By Anna Moore
It’s not just middle-aged men who are tempted to roar away from routine and responsibility in a sports car. But is there a quick fix for the midlife crisis?
Although the feelings took hold shortly before Abi’s 50th birthday, she didn’t associate them with a midlife crisis. (‘No one wants to see themselves as a stereotype,’ she says now.) Her two children had flown the nest and she had nursed her mother through illness. When she died, she left Abi a substantial sum in her will.
‘The probate solicitor said, “I presume you’ll use the money to pay off your mortgage?”’ says Abi. ‘I replied, “But that wouldn’t change my life.” Losing my mum had made me realise that time is short. I began asking questions such as, “Where am I going?” and, “What am I doing?” The panic and confusion were so overwhelming that I started to suffer from migraines, tiredness and insomnia. It was as if my body was screaming that things weren’t right.’
These feelings compelled Abi to step away from her teaching career and take off on a three-month journey across the Far East. When she returned, she embarked on a full-time MA in creative writing, during which her 25-year marriage collapsed.
‘I thought we were a good couple, and there was no lack of love on my side,’ she says. ‘But he saw me as being selfish and self-indulgent. He wanted me to keep doing what I’d always done. But after years of working in the same job, paying the mortgage and raising children, this felt like my last chance to put myself first. I felt that we didn’t need to be slaves to the house and its running costs any more; we could survive on less. My husband didn’t agree.’
Eight years on, the whirlwind is over. Abi lives in a rented flat while her husband remains in the family home. She works as a freelance writer and runs poetry workshops; however, her main income derives from her pension. ‘I love my flat and the way I spend my days, but I do think about what happened and wonder if it was worth all the pain,’ Abi says.
‘But the sense that things needed to change was all-consuming; I couldn’t ignore it. If I’d tried to, I’d have been eaten up with resentment for the rest of my life. I suddenly felt I was in the wrong life and time was running out.’
For many of us who haven’t experienced such a thing, the midlife crisis is a bit of a joke: the middle-aged man who has discovered Viagra and sped away from his family on a Harley-Davidson, or the menopausal woman, face frozen by Botox, trawling Tinder for a toyboy lover.
Because midlife moments are often explosive, many have made headlines over the years. Who can forget Tom Cruise, then 42, bouncing on Oprah’s sofa, declaring his love for the much younger Katie Holmes? Or mother-of-two Zoë Ball, then 45, caught kissing a 22-year-old boyband member on a dancefloor ahead of the collapse of her marriage to Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim)? ‘All the arguments have been over the same issue,’ claimed one insider. ‘Zoë wants to go out and have fun; Norman would rather stay at home.’ (Norman has been teetotal since entering rehab in 2009.)
Actress Naomi Watts, 48, is another example. Her 11-year relationship with Liev Schreiber ended amid claims that she wants to ‘travel the world’ and attend ‘film festivals and red carpets’ while Liev would rather ‘settle down’ with the couple’s two sons in New York.
It’s easy to sneer, but according to experts, it’s quite natural to take stock at ‘half-time’. ‘It’s when your focus shifts from your CV – status, job, house, possessions – to your eulogy: who you really are and what gives your life meaning,’ says therapist Andrew G Marshall, author of It’s Not a Midlife Crisis, It’s an Opportunity. For most of us, it isn’t really about toyboys, tattoos or motorbikes – those are just common shortcuts we take to soothe our unease and avoid the bigger questions.
For journalist Miranda Sawyer, 49, the crisis hit when she was 43, and it lasted five years. ‘It felt traumatic,’ she says. ‘You wake up in the middle of your life and think, “I’ve been doing it all wrong.” Midlife puts your choices under the spotlight, and mine seemed rubbish.’
Miranda’s unease grew in the gap between what she’d expected from life as a younger woman and what now looked likely to unfold. ‘We all have dreams, and many of them are hard to fulfil,’ says Miranda, who is married to the actor Michael Smiley and has two children.
‘Then you reach a point when you realise those dreams are beyond you – you’re never going to write that great novel or play for Manchester United. Maybe you expected to be madly in love with your partner, look amazing at 49, have a fantastic house and children who are doing well. Women are susceptible to setting themselves impossible standards.
‘Mine started with wanting something quite basic – a garden – and realising we couldn’t afford one in the area we live and where our children go to school. That started me obsessing over all the things I’d done wrong in my life, and what I should have done differently.’
An Oxford graduate with a successful career, Miranda was gripped by an unfamiliar panic. She felt hopeless, bored and sad. ‘At the same time, I was restricted in what I could do,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to leave my family, and my days were full with work and the children. My midlife crisis happened at night. I would regularly wake gripped with panic and despair.’
Miranda’s decision to write a book, Out of Time, exploring her experience, was possibly a life-saver, because the best way through a midlife crisis, says Marshall, is to turn and face it.
Happiness – according to research – is ‘U-shaped’. We tend to start on a high, but in middle age happiness dives as we build a life, struggle to provide and have little time left for fun. (One piece of research found that happiness hits lowest levels between 40 and 42.) A midlife crisis may strike at this moment, but if we listen and learn from it, the second half of our life can raise happiness levels again.
For this to happen, though, we must avoid common mistakes. The first is to ignore unhappiness or drown it in drink. ‘If you do this you risk drifting into depression, and you may become bitter and closed off,’ says Marshall.
The second is to seize on hits of instant gratification. ‘Throwing yourself into an affair may feel good in the moment, but does it answer your questions? Will the same feelings return a few years later, when you are struggling to maintain relationships with an angry ex and estranged children, while juggling commitments and finances?
‘The answer is to take the time to listen to your feelings,’ says Marshall. ‘You need to ask yourself three questions: “Who am I?”, “What gives my life meaning?” and “What are my values?”’ Pause and take stock before you do anything hasty and irreversible (which might hurt others), such as selling your home or declaring time on your marriage.
Exploring passions that you may have put on the back burner and looking at activities that nourished you in the past is key. Have you allowed important friendships to fall away? Finding ways to build meaning and pleasure into your life – whether it’s a career change, education or a hobby – takes time.
Likewise, when it comes to a long-term ‘middle-aged marriage’, beware of blaming your partner for all your problems. ‘It feels easier to blame the nearest person than to look internally,’ says Marshall. Invest time in identifying relationship problems and repairing them: ‘Be curious about your partner, make them a priority and acknowledge the good things in your relationship.’
Popular forums such as Mumsnet can also provide valuable advice. On one thread, a user approaching 40 and ‘so very bored with myself’ appeals for help. Others immediately identify. ‘I’m nearly 40 and feel that life is a cycle of cleaning, working, watching TV, etc,’ writes another mum. ‘I feel I want an adventure. I would like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in America but husband wouldn’t come – in fact, I think he might divorce me. But with my daughter leaving home soon, I keep looking at maps and Googling lightweight tents!’
This leads to streams of advice from others who’ve ‘been there’. ‘I got involved in political activism,’ writes one. ‘You have to find something you care about.’ One is launching her own business; someone else has signed up for a late-life degree, while another tells how she has taken up running. ‘Four years later and I am doing my first Ironman triathlon. The sense of achievement I get from being strong and fit is amazing. It has definitely chased away the midlife crisis!’
Miranda also took up running and found it a powerful tonic. She signed up for new challenges that utilised her strengths and wisdom. She joined a lobby group, the boards of various art galleries and became a school governor. She stopped drinking – ‘you crash too much’ – and went to live events as they give her pleasure. ‘One good thing about having a crisis in middle age is that by then you know your strengths and you’re confident enough to drop things you’re not bothered by,’ she says.
You also have the ticking clock to spur you on. Caroline Kendall, 57, was running a restaurant with her husband when she began to feel the need for something more. ‘I’d dropped out of university and built up a great business, but when I turned 40 I started to wonder, “Is this it?”’ she says. ‘The work wasn’t challenging; I wasn’t using my brain and I had a feeling that I hadn’t finished what I’d started at university.’
At 50, with her husband’s support, Caroline enrolled on a part-time degree with the Open University. It took her six years to complete (‘from October to June, every weekend was taken up with study’) and Caroline now has a new career working for a charity in volunteer management. ‘It would have been easy to keep going with my old life; it takes courage to change. But the achievement when I got my degree was overwhelming. It has empowered and changed me in so many ways,’ she says.
And it’s not over. ‘I’d like to do an MA,’ says Caroline. ‘I’m on a journey and it’s not finished yet.’
WHAT TO DO IF YOU FEEL A MIDLIFE CRISIS COMING ON
By Harley Street psychotherapist Christine Webber, author of Too Young to Get Old (Piatkus, £9.99) and Who’d Have Thought It? (On Call, £7.99; to order a copy with a 25 per cent discount until 23 July, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.)
- Hold it up to the light. Really examine your feelings to accurately identify their source. Which area (or areas) are leaving you dissatisfied? What thoughts and fears are making you anxious?
- Examine your options. Once you’re certain of the areas you’d like to change, think creatively. You may not be able to walk out of your job, but could you negotiate one day a week working from home so that you can begin to plan other things in your life?
- Make SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound. ‘I want to lose lots of weight’ or, ‘I want fun back in my marriage’ are too vague. ‘I want to lost two stone by the end of the year’ or, ‘I want to go on two date nights a month with my husband’ are much more achievable.
- Pick up old passions. What did you used to enjoy that you’ve let drift? The midlife crisis carries a strong sense of loss for the person you once were. Building pleasure back into your days can lighten the mood.
- Share with others. Be as honest as possible and explain the reasons behind any plans to the people who will be impacted. It often helps to speak to an older friend who may have come out the other side of a potential midlife crisis, too.
- Take responsibility. Blaming others, burying feelings with destructive behaviour or telling yourself it’s too late will add to your hopelessness. Accept responsibility for where you are now and start chipping away with small changes.
– Out of Time by Miranda Sawyer is published by HarperCollins, price £8.99; to order copies with a 25 per cent discount until 23 July, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.
– It’s Not a Midlife Crisis, It’s an Opportunity by Andrew G Marshall is published by Marshall Method Publishing, price £12.99.