our everyday life

How to Keep Cool During a Partner's Midlife Crisis

by Amanda Ford

In an article for "The New York Times," entitled, "Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear," writer Laura A. Munson tells about the time her husband declared, after 20 years of marriage and two children, that he no longer wanted to continue their relationship or their family as it had been. He wanted out. Now! But, as Munson writes, her story "isn't the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a begging-him-to-stay story. It's a story about hearing your husband say, 'I don't love you anymore' and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen as a result." And what did happen? She stayed cool. And, despite a huge bump on their relationship road, in the end, their marriage remained intact. I found Munson's article insightful and inspiring, proof that a couple really can stick together when things go into crisis mode. It is my hope that these tips will help you to keep cool during your partner's midlife crisis.

Don't let your lover see you sweat. Stay cool. Breath. Don't react. Don't bite. When you feel the tensions of midlife crisis brewing, do whatever it takes to stay calm.

Get your ego out of the equation. In other words, don't take your partner's crisis as a personal affront on you. You did not cause this crisis, nor can you cure it. If your partner tries to make his or her crisis about you, stay calm (see Step 1) and say kindly, "I'm sorry you are having a difficult time right now. I want to do whatever I can to help, but your internal upset is not my fault." Repeat this like a broken record.

Ask, "How can we give you the space you need without ruining our family and our relationship?" While confronting her husband's midlife crisis, Munson said to him, "There are times in every relationship when the parties involved need a break. What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?" A couple can take time apart without parting ways entirely. Let your partner know that you are willing to work this through together.

Be flexible. Now is the time you must let go of all those visions you've been holding onto about what marriage looks like, about what true love means, about how a healthy relationship "should" function. Remember, a brittle stick will break in the wind. You must be supple, willing and able to bend under the pressure of this storm.

Take responsibility for your own happiness. Munson writes that just before her husband declared he did not love her any longer she had "finally managed to exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my control. I'd seen the insanity of that equation and decided to take responsibility for my own happiness. And I mean all of it." No matter what is going on in your external world, the quality of your internal universe depends only on one factor: your attitude. Make a commitment to be joyful and grateful in your life, no matter how your partner is acting out.

See the best in your partner. Often midlife crises are fueled by feelings of inadequacy, shame, disillusionment and insecurity. Let your partner know that, in your eyes, he or she is still desirable, incredible and absolutely, perfectly, completely right.

Remember, everybody, despite gender, despite race, despite marital status, despite economic standing, despite religious affiliation--despite pretty much every biological and lifestyle variation you can conceive of--has a crisis or two (or more!) during his or her lifetime. Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Am I worthy? How am supposed to live in this crazy world? These and many other existential questions are a natural part of the human condition.

Set a private deadline. How long will you allow your partner space to sort through his or her midlife crisis? Munson waited for 4 months before her husband changed his attitude and was willing to work through his emotions with his wife, as a couple. For 4 months he was unreliable, withdrawn, angry and blamed his external environment for his internal state. Munson waited and acted unphased by his behavior, but in her mind she had given him 6 months. How long will you allow your partner to work through his or her midlife crisis? Six months? A year? A lifetime? Setting a deadline in your mind will keep you sane when you feel like you can't take it anymore. "It's just 6 months," you can tell yourself. "If things aren't better in 6 months, I will address the issue head on, or if need be, leave." But remember, this deadline is private. Telling your partner, "You have 6 months to shape up or I'm gone," is giving an ultimatum and will only add pressure to the situation and push your partner further from you.

Make your children's happiness priority. If there are children in the equation, take extra steps to ensure that they are sheltered, happy and know that they are loved and have a strong family unit, even if one parent is in the midst of an identity struggle.