An interview with Jim and Sally Conway with Dr. John M. Dettoni, Family Life Today Magazine
Jim Conway describes the utter desperation to which he was driven when he faced his own midlife crisis. Thanks, however, to the support of his wife, sally, and their three daughters, Jim not only charted his way successfully through those deep waters, but that difficult life passage led to a family ministry that has touched thousands of lives.
Out of their experiences Jim and Sally Conway have written books and articles on midlife, conducted seminars and conferences, and established Christian Living Resources, Inc (now Midlife Dimensions), a counseling service for those at midlife.
The Conways family's closeness--without dependence--is testimony of parents who have lovingly (not perfectly) helped their children grow from totally dependent infants to maturing adults. Interestingly, the early years of giving in-depth attention to their children continued on through the typically turbulent adolescent years and laid the groundwork for relationships with their three daughters as young adults. As Jim aptly stated, 'You can work with a lot of people, but they usually drift through your life and keep on going. They look back now and then and say It was really nice to know you. But what you really end up with is your family."
"The midlife crisis is a stormy, turbulent passage. The cause of turbulence is basically the questioning of values..."
So when, like the Grim Reaper, the mid-life crisis overtook Jim, he had the loving support and understanding of his family to sustain him. Through years of unselfish caring he had exemplified what it was to stand alongside people in need, offering the strong support that is founded in God's unconditional love, demon strated in Christ's death for us, and ministered by the Holy Spirit.FLT:
Do you think that all Ameri can males go through the mid-life crisis?Jim:
No, all people--men and women--go through a distinct transition as they move from young adulthood to mid-life. But they don't all have a crisis. Only about 60 to 80 percent of them do (counting both men and women).FLT:
How do crisis and transition differ?
A transition is a smooth passage from one stage to another. It would be like going through an inlet from the ocean to the inland waterway when the tide is at even state--it is not being unduly pulled one way or the other. To go back and forth in a boat is no great stress. But when the tide is going in or out you have to be able to deal with the strong, unexpected currents and a good many people get in trouble. The mid-life crisis is a stormy, turbulent passage. The cause of turbulence is basically the questioning of values: Who am I? What have I spent my life doing? Why am I doing this work? How am I going to spend the rest of my life? Do I want to stay in this marriage? How do I want to spend my money, my time and energy, my personhood? It's basically wrestling with these kinds of value questions that generally are ignored until men are in their 40s. Women ignore these ques
tions until they get to the later 30s.
What is happening to the family situation during all this turbulence?Jim:
When the man is going through it, anything that adds stress to the turbulence that is already there is "just what I don't need." So when teenagers put demands on their father, the washer breaks down, or the wife smashes a fender, there is a circuit overload. Sometimes I use the juggling illustration. A person has five balls up in the air (actually a lot more) by the time he gets to mid-life. Then someone gives him another five balls. It isn't just that he drops the extra five; the whole group comes down, everything collapses. It's that sense of collapse that characterizes a crisis. A man is not functioning as he used to function as a father, a worker, as a Christian leader in the community, within himself, with his mate. There is a sense of breakdown going on.FLT:
Is this breakdown a matter of overwork or is it a question of "Why am I doing what I'm doing, anyway?"Jim:
It's both. It is important to see that there are a number of things that contribute to a mid-life crisis. It isn't just that a person has turned 45. Of course, age can be significant. If age 45 triggers an internal clock in you that says that you're now counting toward death instead of counting from birth, then age becomes a stress factor. If you are also being threatened at work with more frequent evaluations and you are feeling as though you were an unwanted commodity, that creates pressures. You may also feel that your marriage is stale and you wonder why you are in a marriage that is nothing but a drag to you. There is nothing that is meaningful; everything is routine. Your kids may also be having difficulties, and you feel that you are failing at everything.FLT:
So there is not just one cause of the mid-life crisis?
We have to be careful to guard against the oversimplification that says age is the one thing that produces a mid-life crisis. Instead, a group of factors come together. They are too much to process all at once, and there is a breakdown.
How does the spiritual dimension enter in?Jim:
I think that the spiritual dimension may contribute to the crisis, but often late in the process. A person may feel like saying, "God, if you are alive and well, why don't you do something to help me out of this? How did I get here if you really care for me and if you love me?" Then comes a whole line of questioning: Does prayer work? Is God alive? Is the church relevant? Where is all this body life that we talk about? Nobody seems to reach out and care for me.FLT:
Are you saying then that the crisis comes, and when a person begins to realize he is overloaded, then he asks God, "Why is this happening?"Jim:
Yes, because previously he hadn't doubted that the church was right on target, that small groups were effective, that prayer really worked. But when a man begins to try to deal with turmoil in his life, he takes a new look at spiritual values he has not seriously examined since he became a Christian--if then.FLT:
So when a person is facing a major crisis in life and his faith has not grown along with his situation, there is in a sense no faith to answer the problems of life?
Yes. I think that we can clearly see that in children. A child of three makes a decision that he wants Jesus as his Saviour and although as a person he is growing on a gradual incline both intellectually and morally, his faith grows along on a flat line until he gets challenged to a new commitment. At age 8 the kid says, "I don't think I'm saved." The reason is that the gap between faith and experience has grown very large so he makes a new commitment to become saved again. He goes along at that stage until 12 and he gets "saved" again and he gets up in his late teens and he gets 'saved" again. What really is happening is that there is just a catch-up of faith each time. I think that some people are begin ning to understand that. What we don't see is that the process continues all through adult life as experience demands a rethinking of our faith--not our commitment to God, but how that commitment relates to life where we are.
"We as Christians need to allow people to question, but to say to them, "You will come through it all right."
Another point is that some men who are not Christians become Christians during mid-life. They are more open to God because of all this struggle. They are rethinking their values and suddenly they take time to include God in them.Jim:
It's very fascinating. People are open to growing at any change point in their lives. Some Christians seem to think that there is no use in trying to win anyone over 18 to the Lord, but I believe we need to realize that every change point in an adult's life is an opportunity to make an impact for Christ.FLT:
Why do Christians have such a struggle during this time of their lives?Sally:
I think that the reason Christians may have a struggle in mid-life is the very fact that they are doubting some things. Just going through the mid-life crisis makes them feel guilty, and then if they are living it out in a way that goes against the grain of their family and church there is more condemnation heaped on them. Many women talk about their husbands developing new habits: listening to wild music, smoking, drinking or swearing. In all of this upheaval and maybe even trying out some questionable things, the men feel very guilty. Certainly these things aren't wholesome, but even worse is the feeling of being condemned. We as Christians need to allow people to question, but to say to them, "You will come through it all right."Jim:
You know, the church always comes across with the image that the problems are all solved; everyone has the answers. Our sharing times are always positive. Nobody gets up and says, "I'm really wrestling with whether God exists." It always has to be, 'I've had a struggle, but I've made it through. Praise the Lord!"FLT:
It's after the struggle that we share.Jim:
Always after, because we've not learned to let people struggle and support them as they struggle. So here is a guy who is entering into this value redefinition time in his life and he looks around and says, "If anybody else is struggling he is not doing it out loud so I must be a freak or some kind of oddball." The church is impotent to minister to people like that. Quite often, men who come out of this period in their lives look at the church and say, "I gave my time and energy to it and it did nothing for me when times were really rugged. Who needs it?" Now obviously that is not the direction we want to go. As we get these guys who are moving along in moral development, we need them in the church, not walking away from the church.
Is the mid-life crisis a sinful condition?
No more than adolescence is.Jim:
The condition of crisis itself is not a sin either. When you see a teenager who is feeling depressed and moody one day and hilarious the next, do you say, 'He (or she) is sinning'? Those fluctuations have something to do with the maturational changes which cause adolescents to try to put the pieces together in a new way. They are thinking through this new dimension of what it means to be a sexual being coming into an adult world. That isn't a sin.
When does a struggle become sin?Jim:
Some of the expressions of that struggle can be sin. What we really try to do in our counseling is to help a struggling person, whether male or female. One of the common things a person in crisis feels is the desire to escape, to just run away. We try to figure out some legitimate way to meet some of those needs that will be acceptable to the person and the community, without producing guilt. For example, one woman wanted to run; she could hardly stand it. I encouraged her to do some shopping trips, some concerts, visiting college girl friends in different cities, just some short jaunts. She wanted to have friendship relationships with other men so she developed those that were safe, in a small group with some friends. What I'm saying is, we don't get people into binds with their families where they have made statements that cut off future options.FLT:
Are there some other possible causes of mid-life crisis?Jim:
There are some things that I think are chemically related which have not been adequately explored yet in all the research on mid-life crisis. I think that we are going to find some things that can help to reduce it-like not ingesting caffeine, simple little things like proper eating. Most people in mid-life are eating on the run; their bodies have taken it hard, and imbalances have developed. I think we are going to find that some chemical effects exacerbate the problem. I don't think that mid-life crisis is just a chemical problem. There are value questions that are being dealt with but the chemical imbalances may make it more difficult.FLT:
What do women experience during their Midlife Crisis?Sally:
A lot of it is very similar to the man -- In fact, many women report to us that they read Jim's book and it fit them to a "T". They just changed the gender to female. I think that maybe one way mid life is very different for women is that many women at that age, instead of being burned out from having worked on their dreams, haven't had a chance to pursue them yet. Most women were very happy to become wives, homemakers, and mothers and enjoyed it. Maybe a woman who is a wife and mother really had some-thing else she wanted to do. On the other hand we talk to many career women who chose not to marry or not to have children if they did marry, but when they reach 40 they go through a difficult time of inner questioning. It seems that many women have not had an identity of their own and are trying to deal with that. Their dreams for themselves have not come true.
How do women in mid-life crisis act?Sally:
Some women leave their families at this time. The statistics show that in certain parts of the country there are four runaway wives to every runaway man. Many of them are leaving children who are still in elementary school. They say, in effect, "I realized that if I was going to do what I wanted to do, I had to do it while I was as young as I was."FLT:
Is that selfishness or a new development? Or is it a regression to adolescence?Sally:
I don't know. I have met some outstanding, devoted Christian women who have said, as one woman did, 'I feel like I'm 36 going on 14. I'm struggling with the things I struggled with as an adolescent-adult! What I look like, who to impress, and there are some yearnings in me don't even understand." She was a woman whom I had observed over a period of time. She came across as very spiritual and mature and she obviously loved her husband and children. They had traveled extensively after they were married, and had done a great many enjoyable things together as a couple before they had their children, yet there was, this strange feeling. She should have been one of the happiest women it the world yet she wanted to run. Woman after woman tells us a similar story.FLT:
You went through Jim's mid-life crisis with him. What do you think the wife's role is to be in all of that?
We feel very strongly that the role of the wife is very important in determining how her husband makes it through his personal crisis.FLT:
It's when being a "helpmate really comes in, isn't it?Sally:
Right. And it's the same if it's the wife who is struggling. Many times the one who is in crisis feels his or her spouse doesn't understand. But the one going through crisis needs to communicate what is going on in order to help the spouse know what he or she is going through. I think it helps to read about mid life crisis. Mid-life crisis often takes people off guard and they get caught up in thinking, "Oh, my this isn't like the person I married. He's out running around in a sports car with his shirt unbuttoned." We know many women who get divorces quickly and then are very, very sorry for it. Given time, the husband often works through some of these problems and he wants to get his life back together again. Often, if a couple has gone through divorce, hurtful things have been dragged out and emotions are so high that it's pretty hard to step back. On the other hand, we know many couples who have hung in there together even through temporary separations, but by working on it together they have been able to rebuild their relationship. So, yes, the wife's role is crucial during the time of mid-life crisis. That's why we stress that she has to be both spiritually and personally strong and know who she is. She needs to be assured that she is a worthwhile person because while her husband is in this struggle, he is not going to be giving her much to build her up. She has to get that from a positive self-image as well as from the support of good friends.FLT:
Can the children help?Sally:
I think children, depending upon their maturity, need to be aware of the parent's mid-life struggles too and be enlisted to understand and encourage. Unfortunately, kids get a lot of the pot shots from Dad. While the mid-life man is struggling with his value questions, the adolescent is too, and they often come into conflict over it. The parent is really seeing himself in that child. On the one hand, the parent wants to be authoritarian, pushing the teenager into a mold, and yet the parent is trying to cope with some of the same emotions as his adolescent child. Dads can be awfully hard on their kids, but if the kids can understand that their father is going through a rough time it can be a real help. The kids can say encouraging things, be appreciative and understanding. I know some college age kids who initially said, "Mom, why don't you just get a divorce? He shouldn't be treating you this way." But when they learned some of what their dad was struggling with, they saw things from his side, too. They came to realize that he needed a friend! They then jumped in to encourage their mother as well as stand by their dad.FLT:
It seems to me that part of the reason that Jim's mid-life crisis came out positively was because of the strong family underpinnings that you, Sally, and your three daughters had in relationship to him long before the crisis ever came.Sally:
The reason why mid-life crisis caught us off guard was that we didn't anticipate it at all. You see, before the children became adolescents we knew that there were going to be days when they would be up and down; they were going to have to make choices. But we didn't know that we were going to be doing that when we were 40. Even when we had begun to be aware of the mid-life crisis, we thought it only happened to the other guy. As Jim said, here he was a theologian and a psychologist who was experienced and knew himself well. But it simply caught us off guard. We can warn people so they know ahead of time what to expect, because just knowing helps ease the blow a little bit.
So forewarned is forearmed?Sally
: Yes. Plus making adjustments making sure the marriage relationship is strong. I think that we had a strong marriage relationship, but Jim said
that it had gotten stale and pretty routine. It's obvious I wasn't as sensitive to that as I should have been. So a couple needs to maintain good communication. If you are too busy, you can't do that. You need to be making some career adjustments, taking time to relax. There are some things that can help the couple reduce the stress. I think, however, that Jim would have had to answer the philosophical, meaning of life questions anyway, but his body had been so run down that he went into a real crisis.FLT:
What role does God play in all of this?
Well, mid-life crisis doesn't take God off guard. The psalms are quite full of indications that David was aware of mid-life problems. Perhaps he was in mid-life when he got into his affair with Bathsheba. No longer a rugged warrior out doing physical activities, his role had changed. He stayed home, too valuable to be out there, and was wandering around, probably feeling somewhat displaced, when he got into trouble. I think mid-life is like any other struggle. God does not take it away but He does promise to go through it with us and make it a positive experience. We wish that being Christians would take us out of this struggle. Isaiah 43 says when we go through floods and fires God will be with us. It doesn't say, "Because you know me you won't go through the floods and fires."