How are you supposed to kill yourself after 40?

Midlife Crisis: How to get started

For many, middle age begins a period of doubt, worry and fear. The psychologist Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello explains why the midlife crisis often hits men more severely than women - and why the second half of life can be more fulfilling than many think

GEO WISSEN: Professor Perrig-Chiello, the term “midlife crisis” has been in common parlance for around 40 years. Does it even have a scientific core, or is it just a popular label for strange behaviors among women and men in midlife?

PASQUALINA PERRIG-CHIELLO: For a long time it was like this: Clinical psychologists who mainly work with people with serious problems said “Yes, there is actually such a thing as a midlife crisis”. To a certain extent, they observed her in her everyday work and life. Developmental psychologists, who tend to look at the population as a whole, tended to deny this.

For them, critical phases in the middle of life were simply an individual event - not one that all people deal with equally. Meanwhile, however, there are many studies that leave no doubt: Despite all the individual differences, middle age is generally a crisis-prone time, a worrying phase, often full of self-doubt and discouragement - similar to puberty or retirement, which are also almost are important, often critical, transition phases in every résumé.

Certain dates can also be used to determine how difficult mid-life is for many. Surveys show that most cases of depression or burnout occur in their late 40s, and most divorces also occur at this age. Crises in this phase can therefore look very different. While some may struggle in a partnership, others are facing a crisis in their job.

Is there nothing that unites these midlife crises?

But - because as multifaceted as the problems may be, one question often arises: what makes sense. What is the point of my work? What is the point of my relationship? What is the meaning of my life? Until then, a person still had a perspective, a goal for his striving, but many of us often lose it in the middle of life. Quite a few things appear to have been achieved, used, established. We painfully realize that we can no longer realize all our plans - and we are plagued by fear of not having “lived” life, of having built a “wrong” life.

Unfortunately, many people do not take these questions and fears seriously enough, also because those around them tend to smile about them. For many, the “midlife crisis” is more of an exaggerated behavior than a serious problem. But it is precisely these questions and fears that plunge us into deeper crises: For example, some then work beyond what is healthy, or they neglect their partner or ignore their needs for relaxation.

What does it depend on how someone deals with these questions and fears?

The individual personality factors are decisive: An open, active person who thinks ahead about future changes has a little easier time accepting these changes. It is different with people who attach great importance to routines, who are concerned with safety, who are more fearful and neurotic: They quickly lose the ground under their feet when faced with such questions. This also applies to people who cannot or do not want to talk about change processes.

Are there gender differences?

Women and men alike have problems in midlife, but women generally interact more with others and therefore usually get through this time better.
In one of our research projects, for example, we asked the test subjects: "Who do you go to when you have a big personal problem?"

The men then replied in unison, almost reproachfully: “Of course to my wife!” They are extremely partner-centered; They also talk a lot with their friends, but about other topics such as their job or their hobbies, but hardly about personal matters.

The women, on the other hand, answered the same question: "I go to my mother, to my sister, to my girlfriend ..." The man as the contact person was one of the others.

What are the consequences of these gender patterns?

They make severe midlife crises more common in men. And the radical breaks that are sometimes associated with it. Some quit their job overnight; others go to the monastery - or even leave the family, possibly entering into a relationship with a younger partner.

Men usually take much more uncompromising steps than women because they have previously suppressed, concealed and denied more. Women flee less drastically, they are more likely to get help, as studies show.

With increasing age, however, it is a little different. Then women increasingly decide to leave the relationship, for example. They know that they will be in better health for longer, and then actively seek independence again.

One would think that today's 40-year-olds grew up in a completely different world than the generation before them. And they would have a different style of communication too.

We researchers thought so too, but in fact a lot is still the same when it comes to dealing with problems. Women have their broad social networks, men, on the other hand, usually want to deal with it themselves or at best with their partner.

We can also see this in the suicide rate, which skyrockets in men from around 60 to 65 years of age, while in women it remains almost stable over the years. When men can no longer solve their problems with strength or power, they drown their worries more often than women in alcohol - and sometimes they can think of no other way out than to evade the situation through suicide.

In psychology it is sometimes boldly said: "Women suffer, men suicide." That is of course not true in general terms, but in essence there is this tendency.

How do these gender differences come about?

This is still primarily due to socialization. Even today, the outward-looking behavior is primarily a matter for the boys; they tend to resolve conflicts with aggression, and try to assert themselves. They are subject to greater gender role stress than the girls. Boys still have to behave “masculine”, girls have more freedom.

Prof. Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello

The psychologist and psychotherapist, born in 1952, was honorary professor at the Institute for Psychology at the University of Bern until 2016. Her teaching and research focus is on developmental psychology of the lifespan, relationships between generations and well-being in old age.

She is the author of numerous books, including “In the middle of life. The discovery of middle age ”- a research report with many illustrative examples and photos.

Can the course of your life until mid-life give you an indication of whether you are getting into a major crisis or coping well with the situation?

Yes, that may well be the case. Because our studies show that people who have had problems with biographical transitions at an earlier point in time, for example during puberty or starting a career, often stumble from one crisis to the next.

They often have relationship problems, quarrel with their job, despair when they have to move to a new city for work or when they fall ill. We speak of a “self-made disaster”. It is astonishing that those affected apparently learn little from it. You keep falling back into wrong coping patterns.

And that cannot be prevented?

Yes, but that requires special events. That can be the encounter with a person who opens up new perspectives. Or in a crisis the realization that you need psychological help.

Does that have to be professional therapy?

Not necessarily. Ultimately, every conversation helps, every consultation that motivates you to pause for a moment. A consultation that shows a behavior pattern and offers new perspectives. The decisive factor is: You have to discover that you are not just a plaything of the circumstances and your own biography, but that you have personal responsibility and that you can also perceive it.

I have worked in many projects in which we looked for the requirements for well-being and health, we examined the smoking behavior of the test subjects, their eating habits and other things.

In the end, the strongest determinant was self-responsibility: in other words, the insight that you are largely responsible for your own path in life - and that you cannot blame your parents, your partner, society or fate for it.

Until then, however, you may have to go through some disillusionments, say goodbye to old dreams.

Giving up illusions is an important developmental task in middle age. Those who have never been disaffected never have the chance to get started and try something new. The psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung once said that the second half of life cannot be lived according to the pattern of the first. Many people only understand this through a crisis that can be very painful, but also healing.

You have to go through a deep valley so that you feel better afterwards?

In a way, yes. We know from cross-national studies that this trough is an almost universal phenomenon. Surveys in more than 80 countries, in industrialized countries, but also in Zimbabwe and Mexico, for example, have repeatedly shown that the curve of life satisfaction and well-being is U-shaped - regardless of marital status, income or gender.

Please explain that.

In their youth, people tend to feel strong and satisfied, and live inspired by hopes and high expectations. From their mid-30s, however, they begin to compare desire and reality more and more often - and the feeling of happiness steadily decreases until it reaches a low point. In Europe this is the case at 46 years, in emerging countries it is 43 years. Many people are then disappointed in the past and at the same time not very hopeful for the future, the second half of life seems downright threatening to many. After a few years, however, people are able to see the good again, they appreciate what they have experienced and can still experience. Satisfaction is increasing again on average - and sometimes it is greater than ever before.

How come

The certainty that life is in order seems to be a relief. The people are now crisis-tested and more relaxed, in short: Most have learned the lessons of life. You can call it life experience or maturity. In addition, they have finally established themselves professionally, often earn more money than before in life, and the children are now more independent, usually already in their own place of residence.

This is an abridged version. The whole interview with Pasqualina Perrig-Chielloread in GEO WISSEN No. 62 "Overcoming life crises". You can use the magazine very easily order here in the GEO shop.