By ARLEN KEITH LEIGHT, PH.D.
Everyone gets a chuckle out of saying, “He’s going through a mid-life crisis” as if it is some childish phase creating an excuse for extra-marital affairs, buying a Harley, and going bungee jumping. The fact is, midlife course correction is an integral part of adult individuation, the process of becoming a complete and wholly unique individual.
The midlife experience in our social structure today usually takes place in the 40s, but can come as early as 35 or as late as 55. The period is characterized by a reevaluation of the life decisions made as a teenager or in one’s 20s. At this time there is often a realization through life experience that those early decisions were made for external factors rather than internal drive.
The decisions regarding career, home, and even life partner are often made to satisfy parental, church and/or societal expectation, or other persons of influence. For example, a gay person may choose to marry someone of the opposite sex because that is the expectation of his parents and the society-at-large.
The realization that one is entrenched in a life that does not allow for full individual expression of self can be very frightening and confusing. There may come a tipping point at which time the individual realizes that in order to grow into him/her-self, change is necessary. This is the mid-life “crisis” as we have come to understand it. Discovery that a relationship is not working after 15 years despite love, realizing that a lucrative career brings no passion or joy, and/or looking around at one’s environment to see that it does not reflect the person one has become–or wishes to become–can be devastating.
A few choose to go into therapy as a tool for sorting out the feelings of confusion, loss, and fear. Driven by a will to thrive and not merely survive, some will risk everything and choose to change all aspects of life in an effort to come to terms with the self. Others will choose to stay at the job or in the marriage and attempt to bring more of themselves into their current situation. Still others will simply accept stagnation, often living in despair and depression that is frequently accompanied by substance or alcohol abuse.
The argument is often made that leaving a relationship or job or other situation is unfair and selfish because it adversely affects others. There is no question the result can be traumatic to others of significance, hence the word “crisis.” I often ask clients struggling with coming out in mid-life and struggling with the prospect of leaving their families, what advice they would give their own children should they be facing this same dilemma? Would they like to see their children follow their hearts, be fully themselves, live their passions and realize their dreams, or would it be better for them to stay in relationships or careers or some other life situations that are not working and not allowing them to be all they can be?
Do all mid-lifers go through a crisis? It appears most adults who have met the basic needs of life—i.e., food, clothing, shelter, health care–find themselves asking if life is all it can be. Often precipitated by seeing others live out a dream, surviving the death of a parent, or becoming an emptynester, mid-lifers may ask: Is this all there is for me? Have I made my life all it can be? Am I living my life honestly and completely in alignment with an authentic sense of self? Many, if not most of us, push aside any thoughts of change realizing the risks, fearing the response of others, putting the needs of others first, or deciding the known is more comfortable than entering the unknown despite any possible self-actualization.
Whatever the life choice, it needs to be respected and honored as the path of unique choosing for each individual.
Arlen Keith Leight, PhD is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Board Certified Sex Therapist in private practice on the drive in Wilton Manors. He can be reached via email at [email protected], by phone at 954-768- 8000, or online at www.DoctorLeight.com.