What exactly is a midlife crisis? And how common are they?

  1. A crisis is when a person suffers from a lack or a loss of coping skills. That’s sorta like the clinical definition. Basically it means that their difficulties exceeds their ability to handle or manage their life. You’ve heard the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? A crisis is an overdose of lemonade.

Childhood issues can set a person up for a crisis, as our basic coping skills are built during childhood and early adulthood. If you don’t learn many coping skills or you learn to overuse just one or two, you can get into trouble.

Lots of things can cause a crisis. However, midlife sort has a lot of little traps built into it.

There is the basic one… that getting old is scary… or rather, not being YOUNG anymore is scary… You are not as strong and resilient as you once were… you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep as well… you aren’t nearly as pretty as you used to be…

Not to mention that a man’s first adventure with erectile dysfunction can scare the hell out him. His hammer has turned into jello… Ever tried to pound in a nail with a jello hammer?

And that evil gnome who sneaks into his room at night, plucks hair from his head and plants it in his nose and ears. That bastard is scary!

Aside from fear of aging, you have other midlife issues as well. Financial worries can pile up, and between kids, a mortgage, two car payments and all the other stuff, it can feel like you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

You also have all those dreams and hope of youth and young adulthood. Dreams of becoming president or an astronaut or the board of directors of GE… gone out the window.

You go through young adulthood trying to prove that you are different and special. You get an education and prove that you’re smart, you get a job and prove that your capable, you get a spouse to prove that you’re desirable, you get a house and prove that you’re dependable.

You get to midlife and realize that you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You did the same thing everyone does. You just isn’t that special. Sorry, Charlie.

Also at midlife, passion ebbs. Your hormones change… guys have less testosterone… women have less estrogen… and what is left is burnt out and used up by work stress and family stress. And even if you wouldn’t rather just fall asleep, there’s a good chance that your spouse does.

And at midlife, nothing is NEW anymore. You’ve seen just about everything, heard every story, and explored all the frontiers.

It’s a time of disillusionment. It’s a time of change.

And some people don’t have the coping skills to manage all this change. They can’t gracefully accept aging so vanity and preening begins. They can’t gracefully accept the financial responsibility so they buy sports cars and gold chains. They can’t gracefully accept the loss of their dreams of youth so they decide to take up hang gliding and mountain climbing.

They can’t accept the loss of their sexual virility and passion, so they take up with the hot young thing in the office down the hall.

Notice one thing about THEIR crisis. It’s about them.

It isn’t about you.”

2. According to Elliott Jaques, the psychologist who studied and named the phenomenon as part of his research into the nature of cognitive capability, the midlife crisis occurs in certain people as a result of natural growth in brainpower over time. When their capabilities mature to the point where they begin to manifest a higher-complexity cognitive style, all their old decisions come into question. They lose their identity.

Most adults process information one chunk at a time, and make well-practiced decisions. Jacques called this Declarative processing, because the cognitive style resembles a simple declarative sentence. “Since THIS, then THAT.” People build their entire lives around their particular set of THISs and THAT’s. It is epitomized by the kind of slogans you see on bumper stickers and rally signs.

What Jaques noticed is that this level of cognition gave way after a while to a higher level, where the person appears to consider multiple chunks of information and balance them all when making a decision. He labeled this Cumulative processing, since it is not one factor, but an accumulation of factors which feed the decision: “Since THIS + THIS + THIS + The Other Thing, then THAT (until something changes).”

For a large number of people this is the largest cognitive leap they will make in their adult life. And once it happens it does not regress. Every bedrock principle on which the person has built their life has suddenly been revealed as foundation of shifting sand. This leads to an intolerable situation. The life they have built via one cognitive process is not indicative of the choices they would make with this new process, and the evidence of their previous “mistakes” is staring them in the face at every turn. They can enter a profound depression. They feel imprisoned by their own hand.

Women undergo these same advances of cognitive capacity, but historically, in America at least, their decision-making power has been acutely curtailed in comparison with men’s’, and their identity consequently is not as tied up in it. Women have also had a lower ability to express themselves economically and socially so their internal struggles remain internal. This is why the mid-life crisis has been portrayed in the media as a “guy thing”.

  • For many people this kind of cognitive style shift happens much more frequently. The greater a person’s cognitive capacity, the more frequently they will undergo these transitions, from Declarative to Cumulative, followed by Serial processing (since THESE then THAT which leads to the NEXT and the NEXT) requiring chained logic, followed by Parallel processing (THIS CHAIN will accomplish this PARTIAL RESULT, and this OTHER CHAIN is required for a COMPLETE RESULT) requiring keeping multiple logical paths alive and in relationship to attain a final decision. These 4 cognitive styles then iterate again over a higher order of information complexity. Jaques identified at least 5 orders of information complexity, each chunk of which is made up of organized lower-order data.

Those people who have experienced several of these transitions may not even notice them anymore, and forget what it is like to have your brain expanded for the first time. They are in the minority, however. Jaques estimated that 80% of everybody lived through one transition in their life, and it had a profound effect upon them. These people tend not to be the ones writing screenplays or sitcoms or blog articles, so the low-information-capacity person is an easy mark.

  • To specifically address the question of evolution, the midlife crisis does not solve any particular problem – it is itself not adaptive. It is the side effect of the cognitive machinery which humans have evolved and inherited, and that machinery is extremely adaptive.

3. As far as I can tell, there are two types of midlife crises that are actually treated with any amount of contempt:

The Hedonistic Mid-Life Crisis

A mid-life crisis in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but a common reaction to the crisis itself is to spend tons of cash on stuff. Not necessarily tangible stuff, but nevertheless the spending is all about feeling good. It’s commonly a boatload of spending on things younger people associate with happiness and success, like a corvette or a motorcycle.

Onlookers treat this with contempt because it’s seen as immature. Presumably, the person in question has outgrown all the petty nonsense of adolescence and yet here he is buying a motorcycle that clearly doesn’t suit him. But he insists on it because of his crisis. Maybe there’s an element of jealousy (“I wish I could be dating a young woman, riding on a yacht, etc…”) but my impression is that it’s more contempt with the slide backwards into youthful immaturity.

The Existential Mid-Life Crisis

I’ve seen some people experience a mid-life crisis which resulted in deep, introspective self-evaluation. The person in question isn’t doing stupid stuff like drag racing for the first time at 53, but he’s acting and talking like someone else got into him. He’s questioning his life decisions, goals, and outcomes; sometimes he’ll question his relationships, up to and including the important ones (wife, close friends, etc…)

This is disconcerting for people who love him, but it’s also frustrating for people who don’t want to deal with this solipsistic guy all the time. More troublingly, it can put a huge strain on the marriage when the wife suddenly has to have this self-evaluative debate with her husband just because he’s suddenly freaking out about the reality of aging and growing old. It’s not a big deal to say “I do” when you’re a guy in your late 20s. What the hell do you know about “till death”? You might die in a few weeks from alcohol poisoning, if the past 10 years have been any indication. But they’re not, and you slow down, and then at around 50ish you really notice it and then suddenly it’s “holy shit, I’m half a century into this life and there’s I chance I’ll be here another half century. Are these the people I want to be with for the next 50 years?”

  • I not-so-frequently encounter people in the second group, but those are probably the more problematic ones. The questions you ask yourself in that sort of crisis are the sort of questions that hurt just to hear, let alone answer. Meanwhile, the first crisis is damaging, perhaps, but mostly it’s the financials that take a hit. And maybe the man makes an ass of himself trying to pull off an all-leather wardrobe to fit in with his brand new Harley.

Jim Conway writes for all men who face midlife and have thought about walking away from family, work, church . . . all responsibilities, and never coming back. Of his own midlife crisis he says, “I feel like a vending machine. Someone pushes a button, and out comes an article. The family pushes buttons and out comes dollars. The community pushes other buttons. 

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