It often strikes men between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-something. You think your marriage is decent. Oh yes, you realize that there are ups and downs, but you also know that no marriage is perfect so you don’t get too bent out of shape about it. Then strange things start to happen. You and your spouse are arguing all the time. he starts telling you that he’s unhappy in the marriage. In fact, he’s always been unhappy being with you. What about all of your fond memories? It was a sham, he tells you. He confesses that he loves you, but he’s no longer in love with you. You’re too fat, too thin, too demanding, too laid back, not sexual enough, too boring, too critical, too unloving. He wants a divorce.
You’re crushed. Here’s the man you love, the man you vowed to spend the rest of your life with, and he can find nothing good or right about you and your life together. You feel hurt and spend days trying to sort out where things went wrong. Because you love your husband and you want to keep your marriage together, you keep a running list of his complaints and, after you get over your initial shock and defensiveness, you start trying to fix things like a crazy woman. You lose weight. You get a new hairstyle,. You buy new clothes. You start being nicer and more and more affectionate. You stop doing things that annoy him. You bend over backward trying to please him, but his needs seem to be a moving target. Nothing you do makes a difference.
Then his behavior becomes even stranger. He spends long hours with his buddies, works out at a gym trying to win an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike contest, buys a new wardrobe, uses new cologne, dyes his gray hair, trades in his cheap reading glasses for colored contact lenses, and if he’s financially able, buys himself new expensive toys with motors. If all this weren’t enough, he finds a lover who can convince him that he is immortal, sexy, smart, and successful, and that life would be wonderful if he just rode off into the sunset with her. What’s going on here? Hold on to your hat. You’ve entered Midlife Crisis Land and you are in for quite a ride. Why do men act as if their minds have been abducted by extraterrestrial beings? And more important, why didn’t these beings take men’s bodies too so that it wouldn’t be quite so confusing?
Many men wake up one morning and realize for the first time in their lives that they aren’t going to live forever. They notice their bodies aging. Their waists are growing, their hair is graying or gone. Their reading glasses have become an annoying necessity. Their sex drive isn’t what it used to be. There are wrinkles on their faces along with sagging skin. And then there are those little aches and pains in their joints and other body parts that weren’t there the last time they looked. It all adds up to a very depressing epiphany…”I’m a middle-aged man.” The old gray man, he ain’t what he used to be.
Suddenly, he’s scared. Life is passing him by, and the only thing slowing him down, he thinks, is you. You and all that you have come to symbolize are his emotional shackle. He’s tired of feeling responsible for putting food on the table, buying name-brand clothes for the kids, sending them to college, and having to show up at work every day. Because men often define themselves through their work, if he’s been less than successful or less than satisfied with his career, he feels as if he’s a failure. He becomes depressed. His only salvation, he convinces himself, is to be free of you.
First, you need to know that you are not the cause of all his unhappiness. There may be things about your marriage that need to be improved and you, like everyone else, aren’t perfect, but the emotions he’s pinning on you have much, much more to do with him and the way he’s handling things right now. He feels so bad about himself that he is striking out, and you just happen to be within striking distance. If you’ve been feeling dumped on, this is why.
Here’s the tricky part. Part of you desperately wants to save you marriage and do what it takes to make him happy. Another part of you keeps asking yourself whether you should be putting up with his insanity. You wonder whether you’ve lost your mind. “Why in the world,” you ask yourself, “would someone subject herself to this kind of abuse?” Your friends worry about your husband but they’re even more worried about you. They think you’ve lost your marbles for considering spending one more day in a thankless marriage.
There are days you agree with them and just when you feel like throwing in the towel (or better yet, throwing it at him) you remember your vows. You remember your children. You remember your history together and what your marriage was like before he pulled the rug out from beneath your feet. You loved him dearly. In fact, you still love him dearly. Despite all that he has said and done recently, you find yourself longing for him. You want him to just snap out of this temporary insanity long enough to put his arms around you and tell you that everything is going to be okay. You can’t seem to shake the feeling that love is a decision and you made the decision long ago to stay together “till death do us part.”
So you feel desperate to get him to realize that he is going through a phase that will pass. You try to convince him that he’s misjudging, misreading, and overreacting. You tell him that things aren’t as bad as they seem. You promise things will change soon and that he will feel better about his life. But you notice that he’s not buying it. In fact, the more you try to convince him that he’s overreacting or undervaluing the good things in your marriage, the more he pulls away from you, blaming you loudly as he goes. You feel abandoned, betrayed, and emotionally empty. Throw an affair into this mix and you start to feel yourself falling apart.
You’re at a loss, you don’t know what to do. You want to make your marriage work, but it’s hard to imagine how even the best divorce-busting techniques could be effective in dealing with a person who is in La-La Land. Despite your frustrations, the bottom line is you want your marriage. So what’s a woman to do?
Before you decide to take on the project of saving your marriage, you need to realize a few things:
There Are No Guarantees
Although most men do come to their sense eventually, not all do. You could do all the hard work, and in the end, still get divorced. At the very least, you’ll be able to honestly say to yourself that you tried everything. And if you have children, you are teaching them a very, very important lesson: that you must do whatever you can to make your marriage work. Your children will benefit from watching you, no matter what happens in the end.
This Is Going To Be A Long Haul
Midlife crisis don’t end quickly; they may last months or years, and you need to brace yourself for the journey. Many of the problems addressed in this marriage-saving guide are somewhat less intractable and easier to resolve. Wading through a midlife crisis is a process that simply takes time. You can’t rush it. You can’t rush it. You can’t bull your way through it. You just have to remind yourself constantly that there are no quick fixes. And, however long it really takes, it seems a whole lot longer.
Expect a Roller-Coaster Ride
The midlife crisis is going to be a full-fledged roller-coasted ride. You will go up and you will go down. Just when you think your husband is showing signs of improvement, he lets you know that, as far as he’s concerned, nothing has changed. It’s all par for the course. The unpredictability of his moods and his reactions will drive you nuts. But then there will be those times that keep you going, times when, for just a brief moment, things seem normal again. If you ask people who have successfully survived a midlife crisis, they will tell you that the roller-coaster ride was the only route to getting there. So like it or not, fasten your seat belt and invest in a large supply of Dramamine.
Welcome to Limbo Land
One of the worst parts about how long it takes for your spouse to work his way through his existential dilemma – and how rocky the road will be – is that you will feel that your life has been put on hold. You will feel angry and hurt that you have to wait for him to realize something that he should just have known at the start – that your marriage is worth saving. You will resent the fact that it will feel as if he is calling all the shots. You have to wait for him to change his mind about you and your relationship. You have to wait for him to want to be with you. You have to wait for him to feel better about himself and his choices. You just have to wait. He’s setting the pace right now. Not knowing about the of all this will be maddening at times, but for now, you will just have to accept this state of uncertainty.
To Say You Will Need Patience is a Big, BIG Understatement
If you are a take-charge person, you are about to learn one of the hardest lessons in your life. You are not going to be able to control or exert influence on your partner to speed up this process. You are going to hear and see things that you think are unfair and unjust and you are going to learn very quickly that you are not going to be able to educate your spouse about his wrongdoings. You are just going to have to let things happen, go with the flow. The answers to this puzzling midlife crisis must come from him. You won’t be able to guide him or facilitate the process. This will require an enormous amount of patience and self-control. Think about the most challenging thing you’ve ever done in your life in regard to being patient. now multiply that by a million. You’re beginning to see what I mean.
Don’t Defend Yourself
The best thing you can do when your spouse shares negative feelings about your marriage, his life, or even you is to be a good listener. Acknowledge what he is saying. Tell him that you feel bad that he is so upset about things. Tell him that you wish things had been different. Apologize for things that warrant it. Let him know that you are hearing and taking to heart the things he is unhappy about. This will be challenging because you will be listening with one ear and thinking about what you’d love to say in response at the same time. Resist the temptation to say it. Even if you are “right,” pushing the issue will push him away. Don’t do it.
Don’t Ask Questions or Make Demands
It’s very important that you give your husband space. He needs time to think, feel, and experiment, even if part of his experimentation involves another woman. If you start making demands right away, you will probably lose him. There may not be much that you can do right now to make things better, but there are a ton of things you can do to make things worse, like interrogation and issuing demands. You will have to develop many strategies to stop yourself from blowing your stack or nailing him to the wall; this will be unbelievably challenging. But that’s precisely what you need to do. Discover what helps to keep you on track, whether it’s taking a walk, going for a run, calling a friend, logging on to your computer, reading a book, or standing on your head.
Focus on Yourself
Although you have read this advice many times, it is here that it is most applicable. It is absolutely essential that you find ways to make yourself happy during this most difficult time. “Easy for you to say, Michele,” is what you’re thinking. I know, I know. It’s hard to imagine how you could be happy while your life is falling apart, but if you are going to come out the other side of this midlife crisis, you are going to have to do it. Whether you were an incredibly independent person to begin with, or someone who preferred doing everything with your man, you are going to have to develop and discover ways to find inner peace without him right now. You need to do this for you, for your husband and for your children, if you have them.
Although your husband can choose to put his decision about your marriage on hold, you cannot and should not put your own life on hold. Once you get over the shock of what’s happening and grieve, you need to get out a piece of paper and a pen and write down the concrete steps you are going to take to make your life as fulfilling as possible. You need to restore you sense of self. You are a wonderful person and you should remind yourself of this whenever possible, because you won’t be getting lots of compliments from your spouse. You will have to find your goodies somewhere else. Here are somethings women have done to help them feel good about themselves and their lives during their transitional periods. This list is by no means comprehensive. I include it simply to jump-start your imagination.
- Spend more time with their children
- Keep a journal
- Reinvest themselves in spiritual activities
- Further their education
- Join a support group
- Devote themselves to their careers
- Spend more time with friends
- Begin a new hobby
- Join a health club
- Read self-help books
One more thing to consider. Even if your husband won’t go – and whatever you do, you shouldn’t press the issue – you might consider going for therapy. If you find someone you like, s/he can help you sort things out and feel better about yourself. Find a professional who is trained in solution-oriented methods and who is pro-marriage. If you go to a therapist who doesn’t understand what you are working toward and the methods you are using to get there, s/he will probably try to discourage you from continuing on your marriage-saving path. Be very clear from the start that you are determined to save your marriage. Also, make sure your therapist doesn’t subscribe to the “You should tell him how you feel” methodology. It won’t work, I promise you. If the therapist suggests that you need to disclose your feelings or that therapy won’t work unless your husband joins you in treatment, it should be an immediate red flag for you to find someone else.
I Did it My Way
The one thing you will have to keep in mind throughout this journey is that your husband will have to find his own answers. No matter how much you want to help him, he will not find comfort in the articles you send him, the therapy appointments you want to make for him, the heart-to-hearts you want to have with him, or anything else you wish to do. In the same way that you can’t force a baby to walk before he crawls, talk before he babbles, getting through a midlife crisis is a process.
If you have children, you know that there have been times when you’ve needed to stand back and let them fall so they improve their balance and learn how to get up again. Similarly, you will need to stand back and allow your spouse to find his way. I realize that I have told you this before, but I’m saying it again because I know you will need to take this to heart. You might find yourself reading and rereading this. Letting go is amazingly difficult, but unless you do, your marriage probably won’t work out. You have to learn how to detach from your husband’s confusion and let him struggle through it until he sees a clearing.
I know you are going to have a hard time believing what I’m about to tell you now, but if your husband does eventually decide to recommit to your marriage, life will not be a bed of roses right away. For starters, you have just spent a very long time putting aside your emotions and needs. You’ve had to be incredibly strong. Perhaps your spouse has had an affair and while you’ve been fighting for your marriage, you’ve had to put your feelings of rage and despair on the back burner. So, if your husband decides to work on your marriage, although you’ll be very relieved, you should expect to be flooded with many other intense emotions. This is normal. It doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake. It just means you’re human.
The way to move beyond these intense feelings is to make your marriage better than it ever was to begin with. This means that you and your husband have lots of issues to work out. You need to identify which parts of your marriage need to be improved. You will need to change, but your husband will need to change too. He will need to show you that he wants to invest his heart into your relationship. He needs to show empathy for what you’ve been through all these months. But don’t expect these changes to happen immediately; it will take time. You will need to continue to remain patient.
Furthermore, if your spouse had an affair that he’s decided to end, as much as you’d like him to be thrilled about the fact that the other woman is no longer in his life, it’s unlikely that this will happen. Even if his intentions to work on your marriage are good, he will probably be feeling a sense of withdrawal just as someone would if they were giving up a drug. He might feel sad. He might be depressed or irritable. Don’t assume he’s second-guessing himself. Don’t assume he thinks he wants to go back to her. Let him be. He will come out of his funk much more quickly if you, in a sense give him “permission” to feel that way for a while. This shows him that you know that feeling sad when you end something is normal. It is. don’t make anything more out of it than it is.
But don’t lose sight of the fact that you have come such a very, very long way. Think about how things were when he first hit his midlife crisis. Remember how devastated you were and how impossible he was. Things really have changed, haven’t they? You should be very proud of yourself. And you should give yourself permission to feel the whole range of feelings you are experiencing right now. Just don’t blow all the hard work by slipping back into old ways. You will feel better soon. You and your spouse need to work as a team to get your marriage back on track. You’ve gotten this far, you can reach your end goal…a loving marriage. Just hang in there.
Michele Weiner Davis is the creator of the Divorce Busting Centers, learn more on how you can solve marriage problems and stop divorce. Follow me on Twitter @divorcebusting, add my Divorce Busting Facebook Page, and subscribe to the Divorce Busting YouTube Videos for more advice and upcoming marriage saving events.