July 1, 2005

Defining "midlife crisis."

We're having a little debate here about the meaning of "midlife crisis." Here's the Wikipedia definition to get you started:
A mid-life crisis is an emotional state of doubt and anxiety in which a person becomes uncomfortable with the realization that life is halfway over. It commonly involves reflection on what the individual has done with his life up to that point, often with feelings that not enough was accomplished. The individual may feel boredom with their lives, jobs, or their partners, and may feel a strong desire to make changes in these areas. The condition is also called the beginning individuation, a process of self-actualization that continues on to death. The condition is most common in people in their 30s and 40s, and affects men more often than women.

Clearly, that definition needs some tweaking, but what do you think? Is this a useful term to an individual reflecting on his or her own life? Do you feel better or worse or different about your situation if someone characterizes it as a "midlife crisis"?

Here's something I wrote in the course of this little local debate I'm referring to:
I think the MLC is when you are married and living complacently and then you start taking risks violating conventions because you don't want to be that kind of person anymore. Once you're out of the marriage, the crisis is over. You're just adapting to new conditions in a normal way. Having problems and bad feelings is normal life, not a crisis.
What do you think?

UPDATE: Terry Teachout takes "midlife crisis" to have a broader and more serious meaning than I do, which will please at least one participant in the local debate I've alluded to. I take the feeling he describes seriously, but I still don't like the term "mid-life crisis" for it. The term has an unserious tone to my ear, like the old "identity crisis." Teachout's concern is confronting the reality of death, however, and the person I have been debating with locally is chafing at the inadequacies and boredom of ordinary life. My local interlocutor wants to break out and change all sorts of things (but is not doing anything very unsual), and Teachout is talking about coming to terms with a reality that he has zero potential to change. The similarity is a feeling of wanting to live -- in some fuller way than seems currently available.


Allah said...

You'll need to distinguish this from the quarterlife crisis, of course.

Dirty Harry said...

Wikipedia's got it pretty well covered but the words, "hair plugs," "convertible," and "banging the baby-sitter" are conspicuously absent.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

What they describe isn't a midlife crisis, just midlife. It only becomes a crisis if you don't act your age.

Kathy Herrmann said...

Wikipedia's description is so civilized. Mid-life is both the gritty and liberating time in life when you start living out what's most important and say f'it to the rest of it.

Kathy Herrmann said...

Oh yeah. My personal theory is mid-life is also when people decide to start dying...or not.

You can tell the folks that elected to start dying because they the ones with the perpetual grimaces/frowns on their faces. For them, the rest of life is just a count down to the end.

The folks that decide to continue to live are the ones with generally contented or enlivened facial expressions. They decide the remainder of life are a series of events to savor.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

Great Topic!

I believe the most salient feature is a sense of panic that unresolved/unsatisfied fantasies of success, glory, achievement are now beyond reach. When the fantasies are particulary 'immature' (eg, sexual conqest/promiscuity, or the wish for spontaneous super-fun adventures) the problem moves into crisis mode. Put another way, a midlife crisis is not so much a reaction to how ones life is now, as it is about how much unfinished business is being carried around from earlier phases of life.

Another pressure point is the aging body and the growing awareness of loss and ultimately death. Denial often takes the form of absurd acts that attempt to fly in the face of the inevitable trend one is becoming aware of and cannot accept.

Also: in social work school they stress that real mid-life crises are much more common around 45+. That's the zone where the marriage has aged (or collapsed) and the kids are not so dependent. As the structure and support that those obligations provide fades, people start thinking of themselves as individuals with options again. It is often a terrifying experience at that point in life for someone to have to confront the question "what do I really want?"

Ann Althouse said...

The Wikipedia's definition is terrible. It's all about "reflection" and some mental process -- not about acting out.

Roaring Tiger: It would sure be convenient if people's faces were this easy to read. Most people I know manage to keep a pleasant expression on their face, whatever might be going on inside. But then, I'm out here in the Midwest.

Freeman Hunt said...

A midlife crisis is usually expressed as regular human assery. They only call it a midlife crisis if the person making an ass of himself is over a certain age.

rhinoman said...

I think the midlife crisis was more common in earlier generations, where people grew up, got out of high school/college, married their school sweethearts, moved into a community, got a job/career and plugged away with everybody else for 20 years or so.
We all reach a point, though, where we realize that all those "I could.." thoughts become "I never will..." thoughts. If you've been reared in a highly conformist society, and gone along with the societal expectations ("Why did you have kids?" "It was what you did.."), this moment can be a bit hard to handle, especially if you don't really like your life all that much.
And, if the deep questioning of what you've been doing and what kind of life you have takes place during, say, the late 1960s and the 70s, you can cut loose pretty hard.
I've noticed that the people in my generation (college class of 1984) don't tend to have the "Midlife Crisis" in droves the way my parent's generation did. Sure, people get divorced, marriages break up, and men and women fool around, but the full blown cliche-type Midlife Crisis doesn't seem to happen all that much.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

rhinoman nails some key stuff on the head.

The archetypal MLC where a 'complacent responsible' parent becomes like a different (immmature)person that no one recognizes becomes rarer and rare as rigid roles and societal expectations relax (or whither and corrode, depending on your philosophical persuasion).

Nowadays, everyone knows from when they're in their teens or younger that "people get divorced, marriages break up, and men and women fool around". Such Impulses do not cause a crisis of character anymore.

Ron said...

When a Porsche seems sexier than your spouse...I think you've hit that midlife crisis point.

I prefer "the geezer point," the moment in life you become an old geezer...some people are born that way, some never reach their geezer point. I think it's the moment you get crabby -- and like that!

Matt Drachenberg said...

I think it's basically panic.

"Oh my god! I'm going to drive a minivan the rest of my life!"

"Oh my god! My ears and eyebrows continue to grow out of control!"

"Oh my god! I will never have sex with another woman!"

In the end, though, Paul has it exactly right.

EddieP said...

I think the MLC is when you are married and living complacently and then you start taking risks violating conventions because you don't want to be that kind of person anymore. Once you're out of the marriage, the crisis is over.

The crisis may appear to be over, but there's always more waiting around the bend. Getting out of the marriage is often a "grass is greener on the other side of the fence" deal. However, many people do seem to manage their lives better the second time around. The expectations are different for both parties, and being more experienced helps them realize that the warts are just in different places than they were the last time, and it is better to make it work than to go through that again.

Jim H said...

A midlife crisis is when a respectable middle-age person brings home a sports car. Maybe a silver one.

vnjagvet said...

When I was a teenager, a dear friend of our family left his wife of many years (a delightful person, by the way) and shortly after married a much younger woman who was a real b****, and by most objective standards pretty inferior to his former wife.

I well remember my parents discussing this between themselves and describing it as a "mid life crisis". It seemed to me such a stupid move on his part, not based on anything my parents said (although they clearly that too), but because I saw the "warts" so well described by Eddlep.

Ann Althouse said...

Jim: Much as I love my car, I am so far from crisis mode that it's funny.

Ann Althouse said...

Jim (the other one): I tend to think you just don't know what the inside of another person's marriage is really like. You never really know if it's good or bad and whether staying or leaving is the mistake.

vnjagvet said...


I am sure you are right about that. But I am also sure that most guys who made the mistake my family's friend made think the bermuda is greener than the kentucky blue grass when they haven't seen it in the winter yet.

In the case of that guy, when winter rolled around, the zoysia got brown and the second divorce came in quick order.

amba said...

"What I really want": the true American Idol.

amba said...

"When all that says 'It is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains." - C.S. Lewis

L. Ron Halfelven said...

Buying a sports car that only middle-aged people can afford really isn't all that crisis-ey. To regress in the grand manner you need to buy a Honda Civic and rice it up with the clear taillights, the 35-series tires and one of those little bolt-on spoilers.

DaveG said...

I don't believe buying a sports car, or in my case a faster, aerobatic airplane, is a symptom of MLC. I think it's an indicator of progress along the income maturity S curve. After all, I've wanted this plane (or a sports car) since I was a pre-teen.

That said, these toys sure do help when you get the mid-life "I need a break from all this" blahs.

Inertia Man said...

All due respect, rhinoman, but the reason your Class of '84 generation doesn't "tend to have the 'Midlife Crisis' in droves the way [your] parent's generation did" is that it isn't middle-aged yet. You're not even 40! As someone who actually had a mid-life crisis, I resent (okay, okay, rather predictably) the suggestion that it was merely a manifestation of immaturity and that I should have acted my age. A mid-life crisis is almost by definition a loss of perspective, and when you've lost your perspective it's hard to, you know, keep your perspective. If you feel that you've hit a dead end and you're trapped there with no hope of getting out, whether it be in poverty or failure or some other miserable condition, "acting your age" looks very much like giving up and dying - just "a count down to the end," as roaring tiger puts it. It's as if the subjective metastasizes and swamps the objective.