What do you do when your husband is having a midlife crisis?
On Mondays I like to take a reader question and try to answer it. This week I want to look at aging issues in marriage, and one of the biggest ones relates to this problem of midlife crises. My reader writes:
My husband is going through a midlife crisis. I would love to make love with him. However, he’s not letting me near him. His mind and heart have been focused elsewhere for that long.
I really wish I was educated on midlife crisis so I could have seen this coming and done what I could to prevent such choices that hurt the marriage. I don’t see people discussing midlife crisis except as a joke. It’s a deeply painful topic. If more people understood how midlife crisis can devastate marriages then maybe the midlife crisis in future would be nothing more than a blip in life. More people would be proactive and ensure that God is central to their marriage.
Isn’t that sad? I guess that’s not a question so much as a request to address the concept of how to walk beside your husband when he is having a midlife crisis. I don’t know if I have any good answers, but let’s explore this.
The Two Causes of a MidLife Crisis
Generally, people have a midlife crisis for one of two reasons:
- They realize that they will never accomplish everything they wanted to;
- Or they realize that they HAVE accomplished what they set out to do, and it still isn’t enough.
I think men tend to be more prone to #1, and women tend to be more prone to #2 (although men can experience that one, too).
So much of our identity is based on the goals that we have. We strive for them, we invest emotional energy in them, and they start to define who we are. That’s what’s anchored and oriented us for ever so long.
But what happens when those goals are no longer the focus? Then we feel lost, as if have no real purpose, and we start questioning our choices. Often that even involves questioning whether past choices (including marriage) were worth it.
The midlife crisis that comes from accomplishing your goals–and realizing that it wasn’t enough
We see this in women often when their goals become completely caught up in their children. Their identity is as a mom, and when the kids head off to college, or when they stop homeschooling, or when children grow up and actually reject the parents’ influence, then the mom feels anchorless, like she can’t get her footing.
They’ve accomplished it, and they’ve finished their goals, but now life has little meaning because the goal itself was the meaning.
I’ve also known men to go through this (and women, too, in a professional capacity). One husband I know spent twenty years sacrificing to build a successful business. His wife supported him, making all the meals and holding the family together while he worked long hours and built it up.
Then, in his mid-forties, he was offered a substantial buy-out. He took it.
He left his wife a year later. So much of his identity was in building that business, that when he had accomplished that goal, everything else seemed meaningless.
The midlife crisis that comes from realizing you will never accomplish your goals
Then there’s that realization that you’ll never be where you wanted to be. Maybe you wanted to get somewhere in your career. You wanted to own your own house, or have certain possessions. Maybe you even wanted to become a parent, and now it isn’t going to happen.
Your identity is now gone. What do you do?
A midlife crisis is a search for new identity
My husband walked through this over the last few years. Five years ago he landed his most perfect job. After years of working so hard and being on call far too often and seeing his health suffer, he landed a position in a teaching hospital where he could teach future doctors (something he loves); work with awesome and knowledgeable colleagues; and rebuild an academic program.
It was wonderful.
But then we realized that it didn’t fit with our schedule, our marriage, or where we wanted to be in life. We didn’t want him wedded to a job that required a long commute. We wanted to do more travelling. We wanted to start speaking at more marriage conferences. He loves birdwatching, and he wanted to start touring with me as I took my Girl Talk to churches so he could see more birds.
Over a two year period he had to come to terms with the fact that he couldn’t do his dream job and still live the life we felt called to live (that involved a lot of speaking).
Keith has worked so hard at being a doctor. He studied hard, he holds the responsibility seriously, and he truly cares about his patients. And while he still is a doctor, he doesn’t have the fancy academic titles anymore. He said goodbye to the dream he had.
Thoughts on Avoiding the Worst of the Midlife Crisis
Keith and I survived relatively unscathed. But some things can make a midlife crisis worse. So let’s look at how to avoid things blowing up:
1. Take care of your mental and physical health early
If the person already suffers from mild depression, or if they have ignored health issues for far too long, then the crisis can come on far worse. Depression can make disappointment blow up out of proportion, and the health problems can cause despondency, too.
When you’re younger, then, address any depression as it comes up. Talk to a doctor. And eat well in your thirties. Don’t wait until your forties when the weight creeps up and you can’t ignore things anymore.
2. Stay rooted in community
People who are more prone to a midlife crisis are also people whose emotional energy is primarily directed at achieving their goal–whether it’s personal or professional. The more emotional energy you can put in other places, then, the less punch a midlife re-orientation of goals will have. When you have good friends and a good church body, and when you serve there and appreciate the fruits of your labours there, then you’ll have more to your life than just those goals.
3. Keep your couple goals first and foremost
Most of us have career and personal goals. But do we have couple goals? Do we have things that we want to accomplish together? When I think back on my friend who threw herself into supporting her husband’s business, I wonder if that was part of the problem (although seriously–she is NOT to blame for his affair! Absolutely not!). But sometimes we wives can think that we’re doing this awesome thing by sacrificing everything so that he can earn the money for the family, but in turn we kind of cement this idea that you both have separate lives–he has the business, and you have the family.
It’s great to support your husband. When Keith was in his residency program and the babies were small, I got up with them every night because Keith really needed the sleep. I brought him food when he was on call. I did almost all of the housework. But I did all of that because when Keith was around, what I really wanted was just to be able to enjoy couple time, not have him dust a coffee table. And so we cherished those times together.
Just be careful that in your good and God-given desire to support your husband, you don’t end up creating a family where it’s Husband on one side and Mom and the kids on the other.
Want some ideas for couple goals? Here’s a great post with practical ideas on setting goals as a couple!
4. Don’t let a goal become your idol
Here’s the most important one to me, though. Don’t ever let a goal become your idol. It’s great to have goals. But our goals are absolutely meaningless unless they’re rooted in God’s purpose for our lives. And thus, goals are really secondary to a primary thing: serving God.
Here’s how this may work. Your goal is to serve God and to see His kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven. You believe that the specific way in which you are called to live that out here on earth may be to start a restaurant where you serve good food and give good jobs to some people in your neighbourhood. You work hard at it, but one day, for whatever reason, you have to leave that business. That’s okay, because now you know you’re stepping into something else that God has for you.
But if the restaurant became your main goal, then that can be really traumatic.
Our goals are only the specific ways in which we live out God’s purposes. But His calling should always be our #1 goal. If one way ends, then, it only means another is beginning. That’s what Keith and I found in our marriage, and it made it much easier to bear.
Final Thoughts on walking alongside a husband in a midlife crisis
If your husband is in a full-blown midlife crisis, though, it’s going to be hard. He’s likely to withdraw while he thinks, and you’ll be so tempted to try to pull him back. He’s likely to be angry and lash out at you, because you represent the previous life that he feels as if he has now lost. He may even shut you out of his future plans.
It’s going to be heartbreaking and scary and lonely.
Surround yourself with community while you are scared. Keep yourself healthy. And, if your husband is completely pushing you away and starting to get into something really wrong, then seek out a counsellor for help in how to confront him. My book, 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, can also help you in this.
What 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage Has to Say
A peacekeeper tries not to rock the boat, but in the process they don’t always deal with issues. A peacemaker, on the other hand, tries to address real issues so that you can feel in unity again. In this book, I show you how to walk alongside someone and be a peacemaker. And I show what to do when you may need to get some help for your marriage.
We do need to talk more about what it’s like having a husband in a midlife crisis.
So let’s talk! If you’ve walked through this, tell us in the comments: what was it like? How did you get through it? Any advice for the rest of us?