Could you shed some light on the midlife behavior of some men? My husband of 35 years announced to me he was unhappy with our life and did not love me anymore. I suggested counseling, but he refused.
Our family doctor diagnosed depression, but he would not take medication. I bought books and tapes on midlife crisis. He laughed.
He finally admitted to having an "emotional affair" with a woman at his work, which he wanted to take to the next level.
He moved out of our house, filed for divorce and has no contact with me or our adult children. What makes a man act like this?
I am devastated beyond words. I can’t eat, sleep and barely make it through my workday. His children and grandchildren are hurt and confused. His sister is livid.
Over the past three years, his mother died and his father has Alzheimer’s. He is also turning 60 in a couple of months, while his new "friend" is 47. He wants to sell our house and start a complete new life. His behavior seems cruel, selfish and totally out of character. Is there any hope for saving our marriage?
— R.M., Las Vegas
This story is tragically common, yet every time I hear it, it makes me sad. For everybody. In some ways, especially for your husband.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: No, statistically speaking, there is very little hope for saving this marriage. Why? Because, to open any possibility of saving this marriage, your husband would have to have a change of mind and worldview akin to a religious experience. He would have to turn on a psychic dime and decide to interpret everything he’s feeling and everything he’s thinking and everything he’s doing as evidence of a personal, developmental crisis. A call to do "the work of middle age." The work of marriage. And, most importantly, the work of differentiation (personal growth.)
He’d have to become suspicious of his thoughts and feelings and behavior, not dissimilar to the way the schizophrenic Russell Crowe character in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) decides to identify and then summarily ignore the cast of his hallucinations.
He’d have to get serious about contemplating mortality and finitude. He’d have to learn to distinguish between his true passions and the web of ego-protection.
But that is not his worldview. His worldview is psychic survival, escape, freedom and the longing for happiness. And, if he’s typical of these kinds of stories, he’s convinced that his choices, however drastic and consequential, were his only option for survival, not dissimilar to a man who cuts off his own arm to escape death. I would guess he is certain this was necessary. The only way. The only choice.
Now, in hopes of being fair and balanced, let’s admit I know nothing at all about your marital history with him. I’m saying that, if the history contains egregious betrayals, chronic contempt, withholding of affection, romance and sexual courtship, drug/alcohol issues, etc., then certainly some middle-aged men do divorce for reasons other than developmental crisis.
And, again to be fair, let’s admit that occasionally people find the impetus to leave a dead, dying or otherwise unhealthy marriage by way of a new love interest. Neither this fact alone nor the other woman’s age necessarily evidence a midlife crisis.
But, statistically, these "escape relationships" rarely evolve into authentic life partnerships. They are much more often a bridge from point A to point B. When the new mates arrive at point B, the relationship often spirals out. Though not always. Say what you will about the dubious moral beginnings, but now and again these new relationships can and do thrive.
But, to hear you describe it, I have my doubts. The two pieces of evidence that most clearly point to crisis are depression and the incredulous relinquishing of bonds with his children. I’m saying that, if he did have a legitimate grievance with you and the marriage, if he did have a new relationship with authentic potential, and if he was not having a developmental crisis, then it follows that he would "man up" and face this pain openly with children. That nothing, not even a new love could coax him away from his call to be a faithful father.
Shed light? No amount of psychological chapter and verse can provide solace for your devastation. You’re going to be grieving for a long while. Grieving hard. Cling fiercely to your inner circle of support. And know this: You never had a chance here.
He didn’t give you a chance.
Originally published in View News, Dec. 28, 2010.