June 23, 2003 at 2:20 AM ET
Sports, cars and hairpieces. Robbing the cradle and running away. Sure they're cliche, but if these images leap to mind when you hear the words "midlife crisis," you're not alone. The thing about cliches, though, is most are based on fact. In this case, the facts are staggering. More than half of respondents to a recent poll on Notmuch.com, a website produced by Wisconsin Public Radio, said that the midlife crisis is a "very real, gut-wrenchingly depressing experience that we all go through at one time or another." Does this mean that the man in your life is suffering through a crisis of his own? Not necessarily, but here are eight symptoms of the male midlife crisis and what you can do about them:
He says life is a bore
If your man once liked his job and was happy at home but now expresses restlessness or apathy, he might be headed for a midlife crisis. There is usually one of two reasons for this: Some men hit middle age and notice that many of their dreams have gone (and might remain) unfulfilled. Other men react this way because they have accomplished so many career goals that they wonder if there is anything left to do. Regardless of the reasoning, a bored man wants to shake up his routine. Typically, this means anything from quitting his job to making frequent plans to paint the town red with "his boys."
When this happens within a marriage or relationship, it's common for women to comfort themselves by thinking it's just a phase. But experts say that's a mistake. "There is a tendency to ignore, dismiss or deny the signals at this time, hoping they will go away," according to Lifematters.com, an online library of articles designed to educate people about health and well-being. "We work harder or distract ourselves only to postpone the inevitable, for months or, sometimes, years." Sometimes, a man might feel unchallenged for a long time and that can take a serious toll on a relationship. So, what can you do? Pay attention to your partner's restlessness and really listen when he talks to you about his concerns. Encourage him to make minor changes—trying a new cuisine, taking up a hobby—as opposed to more drastic ones like drowning his sorrows at the local bar or moving to Bora Bora.
He is thinking about (or already is) having an affair
Has your longtime, faithful husband had a wandering eye lately? Are strange women calling the house? Do his shirts reek of someone else's perfume? Does he have all sorts of excuses—from helping out friends to working late—to explain why he hasn't been around the house lately? If you are asking yourself these questions, your husband might be cheating on you. This is just one of the painful results of a midlife crisis. Jim Conway, psychologist and co-founder of Midlife Dimensions, a group that offers counseling and support to midlife couples and their children, says that midlife men often "turn tender" and start to focus more on people and feelings, but ironically some marriages suffer for it; men are easily drawn into an affair if their wives don't understand the changes in them and communication breaks down, says Conway. But if he does have an affair, remember that it is never your fault. He made the choice to break your vows. "Can a wife prevent a midlife affair? Probably not," says Pat Gaudette, founder of The Midlife Wives Club and co-author of How to Survive Your Husband's Midlife Crisis. "She can confront, demand, give ultimatums, but if a man is amid crisis he won't be listening."
He is suddenly making impetuous decisions about money and/or his career
Pay attention if your husband suddenly loses interest in his career, wants a different one or splurged on that red Ferrari he always dreamed of driving (even though you have a mortgage to pay). These actions are indicative of your man's sudden desire to live life to its fullest. He's probably thinking, "Maybe I can make up for all the things I let slip by in my youth." It's a sure sign of a midlife crisis. But this symptom is easier to overcome as a couple than some of the others. Midlife advisor Robert L. Adams says that men and women simply misunderstand each other. "Often, husbands fear they will only upset their wives if they raise a new idea before they are convinced it's a good direction to move in," says Adams. "In other words, what appears 'impetuous' to the wife is actually the result of a long thought-process on the part of the husband." This is the type of gripe that requires patience and communication. Try to understand why this career change, major purchase or investment was important to him and how he came to this conclusion. Then discuss the matter rationally.
He makes a dramatic change in his personal style or appearance and is suddenly spending lots of time in front of a mirror
If your man has kicked up the vanity a notch (for example, wants hair plugs or starts getting facials even though he used to take pleasure in shower-free weekends), then you may have a problem. If the guy who always prided himself on his Roman nose is now talking about rhinoplasty, then your problem is a little bigger. The first step in boosting your man's bruised (and aging) ego is to compliment him. Sometimes, however, this isn't enough. That's when you just have to be patient.
Unfortunately, an increased sense of vanity is sometimes a sign that a man is having an affair. Obviously this is a bigger problem that usually requires couples counseling to repair the relationship, if it's possible at all.
He has little interest in spending time (or having sex) with you
For couples who had a nonexistent sex life before reaching midlife, less nookie over 50 doesn't necessarily mean hubby is in crisis. But if he seems to be struggling with his self-esteem or is generally unhappy, sex might become an additional burden to him. On the other hand, if he's having an affair, he might actually get friskier with you so you don't suspect. Keep an eye out for major changes one way or another. And, again, ask your husband about anything that's confusing you. The experts agree that good communication skills are important to any marriage and are especially useful during a midlife crisis—his or yours!
He is drinking too much or abusing other substances
This one is obvious. The smell of liquor on his breath, empty bottles around the house, bloodshot eyes and erratic behavior are all indications that your man might have a serious drinking problem. But this is one problem that your man may have to deal with largely on his own. "A wife can tell a husband that she disagrees with his behavior, but she cannot 'make' him stop any behavior that he doesn't want to stop," says Gaudette. "Counseling for her, him or the both of them might help a couple get through this type of crisis, but he has to be willing." If he doesn't think he has a problem, Gaudette suggests that his loved ones participate in Al-Anon or another similar group that provides support to relatives of substance-dependent people.
He is displaying the classic signs of depression—sleeping more, loss of appetite, malaise
This behavior is often the result of a family tragedy such as a parent's death or another type of shock to the system such as getting laid off from a longtime job. Difficult life events can also trigger depression and exacerbate a midlife crisis. Although the American Psychological Association reports that depression affects more than 6 million men every year, many men choose to ignore the signs because they consider it "unmanly" to admit they feel blue and out of sorts. If you see these symptoms in your man, you can definitely encourage him to see a therapist, psychologist or even a religious leader who can counsel him. It's not uncommon for a partner to need extra support of her own in these cases. You might want to join him at couples therapy or do the same on your own.
He is overly nostalgic and constantly reminiscing about his youth or his first love
At midlife, some men start to ponder "what if," and they question their past decisions. The unfortunate thing about nostalgia, though, is that everyone seems to see the past through rose-colored glasses. Of course, you know that your husband has no idea what would have really happened if he had married his high school girlfriend (unless you were his high school girlfriend), but now he can dream about what it would have been like—and chances are, he only remembers the good parts of their relationship. This fantasy feels good to him because even if he loves you, he can leave the kids, the chores and the bills out of his daydreams about his first love. But don't worry. This make-believe world is only dangerous if he starts to pursue a relationship with the woman in question or pulls wild stunts with his old fraternity brothers in the name of the good ol' days.
Francesca Di Meglio is a contributing writer for iVillage. Follow her on Google +.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.