January 15, 2008 Mind Crisis? Maybe Hes a Narcissistic Jerk By RICHARD A. FRIEDMAN, M.D. With the possible exception of the dog ate my homework, there is no handier excuse for human misbehavior than the midlife crisis. Popularly viewed as a unique developmental birthright of the human species, it supposedly strikes when most of us have finally figured ourselves out only to discover that we have lost our youth and mortality is on the horizon. No doubt about it, life in the middle ages can be challenging. (Full disclosure: Im 51.) What with the first signs of physical decline and the questions and doubts about ones personal and professional accomplishments, it is a wonder that most of us survive. Not everyone is so lucky; some find themselves seized by a seemingly irresistible impulse to do something dramatic, even foolish. Everything, it appears, is fair game for a midlife crisis: ones job, spouse, lover you name it. I recently heard about a severe case from a patient whose husband of nearly 30 years abruptly told her that he felt stalled and not self-actualized and began his search for self-knowledge in the arms of another woman. It was not that her husband no longer loved her, she said he told her; he just did not find the relationship exciting anymore. Maybe its a midlife crisis, she said, then added derisively, Whatever that is. Outraged and curious, she followed him one afternoon and was shocked to discover that her husbands girlfriend was essentially a younger clone of herself, right down to her haircut and her taste in clothes. It doesnt take a psychoanalyst to see that her husband wanted to turn back the clock and start over. But this hardly deserves the dignity of a label like midlife crisis. It sounds more like a search for novelty and thrill than for self-knowledge. In fact, the more I learned about her husband, it became clear that he had always been a self-centered guy who fretted about his lost vigor and was acutely sensitive to disappointment. This was a garden-variety case of a middle-aged narcissist grappling with the biggest insult he had ever faced: getting older. But you have to admit that Im having a midlife crisis sounds a lot better than Im a narcissistic jerk having a meltdown. Another patient, a 49-year-old man at the pinnacle of his legal career, started an affair with an office colleague. I love my wife, he said, and I dont know what possessed me. It didnt take long to find out. The first five years of his marriage were exciting. It was like we were dating all the time, he recalled wistfully. But once they had a child, he felt an unwelcome sense of drudgery and responsibility creep into his life. Being middle-aged had nothing to do with his predicament; it was just that it took him 49 years to reach a situation where he had to seriously take account of someone elses needs, namely those of his baby son. In all likelihood, the same thing would have happened if he had become a father at 25. Why do we have to label a common reaction of the male species to one of lifes challenges the boredom of the routine as a crisis? True, men are generally more novelty-seeking than women, but they certainly can decide what they do with their impulses. But surely someone has had a genuine midlife crisis. After all, dont people routinely struggle with questions like What can I expect from the rest of my life? or Is this all there is? Of course. But it turns out that only a distinct minority think it constitutes a crisis. In 1999, the MacArthur Foundation study on midlife development surveyed 8,000 Americans ages 25 to 74. While everyone recognized the term midlife crisis, only 23 percent of subjects reported having one. And only 8 percent viewed their crisis as something tied to the realization that they were aging; the remaining 15 percent felt the crisis resulted from specific life events. Strikingly, most people also reported an increased sense of well-being and contentment in middle age. So what keeps the myth of the midlife crisis alive? The main culprit, I think, is our youth-obsessed culture, which makes a virtue of the relentless pursuit of self-renewal. The news media abound with stories of people who seek to recapture their youth simply by shedding their spouses, quitting their jobs or leaving their families. Who can resist? Most middle-aged people, it turns out, if we are to believe the definitive survey. Except, of course, for the few mainly men, it seems who find the midlife crisis a socially acceptable shorthand for what you do when you suddenly wake up and discover that youre not 20 anymore. Richard A. Friedman is a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. I always suspected the male mid-life crisis was bullshit. It's nice to have a respected physicians input though. Funny how you rarely hear about women having a mid-life crisis. I know it happens it just doesn't seem like it's as news worthy. Perhaps because women handle these life changes and instances of boredom by doing more constructive things like starting a new career, going back to school, or starting a new non-profit yet fabulously successful business. . .