Psychologist Elliot Jaques has been given credit for coining the term midlife crisis, now heavily embedded in psychodynamic theory, in a 1965 article entitled “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” written for the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Jaques suggested that midlife, analogous to the top of the “hill” in the common saying “over the hill,” is a time when adults retrospectively analyze their lives, project future autonomy, functionality, and life expectancy, and realize their mortality as an intimate reality.
This initial conceptualization highlighted two important implied points. The first was that a midlife crisis is part of a continuing developmental process of maturation and adaptation that characterizes aging. This suggests that the factors that precede, precipitate, and follow a midlife crisis may reoccur. The second point is that perceived proximity to decreasing functionality or mortality may be a more salient initiator of retrospective analysis than age alone. For example, there is evidence among populations where lifespan is truncated by disease that factors associated with a midlife crisis may occur much earlier in life.
Carl Jung (1875–1961), in his extensive writings, identified five stages associated with an innate, normal, and expected midlife transition: accommodation, separation, liminality, reintegration, and individuation. In accommodation, a pretransition stage, individuals present adaptive characteristics (personae) that are based on environmental demands and expectations, and acquire definitions of self based on what is most adaptive. Using enormous mental energy, individuals engage in a continual attempt to balance their persona with fundamental preferences and desires. This stage is typically characteristic of younger years, when the expectations of others are a more significant influence on preferences and behavior.
For many, what is needed to be functional in a specific environmental context is in significant conflict with fundamental preferences. During a period of reevaluation, often occurring around midlife, individuals begin to challenge and slowly disassemble the persona and order their lives based on fundamental preferences. This process, known as separation, is filled with questions about underlying preferences and how closely they align with what has been presented to the world for the sake of adaptation. The greater the distance is between these innate motives and the external persona, the greater the tendency for this period to be defined as a “crisis” and for dramatic changes in overt behavior and preferences to occur.
In liminality, the next stage in cases where there is substantial distance between the adaptive persona and personal preferences, the previously adaptive persona is fully rejected, if only for a short period, and certain societal and cultural demands are largely ignored. Individuals often question their essence, lack a sense of self, and are much more reliant on new external sources—both property and people—for the definition of who they are, as they work toward the establishment of a new persona.
It is notable that the stages of separation and liminality are most associated with the modern era and with the developed countries. Symptoms of midlife crises in Western cultures may include increased boredom and self-doubt, compulsivity, major changes in the libido and sexual preferences, a change in the people, places, and things that define personal success, increased insecurity, increased rumination about past relationships and personal/professional decisions, restlessness, and an intense desire to make change without a clear sense of direction. For those with closely aligned persona and personal preferences, moderate changes in perception, priorities, and behavior may not necessarily be negative and can be associated with a productive realignment of resources and behavior congruent with age.
During the stage of reintegration, individuals adopt a new persona. For some, the new persona is congruent with previous roles and responsibilities; for others, it is in conflict. Uncertainty about self is reduced, but not always eliminated, and confidence about the direction of life is established. Individuals frequently achieve a new level of stability and functioning that is reflective of a better balance between the persona and personal preferences.
In the final stage of a midlife transition, known as individuation, individuals become increasingly re-aware of societal and cultural demands, and come to a clearer understanding of their recent choices. It is often during this stage that the financial, interpersonal, personal, and professional consequences of the previous stages are realized. This stage is also characterized by new attempts to maintain minimal distance between the persona and fundamental preferences.
There appears to be tremendous individual variability in the incidence and sequence of stages associated with midlife crisis. Jung’s five-stage schema provides a conceptual context for understanding midlife transitions but does not imply a definitive sequence or timing of events. Individuals, as a function of a range of internal and external, environmental factors, may move back and forth from separation to liminality over a long period of time. Furthermore, successful movement through a stage does not preclude revisiting previous stages based on subsequent events. For example, introspection brought on by a job promotion or change in career may precipitate a sequence of separation, liminality, and finally individuation over a period of no more than a few days. In contrast, the death of a spouse or close friend may bring about a return to separation and liminality lasting months or even years. In other cases, sequential life changes can result in a healthy and painless reevaluation of priorities and resources, and a quick and successful movement to a new functional and a well-integrated persona.
Since the early psychodynamic attempts to grapple with midlife transitions, and certainly after Elliot Jacques’s introduction of the concept of midlife crisis, several other conceptualizations have been put forth. For example, the midlife crisis has been conceptualized by more cognitively oriented professionals as an emotional state characterized by intense self-doubt and anxiety, occurring usually between the ages of thirty and forty years old. The crisis is either thought to occur naturally or to be precipitated by sudden and major change in status or life circumstance (job promotion, grandchildren, etc.) or a period of extensive introspection (brought on by loss of a job, shrinking interpersonal network as the result of morbidities or mortality, etc.). Other factors thought to precipitate crises include financial problems, the death of a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend, and diagnoses of potentially life-threatening or lifestyle-altering age-related morbidities (sexual impotence, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, etc.).
Not all cultures respond to the midlife transition as a crisis, in part because of their more positive perceptions of aging. For example, in many Eastern cultures where advanced age is equated with experience and wisdom and aging increases status in the family and society, midlife transitions are thought of as a time of celebration, not crisis. In contrast, in Western cultures senior status is often equated with disability and lack of autonomy—hence it is no surprise that the midlife crisis appears to be much more prevalent in the West. In addition to differences in perceptions of aging, it has been suggested that cultural variations in the epidemiology of the midlife crisis may also reflect the greater distance between the persona and fundamental preferences in Western cultures.
Although the midlife crisis is frequently associated primarily with men, both men and women experience potentially difficult midlife transitions. For those men and women for whom transition rises to the level of crisis, the process lasts from approximately three to ten years among men and two to five years among women. The women who appear to be most likely to experience a midlife crisis are Westerners of childbearing age who are heavily engaged in their careers, and who have presented a persona for many years that is inconsistent with their fundamental preferences. In these cases, and sometimes in others initiated by menopause or a change in reproductive status, women often experience boredom and engage in a process of self-reflection through which professional and personal achievements are reevaluated and new priorities are established. Women may suddenly prefer younger sexual and interpersonal partners, may devalue established and ongoing personal and professional relationships, pursue changes in their career, experience increased affective disturbance, pursue substantial modifications to their appearance including plastic and cosmetic surgeries (breast implants, face-lifts, changes in makeup, etc.), or experience a sudden onset of maternal instincts including the desire to have a child.
The midlife crisis in men is most frequently characterized by a difficult and intense transition process involving the reassessment of expected longevity, the realization of death as intimate and an inevitable future event, the reevaluation of life priorities, values, and goals, and attempts to project future functionality and the quality of the second half of life. Onset is most often caused by decreased libido or work-related issues. Men may become concerned about their physical appearance and initiate a program of exercise and dieting; they may consider hair implantation if balding and hair coloring if graying; they may abuse alcohol and illicit substances, or engage in domestic violence, or seek the attention of younger friends, coworkers, and sexual partners to confirm their vitality and youth. Because men often define themselves through their career, and until recently mostly pursued only one career throughout their lifetime, feelings of being stuck in a single career with limited prospects for advancement frequently precipitates midlife crisis. One can only speculate what impact recent increases in the number of lifetime careers an employee is expected to have prior to retirement will have on the incidence of midlife crisis in the United States.
There is evidence that only between 8 and 25 percent of Americans over the age of thirty-five experience a midlife crisis, which suggests at the very least that the midlife crisis is not an inevitable and natural process. Indeed, some researchers suggest that the midlife crisis is a chimera, and occurs for self-serving reasons and not because it is a genuine crisis. It gives white middle class people in North America and Europe, who value leisure time, prosperity, and self-indulgence, permission to act out, ignore traditions, and pursue new self-indulgent directions later in life. Experiencing a midlife crisis allows them to sidestep societal expectations about age-appropriate behavior and life stages.
For the minority of individuals who experience a midlife crisis—“real” or not, and whatever the causes— managing behavioral symptoms and distress becomes important. This can be achieved through a process of introspection—alone or with the aid of friends or relatives—but in more extreme cases, the aid of mental health specialists and other professional care providers may be necessary.
In summary, the midlife crisis is perhaps best viewed as a special manifestation of a developmentally normal midlife transition that provides individuals a time to reevaluate expectations and make age-appropriate adjustments to roles and resources. For many, this transition is very productive and leads to needed decisions and changes, and to a focus on the value of interpersonal and intimate relationships. It can also be an opportunity to move beyond previously accepted boundaries and societal constraints.
SEE ALSO Developmental Psychology; Jung, Carl; Maturation; Psychotherapy; Social Psychology
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Christopher L. Edwards
One of the most intriguing puzzles of lifespan developmental psychology is the myth of a midlife crisis, a mental health crisis occurring in the midlife years. In 1965, Elliot Jacques proposed the midlife crisis as a normative crisis in early middle adulthood on the basis of a psychoanalytic approach to an awareness of death surfacing in early midlife (the mid-thirties). Although the notion of a midlife crisis attracted much acclaim in both the scientific and public debate, it has continually failed to receive empirical support. Empirical investigations have shown the existence of midlife developmental patterns of continuous development, maintained well-being, and adaptivity and resilience throughout midlife; and they have not uncovered a midlife mental health crisis as a universal, or even a common developmental, experience.
Adaptation to growth potential and resilience in managing losses are two major components of developmental regulation. Midlife, more than any other period of the life span, requires the conjoint mastery of both these components of regulating one's own development. It is during midlife that adults can expect a radical increase in loss-related changes, including crossing some developmental deadlines that require disengagement from an important life goal, such as having children. At the same time, several domains of life and functioning (e.g., professional expertise, social skills) come into their prime in midlife.
The regulatory challenge of juggling both gains and losses does not overwhelm most midlife adults, however. Instead, these challenges are met with a rich and elaborate array of resources that most adults command at this point in life. Midlifers typically are at the peak of their vocational careers, earning power, social status, and social influence. Moreover, and maybe even more importantly, midlife adults have accumulated knowledge about adult development and life courses and have experience with mastering challenges, overcoming losses, and regulating emotional responses. In addition, many midlife adults hold optimistic beliefs about their own self efficacy, occupy multiple social roles that can balance losses, and enjoy supportive social networks. Finally, midlife adults can self-regulate their goal engagement and goal disengagement based on their knowledge and anticipation of final deadlines for achieving certain goals (e.g., child-bearing, career promotion). This way they can avoid experiencing disappointment and despair when time runs out for achieving long-cherished life goals.
In spite of the evidence contradicting it, the notion of a midlife crisis has survived as a public myth about development during the fourth and fifth decades of life. This survival of the midlife crisis myth is an intriguing phenomenon—which calls for scientific explanation. It seems likely that the myth itself fulfills an adaptive function, which lends credibility and resilience to it. In a cross-sectional study of adults from early adulthood to old age (Heckhausen and Brim, 1997), perceptions of self and "most others my age" reflected a view that most others are burdened with problems, whereas each individual considers himself or herself to be the favorable exception. This tendency was expressed by adults at all ages, and was particularly pronounced for domains of functioning for which the respective adult experienced a threat (e.g., health, career, stagnation, conflicts with one's children). It thus appears that social downgrading (underestimating others' qualities) based on negative age-related stereotypes (e.g., the elderly, the midlife crisis) is a compensatory interpretation used by adults who experience loss or threat. Such age-related stereotypes are not only present with regard to old age but also exist for midlife. The myth of the midlife crisis may serve this function by organizing a social stereotype about midlife that allows social downgrading of one's age peers and, thereby, relative self-enhancement. In this way, the myth of the midlife crisis is an adaptive stereotype, just as negative stereotypes about aging are.
Another adaptive implication of the midlife crisis myth is the fact that it renders certain problems predictable, such as the increased tendency for feelings of regret, disappointment, and lack of purpose and meaning, which are probably more likely to be experienced at midlife because of the growing salience of finite lifespan. Thus, based on expectations implied in the notion of a midlife crisis, individuals might move into midlife anticipating and prepared to disengage from certain goals that have become obsolete.
See also Life-Span Theory of Control; Personality.
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As a major evolutionary stage in middle adulthood, the midlife crisis corresponds to a change, a transition, or an existential turning point that is not necessarily pathological and takes place somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and fifty.
Based on a more or less deep questioning of oneself it may contribute to the possible emergence of psycho-pathological disturbances that in all probability stem from the personal history and constitution of each person (depressive reactions, suicide or attempted suicide, manic or hypomanic defenses, and psychotic outbursts). Somatic complaints may also often come to the fore.
From a psychopathological point of view, the mid-life crisis has its roots in a complex interweaving of different biological, psychological, and social factors. Some Anglo-Saxon authors (among them Eliott Jaques and Daniel J. Levinson) have studied the factors that may contribute to the fragility of the mind; in particular reduced physical performance, the approach of menopause in women, or a painful awareness of the time that has already passed.
From a psychodynamic point of view a role may be attributed to the reverse parental identification with the children, who are approximately going through adolescence when their parents are having their mid-life crisis. These reverse identifications run an implicit risk of causing depressive moods by virtue of the fact that they are based on an existential impasse.
In relation to the midlife crisis it is worth referring to Carl Gustav Jung's already quite old writings, particularly the article titled The Stages of Life. Having described the "archetypes" that constitute the collective unconscious (the true substrate of the psyche, an immutable structure, a sort of symbolic heritage that is proper to all humanity), Jung then went on to complete this view of the psyche with the notion of "psychological types." Here he described individual characters that are organized around the introversion/extroversion dialectic and are centered by a process of individuation that leads the human being toward a unification of the personality through a series of metamorphoses or stages, among which the midlife crisis occupies a relatively important position.
The concept of crisis has lost some of its importance in modern psychopathological writing both in relation to adolescence and to this midlife period that is sometimes called maturescence and then considered to be a sort of second adolescence or a third phase in the separation-individuation process. Nowadays we tend to lay more stress on the processes of psychic mutation or transformation with reference to the concept of "catastrophic change" (René Thom), but without the harmful aspect that is often associated with the term crisis.
See also: Catastrophe theory and psychoanalysis; Horney-Danielson, Karen; Psychobiography.
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Jung, Carl Gustav. (1930). The stages of life. In Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harvest Books.
Levinson, Daniel J. (1978). The seasons of a man's life New York: Ballantine Books.
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