The University Record, September 21, 1992

‘Midlife crisis’ better described as ‘midlife turning points’

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Does the so-called “midlife crisis” really exist, or is it just a myth with a catchy name?

According to U-M and Cornell University researchers who study adult psychological development, “midlife turning points” is a more accurate label and, yes, these really do exist and can have a profound effect on the people who experience them.

“We have had intensive interviews with 73 adults, ages 30–70, who volunteered for this pilot study. We found that people in their 40s and early 50s—midlife—approached crises differently and understood them differently than did adults in their 30s and 60s,” say Elaine Wething-ton, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Cornell, and Ronald C. Kessler, professor of sociology and research scientist at the Institute for Social Research at U-M.

People in their 30s tended to see their difficulties as external to them, the researchers say. “For instance, a woman in her 30s who was facing divorce was likely to say her problems were situational and not of her own making. ‘The breakup of my marriage is a crisis, which I blame on my husband, but I can handle it,’ she might say.”

People in their 40s or 50s, however, took more responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions, according to the researchers. “They were more reflective, introspective and interested in changing themselves. They also were conscious that changes they made would affect their futures.

“The same woman facing divorce in her 50s now would scrutinize her own contributions to the failure of the marriage as carefully as she would her husband’s. She might say, ‘The breakup of my marriage is a crisis which is very difficult to handle. How can I avoid undergoing all this pain again by changing myself so I won’t be attracted to the same kind of man the next time or won’t make the same mistakes in the marriage?’”

According to Kessler and Wethington, who reported their findings at the American Psychological Association in August, the midlife turning point is a two-step process.

“It begins with an insight into either yourself or an important person in your life, or into a life situation such as a marriage or a job. That insight then becomes the motivation to make a change, to redirect energies and improve one’s life,” they said.

About 80 percent of people in the study reported that their psychological insights were triggered by severe life crises such as an affair, divorce or losing a job. Another 10 percent attributed their insights to therapy and another 10 percent to a positive life transition such as an important new job or a new love.

Kessler and Wethington also found that the types of insights tended to cluster by age group.

“People in their early 40s were more likely to say that they hit turning points that involved personal growth—a recognition that they needed to change themselves and consciously redirect their lives. Mastery of themselves and their environment were critical goals.

“People in their late 40s and early 50s, however, were more likely to develop insights that were related to the need for endurance, acceptance or resignation. They also were the group most likely to acknowledge that there were limitations on their ability to control their personal situations, and family and job environments. They were the most likely to recognize the need to let go of the past.”

Once people passed age 55, external crises did not seem to generate insights and life changes, the researchers added. “Presumably, people in this age group had already had such turning points, such as recognizing limits to their personal control. They were beyond those midlife developments.”

Kessler and Wetherington currently are conducting the second phase of the study with 120 volunteers who come from a broad range of socioeconomic, psychological and personal backgrounds.