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Midlife Crises: Front-Line Dispatches


The wives of men in midlife crisis are usually enraged at the "other women" who may enter their husbands' lives at that vulnerable point.

I received many angry letters from wives and ex-wives in response to a recent column about the problems of single women who are dating men in midlife crisis.

These letters assumed that midlife crisis has only one meaning--a married man having an affair, usually with a younger woman.

Male midlife crisis is broader than that. It involves a questioning of career goals, priorities, values and life direction, and it's not solely the experience of married men. Single men also go through midlife crises. For singles, in fact, the dilemma may revolve around whether to get married and start a family.

The definition of midlife crisis aside, it is important that the voices of distressed wives and ex-wives be heard, and that the issues they raise be addressed.

One irate woman wrote: "I am greatly annoyed at your considerable sympathy for the single woman involved with a married man. What about the wife, after 20 or more years of marriage, having this turbulence thrust upon her? No matter how good the marriage, living with another person is never perfect. When he meets a new woman it builds his ego to know that she finds him interesting and attractive. The wife has probably already gone through her midlife crisis with little or no support from him, and now he is shattering their marriage and creating emotional havoc for her and the children. Invariably the man is looking for change and is not open to counseling.

"Six months ago my husband left our 20-year marriage to have space and to work out his problems. Of course, there's more to it than that--including an 18-month extramarital relationship. It's a shame he couldn't put more effort into our marriage.

"The male midlife crisis probably should be renamed the 'midlife dump.' "

Another woman emphasized the long-lasting effects of the pain and rejection and the feeling of being duped that the woman suffers. "It is a pain that lingers and resurfaces at the most unusual moments. For example, after two years of therapy and sessions with a marriage counselor (my husband refused to come along), I feel I have finally managed to get my life back in order--until I see an episode on a TV program that suggests that every man is breaking up his marriage for another woman. The show brought to mind the strange excuses that I was given--and that I believed."

Others wrote of their self-doubts: "Did I do something wrong? Did I care too much? Did I overprotect and let him get away with too much? Did I nag?" And many talked of their dismay at having to face a future so different than the one they envisioned: "Now at 50-plus I must find a new way of life and a job to support myself in the manner I have been accustomed to. Great way to live my senior years!"

The letters from single women who are dealing with men in midlife crisis proclaim that it's no picnic for them either.

One woman wrote that the man she had a "flirtation" with suddenly ended his marriage. He told her he'd been unhappily married for years. He then pursued her ardently, had her give up her apartment and move into a house for the two of them. After she moved in, he decided to reconcile with his wife and moved her out again.

But none of the single women address the questions frequently asked by angry wives: "Don't these women care that they are entering a man's life when he's extremely vulnerable, and that they are breaking up a longstanding marriage and family? Aren't they at all concerned about the wife?"

Accepting the Status Quo

The "other women" I've spoken to as a psychologist care a little and feel somewhat guilty, but not enough to end the relationship. There are several reasons:

1--The "other woman" often does not enter the relationship wanting the man to leave his wife and commit himself to her. (That sometimes develops later.) This is particularly true now, when affairs with married men are much more common than they were a decade ago.

2--The "other woman" usually knows the wife only through the husband's words, and she often hears how bad things are, that he hasn't loved his wife in years, that he's unhappy and, at times, that the wife is terrible.

3--The man tells her how much he values her, that she makes him happy, that he can't imagine life without her, etc. The "other woman" begins to think of the wife as his past and herself as his future.

4--She truly feels that she is good for the man and believes that it would be a tragedy for herself and for him if he goes back to his wife.

Because of these beliefs and feelings, her own powerful attachment to the man and the "all is fair" attitude that seems to exist because of the scarcity of single men, she usually is not deterred by sympathetic feelings for the wife. I've been told that this is the way extramarital affairs happen. What do you think?

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