Jim and I thought the prob lem was unique to me, that I was im mature and unspiritual. It wasn't until later that we knew I had gone through a midlife crisis. "
As senior pastor of Twin City Bible Church in Urbana, Illinois, Conway, too, had his own traumatic period of re evaluation. "My crisis started with a growing unhappiness with my work in the church," Conway says. "It seemed as if I was repeating the work of the previous five years. All I could think was, 'What do I want to do with the rest of my life?' As my depression deepened, I felt drained of enthusiasm and purpose. I desperately wanted to escape."
The Conways did not find answers to their crises in a first aid kit but discovered them through re-evaluating their lives over a period of years. This has enabled them to empathize with those in crisis and help others make the midlife transition without letting it become a full blown crisis.
A transition comes about when someone moves from one era or stage of life to another, such as from childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood, to midlife adulthood and then to being elderly. However, if several stress factors converge on a person while he or she is in transition, a crisis will occur. Conway sees that many stress factors spawned his three year crisis: a close friend died prematurely; he turned 45; two of his daughters left home for college within two years; and he was pastoring a growing church. Suddenly he real ized how old he was becoming. Death seemed more imminent. He began to ex amine his values.
Values are "the worth a person assigns to each area of his or her thinking and life," the Conways say. Thus when situa tions or "change events" arise, the value a person gives each event will determine the degree of stress he or she will undergo. Many negative change events may create overwhelming stress and a re evaluation of values.
Anger, depression and self-pity are products of the midlife crisis. A midlife man wonders if life is worth living and concludes that warring against his soul are four enemies: his body, his work, his family and God. If he can just defeat these enemies, he will be happy again.
Unfortunately, his body is a constant reminder of his lost youth. Society con vinces him only the young are valuable. To deny his advancing age, he may buy a sports car, go on a diet and dress in faddish, youthful clothes. As Conway puts it, "If a man's self-worth is tied to his physical abilities, he is likely to experience loss of self-image during midlife. Instead, he needs to shift his energies to develop his mental capacities rather than rely on physical strength. During my crisis, I went back to seminary to work on my doctorate. This new challenge was helpful."
Work becomes his second opponent. If he were not trapped by his job, he would not feel depressed. His job once provided an exciting challenge, but now he has given up ever reaching his high goals. Fantasies of early retirement or just dropping out filll his mind.
"It is this very comparison of dreams versus accomplishment that cause him to experience depression. Only as a man accepts the facts of who he is and what he can realistically do, will he graciously move into the next era in life."
Because of his family's dependency, a midlife man's wife and children become his enemies. Without family obligations, he thinks, he could do what he wants. The younger woman at the office who listens to his problems suddenly appears more attractive than his wife who con stantly harps about leaky faucets and problems with the children.
"Perhaps the most common cause for the midlife affair is a desperate urgency to solve the trauma of lost youth and masculinity," says Conway. "A vacuum of unhappiness and someone readily available make an affair appealing to him. “At first the other woman offers excite ment to an otherwise dull life. But the af fair eventually creates greater stress. If his wife has been understanding and has left a path for him to return, he often will. Finally, this confused man cries out, "God, You're not fair. You made me this way with these drives for achievement and sex. You're my enemy. "
If the midlife man blames these enemies, instead of accepting his confusion as a time of reassessment, he may try to escape through alcohol, excessive sleep or TV-watching. He will probably get angry and irritable. And he may consider early retirement. "When a man enters midlife crisis," says Conway, "he begins to feel he has too many problems. Everything keeps him from accomplishing what he wants to do. He has spent all the vigor of his youth and what has it done for him? He feels worse than ever before in his life."
As the midlife man reels from the crisis, he passes through six emotional stages, sometimes taking three to five years to do so. According to the Conways, these stages are identified as denial, anger, replay, depression, withdrawal and finally acceptance. "The denial stage can be a helpful process. The more a man denies his aging, the more his brain interacts with the concept and prepares him ultimately to accept it." Anger, the second stage, is the midlife man's way of saying, "It's unfair." He is "angry at everything and everyone. All his problems are caused by others, and no amount of advice or consolation helps him. “The replay stage occurs when he fantasizes "one more time." He may strive for one more success in business, one more new relationship, one more adventure. "This stage becomes very difficult if he has many unfulfilled dreams," points out Conway. "If he feels he has not experienced what he wants, there will be an urgency to enjoy these things. I fantasized often about sailing my boat to some unknown destination where I wouldn't have any responsibilities." Realizing that doing something one more time is not going to fulfill him, the man in midlife bogs down in the quagmire of greater depression, the fourth stage. He is even more depressed than before. He cannot stop the aging process. He feels helpless and alone in his struggle. With depression comes withdrawal, the fifth stage. He becomes sullen, moody and non-communicative. "But this stage as well as the other stages has its positive and negative aspects," Conway says. "Depression and withdrawal can bring about a healing process by giving a man time to be alone, to allow his frayed emotions to rebuild and his body to gain strength. "