Midlife Crisis: How Women Cope

A new generation of smart, successful women is grappling with midlife crisis — as Sue Shellenbarger found out when her own life unraveled.

By Nancy M. Better

Can you have excitement in your life without danger?

One of the most fascinating things about a midlife crisis is that you can learn to direct reckless behavior into more productive activities. Taking a risk on a bungee jump or an ATV can teach you to take a constructive risk in your career or your relationships. These days, I regularly try things that make me uncomfortable, such as skiing difficult slopes. But I balance that by focusing more on my relationships with friends and family; in the early years of my crisis, I neglected them for work and other activities. I am also focusing on more spiritual pursuits, including attending church, meditating, and community-service work.

What is the link between menopause and midlife crisis?

The timing is just a coincidence. Many of the women in my book finished their midlife crises before they even began menopause. But the fact that midlife crisis and menopause so often overlap can make it seismic. Some women believe that hormonal changes fueled the rebirth of their creativity; for others, menopause only deepened their despair.

How do women’s and men’s midlife crises differ?

My research shows that women’s midlife crises are likely to stem from introspection, a family event, or problem, such as divorce or death or disappointment in their children. Men’s midlife crises are more likely to be driven by work or career issues. Even though more women these days are working, I find that these differences haven’t entirely disappeared. But men and women alike can be physically reckless, turning to adventure sports or extramarital affairs to deal with midlife angst.

How can you increase the odds of making your crisis a success?

The first step is awareness — seeing midlife as a major transition. You need to be mindful of the fact that you may have 30 or more years to live after you turn 50. It’s a privilege that no generation has had before. You can sharply raise the odds of having a successful midlife crisis by doing whatever you have to do to integrate the lost parts of yourself. Look back and remember what you loved, what gave you joy, what your dreams were, and go out and do it. Listen to your soul now, so you will not have to start adolescence all over again at 49.

Nancy M. Better has written for The New York Times and Smart Money, among other publications.

Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2005.

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