On middle-aged men in crisis

In my previous post I wrote about the problem of suicide amongst middle aged men.1 It seems that this group has the highest suicide rate in this country, and one suggestion is that this is to do with the current economic situation.  In my post I argued that there could be a more complex explanation, linked to the (lack of) social integration experienced by many men in this age group.  I ended the post by suggesting that men in this group faced a real existential crisis, which all too often ended in suicide.

Now, there is often talk about the ‘mid-life crisis’ faced by men of a certain age.  With women this is often medicalised and called the ‘menopause’, which is a neat way of sidestepping its more profound existential meaning.  With middle aged men this mid-life crisis can result in them having  affairs with much younger women (and sometimes men), or even leaving their wives and families in order to start a new life with someone young enough to be their daughter.  Yesterday Rachel Royce wrote a rather scathing article on this whole subject in The Daily Mail in relation to ‘successful’ career men, and made particular reference to certain media personalities. 2  The thrust of her argument was that, contrary to what most men in this position might hope for, it’s not their good looks or sexual prowess that the women are interested in.  Rather, it’s the allure of ‘success’ itself.  As she pointed out, would some non-descript individual on £15,000 a year really be so attractive to such women?

Even if we note the sub-text of this article, which is that Royce is a woman scorned, there does seem to be more than a grain of truth in what she says.  However, nowhere in the piece does she make reference to the (in)famous mid-life crisis that might be driving the man to such indiscretions in the first place.  Of course, in many ways this is understandable as she is viewing this from the woman’s perspective.  What, however, if such men really are in some form of crisis?   In many ways it’s easy to make fun of, and has provided the basis for many satires and comedies.  But maybe it’s not so funny if the man in question is not a ‘success’ (as judged by society), or if instead of having a affair he is driven to deep depression or something even worse.

From a psychotherapeutic position I think rather than get too caught up in the immediate drama of the situation, for example the fact that a particular (successful or otherwise) middle aged man in running off with a much younger woman, it is much more helpful to ask how that particular individual arrived at this position in the first place.   And this means more than just looking at the individual’s current work situation, his current relationships, and so on.   Rather, it may shed far more light on the situation to look at what drove the individual to build such a career, to construct such a life, to develop such relationships, that have now ended up in such turmoil.

The key point to remember here is that for many people, both men and women, building a ‘successful’ career, or, in a wider context, building a ‘successful’ life, is a way of coping with a whole range of complex and often conflicting thoughts, emotions and inter-personal relationships.   Yes, of course it’s also about earning a living, but there are many ways to do this, so why do particular individuals choose particular ways to achieve this?   And by mid-life (however this may be defined) it often become clear to the individual in question how well or badly he or she has ‘succeeded’ in what they set out to achieve.

It’s also important to note that for each person, the reasons for their chosen career/life path will be different.  From a psychological perspective this might have to do with a desire for recognition from significant others; originally their parents,  and later on surrogate parents such as bosses, partners, etc.  For others it may be a case of finding some form of structure in their lives that gives them meaning; a way of holding together what may be a very fragile sense of being, a precarious sense of identity.

But why the (mid-life) crisis?  Again this will vary from one person to another.   Going back to our ‘successful’ middle-aged men that Rachel Royce has commented on, it may be that for some men the crisis is triggered by reaching a point in their careers when everything becomes routine, there is little excitement or any real challenge left in the job.  All the time they were striving to get somewhere, that was enough.  Now it’s just a drudge.  Furthermore, it may be that no-one is really recognising them anymore for who they are or what they have achieved; they are just being taken for granted, however ‘successful’ they may be.  Their wives/partners and children take for granted the regular (high) income, the comfortable lifestyle, the nice house, the two or three holidays abroad every year, etc, etc.  So it only takes an attractive young woman at work, or in the pub, or wherever, to show an interest in him, to recognise him for his true greatness…….

For other men, however, the crisis can be very different.  Indeed it has the potential for real tragedy.  But this is only because the tragedy was always already there, just waiting to happen.  These are the individuals for whom a career (‘successful’ or otherwise) is nothing to do with a desire for recognition.  Rather it is about sustaining a sense of identity, which is always in danger of falling apart.  Such people can indeed be very ‘successful’ in the eyes of society, and many reach the top of their chosen profession.  Others may end up on the streets, in mental health day centres, in prison, or dead.  For these individuals, the crisis (which actually can occur at any age) is often triggered by a change in circumstances – either at work or in their other relationships.  Paradoxically, perhaps, sometimes it’s ‘success’ itself which can cause the problem; for example being promoted, or even becoming a father.  This can be enough to destabilise the individual’s fragile sense of being and identity.  And an attractive young woman showing an interest can trigger all kinds of thoughts and feelings that the individual finds impossible to deal with.

  1. http://www.therapeia.org.uk/wp/2012/09/12/middle-aged-men-and-suicide/ []
  2. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2202432/Wake-sad-middle-aged-fools-Its-body-girls-after.html []