Midlife Transition

by Dr Robyn Vickers-Willis

A time of self-reflection and reassessment of life…

Jenny, 42, puts down her mobile and slumps in the chair. Motionless, she stares in to space whispering to her self ‘I can’t go on. I can’t go on.’On the surface Jenny’s life looks picture-perfect with a hard working husband, two healthy children and a career as a physiotherapist. In her extended family she is referred to as the lucky one. Since her mid thirties increasingly Jenny has felt overwhelmed by all the demands on her. And now her mother has rung to say that she and her father have decided they would love to have their 50th wedding anniversary at Jenny’s home – only about 80 guests.

Mention the term ‘midlife crisis’ and it is likely to instigate jokes and stories that conjure up images of men creating all sorts of distractions to stop them noticing they are getting older. How many of us realise that women have them too. What’s this crisis all about anyway and do men and women differ in how they experience it?

Despite the impact of the Women’s Movement, Jenny is still influenced through watching her mother when young. She learnt that a woman’s role was to create harmony and be there for others. As a young girl she was also rewarded for being quiet, passive and compliant. As she increasingly felt dissatisfied she was bewildered. ‘I was depressed, angry and resentful. Yet when I looked at my life I had all that was meant to make me happy.’

Just as John was given his dream promotion he realised he had come to hate his job. ‘Every day I walked into the office I felt that a part of me was dying.’ Through watching his father he learnt that a man defined himself through his work and that his role was to provide for his family. As a young boy he was also rewarded for being logical, strong, active, decisive, pragmatic and in control, especially of his feelings. ‘I felt trapped. I had the job and the salary I’d wanted but all I felt was a devastating emptiness inside me. At night I’d just sit and watch television or play computer games – anything to stop me thinking about my job. I’d then toss and turn in bed all night.’

The psychological significance of this desire for change at midlife was first explained by Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychologist. He said that for healthy development in the first half of life we create a lifestyle and an understanding of who we are based on what parents, other significant adults, our peers, partners and society in general expect of us. We learn that parts of us are not acceptable and these parts are repressed in our unconscious.

For healthy development in the second half of life we need to create a life based on who we truly are and to do this we complete two main developmental tasks for midlife transition. First, we find ways to go within to reclaim these repressed parts of ourselves as well as others we have never known. And second, we create a lifestyle based on this increased understanding of who we truly are.

International research supports this understanding that midlife is a time for increased self-reflection and reassessment of life. If we ignore inner promptings from our psyche to complete these developmental tasks at midlife our relationships, work, and mental and physical health suffer. Jenny explains, ‘The day after my parents’ party I felt numb. I was in trouble and I knew I needed help. The next week I saw a counsellor a girlfriend told me about. It was such a relief to talk about all these conflicting feelings inside me. Then the big blow came. I found a lump and it was breast cancer. For now I’m living apart from my family to attend treatment in the city and I’ve had to take leave from the job I loved.’ Despite all of this, when you meet Jenny you are impressed by her vitality. ‘Although the treatment isn’t easy and I miss my family terribly I am relishing having time for myself. Every day I write, meditate and walk. I’m also having regular massages.’

A midlife woman’s crisis is typically about choosing to put her needs ahead of others.

Conditioned to not rock the boat and to do things quietly, her crisis is often barely visible. She will put up with much discomfort before taking steps that damage her relationship structure. Jenny relates, ‘I am learning to assert myself, especially with my family. I don’t want to be at everybody’s beck and call anymore. I am getting better at saying “No”. My mother has the greatest difficulty accepting my new behaviour, however my girlfriends are fantastic. Once I started being honest about what was going on for me, most people in my life were very supportive.’

Men are conditioned for action. When they experience inner turmoil at midlife they typically either withdraw from family, friends and social life, as John did, or act out, with showy and visible behaviours such as affairs, endless acquisition, manic exercise, overwork and other addictions; anything but be receptive to the inner promptings from their unconscious. As a result they often experience a delayed midlife crisis at or around fifty years of age. If then they don’t develop their receptivity it compounds their problems as they age.

When first receiving messages from the unconscious, some make gradual changes from the beginning, while some ignore them. If these inner promptings are ignored, the inner tension can become too great resulting in a midlife crisis. This crisis is a point of choice. It’s as though one is standing over a chasm. One foot is in the first half of life surrounded by conditioned values. The other foot is stepping towards another life of personal meaning and based around one’s own values.

Despite these generalisations being true for many, whether you are about to start, are in the midst of, or have come through this time of midlife change, it is important to remember that we are all unique and we find our own individual ways to navigate midlife and beyond.

Identifying details, including names, have been changed for the life stories drawn on for this article.

Dr Robyn Vickers-Willis, a psychologist, is author of Navigating Midlife: Women Becoming Themselves (2002), Men Navigating Midlife (2004), and Navigating the Empty Nest: Recreating Relationships (2008).  She is currently facilitating a weekend retreat Navigating Midlife and Beyond at the Gawler Cancer Foundation’s Yarra Valley Living Centre.