Midlife Transition

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Mid-Life --- Transition or Crisis?

from a talk by Graham Fawcett at Highfield Oval, 3 July 2000.

Authors Caveat

Two government warnings

  • If you get stirred up by anything tonight, sorry. I don't do counselling on the site as a clinical psychologist and not everything applies to you but some will and all of it will apply to someone or other.
  • And curiously, the Bible is as silent on mid-life as it is on adolescence, may we conclude there is no problem? I will take a psychologists approach but as a Christian, there is not a lot we don't know about the mid-life transition.

What is Mid-Life and When?

Typically Begins Between 35 and 45

Less age related, not biological for men though it is for women. In either case more to do with life circumstances than biology. Often later if you have kids.

Crisis or Transition?

It is referred to as mid-life crisis but while it is a crisis, it is not terrible or dangerous, more an experience to do with who we are and what are God's plans for our life. It is a transition from early adulthood to late adulthood. Late adulthood begins at about 50, no more than 60. They are very different stages of life. We don't stop growing psychologically due to leaving school at age 18. There is another positive stage if handled well --- old age. All stages can be handled well or badly. Life continues to get better if handled well. It is not a slow decline from 15 to senility and death as our culture would have us believe. Many people say late adulthood is the best time of life. Early adulthood is where science happens best, philosophy happens later. Knowledge early, wisdom later. Some grades in civil service can't enter until 35 at the earliest. They want wisdom and not knowledge.

adolescence ==> early ==> adulthood ==> mid-life ==> older adulthood ==> old age

Revisit of Decisions Made in Adolescence

What is it? It is a revisiting of adolescence --- who am I (identity) and what am I going to do (role)? Men and women handle them differently.

Here are some of the identity questions.

Questions adolescents face

  • How do you worship? In a lively or a contemplative way.
  • Am I going to have a partner, a spouse?
  • What gender/sex am I? Am I male, female or both? Adolescence usually settle on one or other.
  • What gender am I sexually attracted to? Usually male or female. That is usually worked on between 13 and 17.
  • What cause or political party am I going to ally myself with? Interestingly that cause may be picked up or be buried in adulthood. One of the best predictors of how you vote at 40 is the same as 18. It is a revisiting.

Roles are also settled fairly early on

  • Eg, I am going to be a wife and mother, or a money earner.
  • What am I going to do with my life? I am going to build a career, change the world....
  • However, between 35 and 45 we wake up one morning and think; "Oops, did I really mean that?" It is that oops, did I really mean that, that suggests that mid-life has begun.
  • Also the realisation and knowledge that one day you are really really really going to die. That can happen in an instant when a parent dies. It is not the 7-year-old angst as when the goldfish dies.

Growing Awareness of Mortality

More focus on how much time is left and on what to leave behind rather than what to accomplish. Early adults are consumed with how young they are and how much they have yet to accomplish. During the mid-life transition people begin to focus on how much time they have left. I've got 10 --- 20 years before I retire! How can I sequence that time and get the most out of it. We change from 'what can I' focus, to 'what can I leave behind and give on to the next generation, children, partner....' And the subconscious thought of how we will be remembered. What will I leave behind that will last. It sounds a bit macabre --- I am going to die soon. It is great stage of life --- it brings a new level of focus and determination creeps in --- "I am not going to be blown away, I am going to do this." It is not a depressing thing. These can all be done very well.

Women and Men Experience it Quite Differently

Traditionally women and men have experienced mid-life quite differently, but it will change.

Empty Nest

Women focus on the empty-nest. It is the question women ask who have devoted themselves to the task of being a mother. When the final child leaves, "What do I do now I don't have the children?" And a split second later, "Who am I?" Women collapse internally.

Role Identity --- Work/Career or Grandchildren

For up to 3 decades life is the children. She now has a choice. Some make the decision to wait for the grandchildren to come along, to pour their life into them. Others pinch themselves and say no, "I am going to do something different." Either way they had a role-identity decision to deal with. Women would often collapse internally until they recovered their 18 year old identity or get a new one.

Single women going through this should look how men go through it. It can be quite traumatic. There are fewer women whose prime identity is in the home.

Sexual Identity

There is a revisitation of the gender issue resolved by 18. Am I male female or both. One of the most common referrals is a depressed woman who comes to outpatient.... 'I'm gay and I don't know what to do about it.' For both men and women gender reasserts itself with venom. It is surprising to feel it revisited because it is unexpected and because of the power with which it comes. For single people there will be a sense of 'oh blow it, I've hung on for this long.' The biological clock kicks in, there are only so many eggs left. It is a vulnerability issue. For married women it is expressed differently to men.


Sexual problems of arousal or indifference can become quite common. The most common age for sexual dysfunction is mid-life. Who am I, what am I and where am I going? For women it is much more bound up in biological.


Spiritual questions arise. For women the issues are to pass something on, and the desire to understand why they are? These questions become very important and real. [Anyone under 40 who doesn't vote labour needs to get a life, over 40, vote conservative.]

Anyone under 40 who isn't a wild Christian has a problem, but afterward? The simple answers for complicated questions aren't enough. People want deeper, more complex and rich answers to the questions. A simple-minded 3 point sermon doesn't hack it. At 43 you can expect the spirituality you had as an 18 year old to return. It is likely to return to it in early 40s. If you held on to it all the way through then the style is the vigour with which you held it. People who are zealous at 18 are zealous at 40. Will find people who are gung-ho charismaniacs at 18 will become gung-ho contemplatives at 40 --- it has to do with zeal.

Sense of Opening Up of Possibilities

Women coming out from children will feel the options opening up --- more possibilities. If they can seize the moment they will. It is what 'Educating Rita' is about. If the partner doesn't allow it the divorce statistics are frightening because it is partnership or identity, that is the fault line. Men don't go through this, women do.

Menopause and Climacteric


Menopause is simply having your last period. Average age 51 for western women and increasing.


Climacteric is the collection of physiological changes that happen for up to 10 years on either side of menopause.

Signs of climacteric --- the signs of climacteric are important because otherwise women will be judged as having something else.

  • Psychological: depression, panic attacks, crying spells.
  • Somatic issues: faintness, tingling, headaches
  • Vasomotor: hot flushes, sweating, cold hands/feet

Often hard to tell if it is climacteric or something else. The depression may be your oppressive husband and abusive boss. [I think I got them round the wrong way.] It is critical that you tell the difference. Often people are referred to clinics and it is only the menopause. There is much benefit in talking to other women, mother, grandmother, they all went through a similar thing. Don't panic if life gets a little out of hand for a few months in your 40s. The other thing to bear in mind is that what is called depression may be grieving. For some, not all women, beauty is power. Lose your beauty, what is your power at attracting people, getting your way and so forth. If that is lost, who are you? It may not be depression but grief, 'what am I going to do now?' It takes some confession, particularly in this day and age. We have now become attuned to the sense that our identity is tied up to our abilities and not our look.

Men and What They Experience

Men experience emotional turmoil based upon:

Family Roles

There is hope, but not for the men. They have emotional turmoil that centre on their family roles and the issue of fatherhood --- was I a good enough father, did I do a good enough job? The family role can be threatening for the man. It is one of the 2 or 3 underlying factors of workaholic-ism. They are rarely happy at work but miserable at home. Workaholics are running from something, if he is an inadequate father, lover, husband etc he will flee to work where he can do something better. Men's identity usually is related to what they do. It is central to whom men are. If men are not doing family well they will go somewhere else.

Sexual Identity

Sexual identity raises its head --- HIV from the businessman's visit to Berlin. Am I a man, a woman? Am I attracted to men or women? For some men they can be socialised into being a man, get married, have children and at age 41 it falls apart. Same for women. Not passing judgement on this. It is the typical age of waking up and asking who I am and facing the issue and getting help on it. In the extreme they might even have a sex change. Problem in evangelicalism is that male and female are totally separate. The correct answer to the question of am I a man or a woman is yes, we carry some of both. This can force people into making a choice one way or the other. As people move into latter middle age to accept their other aspects --- it is acceptable for a macho man to explore his creative side.... The list of different aspects normally associated with men or with women can be generated by asking people what is traditionally male and what is female?

Work Values

Work values change too. Men and single women go through the same path. It will change later as the number of women staying at home with the children declines. Stops being, 'What can I get from the company?' to, 'What can I leave behind and can I do it with this company?'. 'I hate being a general practitioner and will go to work 30 hours a week in a fish farm in Scotland.' It is a changing perspective. Recall the old story of an entrepreneur sitting on a bank with a fisherman, "Why don't you borrow a lot of money, buy a fleet of ships so you can sit and do nothing in 20 years." "Why, I am doing nothing now!" It is not selfish. Many do move from the company to the individual track. They think about where their career is going and what they will leave. There is an artificial sense of the closing down of options. There had been a steady increase in scope and influence up till age 40 but it can't keep going, especially with all these new upstarts who are coming along. Often feel left behind. It is common but not universal.

Vulnerability Factors

Loss of Mother Aged Under 11

Lack of Employment Outside the Home

Lack of Confiding Relationships Outside Marriage

Someone with whom you can share intimate confiding things. Men playing squash once a week doesn't count, need to talk to one another. It must consist of more than "128 Mbytes, gigahertz". Need to confide and your partner doesn't count.

Life Events

Life events --- it is a celebration. It is a process to be gone through and not something to be tolerated and healed from. Graham's boss journalled her life's experience and closed the book and looked forward to the rest of her life. More on life events --- these are the stresses in our lives. Strain is like pulling on this pen --- unlikely to break it because it is pulling along its strength. Stress pulls across the grain and there is danger of breaking. Give a filing clerk 45 instead of 20 things to file and it will be a strain. Put them in data processing and it is stress. It is any change in your life and may be positive or negative --- including holidays and Christmas. The greatest stress factor is the death of your own child --- 100. Death of partner --- 95, death of parent very high. Christmas about 10, change of home.... So what? It isn't so much that you have these stressors, but how many you accumulate over a 12 month period. It takes about 12 months to get over things. Things remind you about the event over the year --- "It is 3 months to the day since we moved...."

Trauma is different --- it can go on for a very long time. We can all handle stress to a different degree. Some have high and some have lower stress thresholds. Nothing spectacular happens when you cross the threshold but your immune system works less, become vulnerable to illness. If you are going through mid-life crisis it will accentuate this. If you can arrange for no one to die, no Christmas and no holidays in the 40s. Mid-life will be accentuated by some of these things that happen. Understanding this helps.

Lack of Social Support

What makes people particularly vulnerable is when these events all come together without social support. There is some room to moderate life events --- don't make huge changes in your life or make major decisions without a huge amount of social support. Some people are very good at building social support networks but need to teach others how to do it. Mental health for people who are religious is better when fellowship works. When life events happen, the way to work at it is to journal and focus and work out what emotions belong to the life event and which to the mid-life event. And keep yourself accountable. Talk to your friends.

Social support is a complete life saver. In Christian jargon it is called fellowship. Psychologists have quantified it. It is protective against most forms of cancer, highly protective of your immune system, enhances spirituality and is major protection against most forms of mental breakdown. Best thing since prozac. It consists of your network of relationships. It is a network and more than person A and person B relate to one another. And there is an exchange of close, confiding, intimate information. Each can lean on the other. It is not counselling, dependency, co-dependency, it is friendship. But social support is more than just one on one friendship, B also knows C. That network of relationship is highly protective of your immune system, spiritual protection.... Mentally unhealthy tend not to be in that kind of network. It is one of the joys of being in YWAM for many years. Actually in YWAM we often have more than we realise. After the first few years of people leaving we discover that many come back and many who have left stay in close touch. The factor is not size but density. Churchill said, "if anyone has more friends than they can count on one hand they are lying." Most people have between 1 and 4 really close friends. There is just not enough emotional energy to go around. We only have so much energy to go around. And they don't need to be geographically close. The friends in the network need to know one another and we must have some face to face contact. Normally it is good to have someone who doesn't know you are in YWAM and good if one of them has known you for a very long time and seen you through many life transitions. And the network may change over time. These people care for and love one another. The importance of this for mid-life is that these are the people you will process the decisions with.

Life events plus no social support is a recipe for trouble.


Well adapted people see 40+ as happier than their 30s and 50+ brings benefits of wisdom and inner security if the 40s are handled well. To summarise, it is a life event that makes the transition from early to old adult hood of about 50. We handle it by understanding that certain things need to be revisited. And they should be welcomed, take pleasure in them and ask the very best of God, "What are you saying about it?" He may be taking you through a very intense and deep spiritual experience leading to real eldership in the community. If you don't have social support then learn to build them. You are open to a lot of nasty things if you don't have it. Many people reach 40, 50, 60 or 80 and haven't ever grown up.

Some Useful Questions to Ask

  • How old do you feel? It should be within 10 years of your chronological age. If it isn't then go and talk to somebody. Most feel younger than they actually are. Manage it so that life events happen. Take care, you are already stressed because of mid-life but it is only temporary. You will get your strength back at 50, you are not stuck with this inability to handle more stress.
  • At what age did I stop growing in different areas of my life? Journal and do some work on that. Can see that some parts of us stop growing at different ages and often we then find that we emulate our own parents.
  • What did I want to be when I was different ages? Start at age 7 and keep going forward until you get an answer. You might come up with a frivolous answer like cowboy or astronaut, then ask what are the qualities of that role. If you are still adventurous... good, if not, ask what got switched off and when.
  • What you want as your epitaph? This has the profound ability to switch off your parents voice.

Questions From the Floor

Do people leave YWAM at this age? It is more about transition rather than leaving. It is less, "Shall I run another dts?" And more about "How can I pass it on to others?" Base leaders --- not, "How can I run a better more efficient base?" but, "How do I pass it on to young leaders?" It can be anyone from ground staff to international leader.

Do people move on? Yes, but for a combination of reasons. The spirituality of YWAM is and should be for young adults. Can we have YWAM contemplation? Yes, but we need to be careful. If you can hang onto the young adult way and encompass the older way then, with the tension, it is OK. Best is to fully embrace where you are --- see the Holy Spirit doing something over here and be happy with it. People may leave if they can't work out their own theology --- may become a liberal or Catholic. People become unhappy with their agency's theology unless they can work it out for themselves. Or a base like Harpenden who will attract in older people from other bases. These older bases need to be careful that they are still YWAM. 'Fathers and mothers' thinking is very helpful --- input is needed by the next generation, but remember that people of Trent's age invented YWAM 40 years ago.


Graham mentioned some authors who wrote well on this issue --- Henri Nouwen, wikipedia:Paul Tournier and John White.