Help! My husband's having a Ben Affleck moment
The trick to navigating the male midlife crisis is to keep a sense of humour til he's done being a 'kamikazi warrior'
Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30
Right on cue of my husband's 40th birthday there was an announcement: "I think I'm going to buy a Harley." In fairness to him, he did own a motorcycle (many) years ago but, still, I can't help feeling this is the point where he segues into male midlife crisis. I did my best to look impressed and supportive while stifling the giggles that came with visions of him riding his Harley in tight motorcycle leathers, listening to 'Fiddy Cent'.
Something strange happens to men in middle age. Not all men, but many experience the midlife angst where they believe tight jeans, tattoos, an open-topped Porsche and re-forming their school band will keep them 'young'. Just look at Ben Affleck.
Last June, the actor (43) and his wife of 10 years, Jennifer Garner, announced their separation. Just a month later came rumours that Ben - who'd shaved off the greying beard he'd sported for years - had been involved with their children's nanny, 28-year-old Christine Ouzounian.
Then, photos emerged that appeared to show that Ben had gotten a large, colourful tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes covering his back. He's since said that the tattoo is a fake, but not before estranged wife Jennifer - with whom he still shares a house - commented on it in Vanity Fair, saying: "You know what we would say in my hometown about that? Bless his heart."
All in all, it seems that, despite being one of the biggest movie stars in the world and an Oscar-winning director to boot, Ben is in the midst of a classic - and very public - male midlife crisis.
"In simple terms, male midlife crisis hits at the very essence of what it is to be a man," says Brian Colbert, psychotherapist and bestselling author of The Happiness Habit and From Ordinary to Extraordinary. "They see old age as a weakness, the warrior in them is being defeated and there is nothing they can do about it."
The crisis happens over a period of time when the number of battles being lost accumulates and the threshold is met. "Men like to think all things are possible, even if they don't choose to do them," says Colbert. "Midlife takes away that option and replaces it with doubt, so instead of thinking 'I could run the company if I wanted to or, I could run a marathon if I chose to', it's replaced with 'maybe I'm not as smart or as fit as I was' and this challenges our sense of competence and safety."
No doubt about it, life in the middle ages can be challenging. Women have their own version of this invisible line to manoeuvre. We too are guilty of falling for the 'flamboyancy' of the midlife crisis - finding yourself downloading the contents of your teenage daughter's iPod and passing it off as your own is undoubtedly a sign that you're battling the loss of youth. But more commonly for women the midlife crisis is expressed through short skirts, spray tans and showing too much cleavage.
But it's not our fault - from childhood we are taught that our looks will fade into a sea of younger, better looking women. And then there's the obsession with the relentless pursuit of self-renewal. It's no wonder we have a hard time adjusting to the second half of our lives.
Men, however, seem more novelty-seeking than women, seized by a dramatic impulse to do something foolish and often downright embarrassing. "Men are vain creatures too," says Colbert, "but the difference between men and women is that men feel they can make themselves look good whenever they want to but they also enjoy not doing that; it's kamikazi warrior stuff that men take pride in, especially in their younger years."
Whatever it is, they're usually oblivious to it. Perhaps it's because they don't seem to have the inbuilt self-ometers, which most women possess and which serve to avoid social embarrassment. Who can forget Tom Cruise's infamous couch-jumping incident on the Oprah Winfrey Show, in celebration of his new-found (younger) love?
Or, in Harrison Ford's case, it's an earring that clearly says "I'm still young, and cool." Arnold Schwarzenegger (68) seems to be in a perpetual state of midlife crisis: those 'hipster' shirts and pretty twenty-somethings he is regularly photographed with. Oh, grow up Arnie…
Even in the early 20th century, psychiatrists such as Carl Jung were exploring the problems with middle age. Jung argued that life was a game of two halves, the first half about achievement such as building a home and career, and the latter about becoming whole.
The term midlife crisis was coined in the 1960s, when it was suggested it could happen anytime between the ages of 40 and 60. More recent studies show the average age for midlife crisis in men as 43 - step forward Mr Affleck - a time when most of us have finally figured ourselves out only to be faced with the loss of youth and mortality on the horizon.
Physical decline doesn't help: aches and pains last longer; hair no longer grows on your head but out your ears. And then there are the doubts about one's personal and professional accomplishments. Are we fulfilling our dreams and goals? I think actor Robbie Coltrane put it best when he said: "It's the fear that you're past your best."
However, Shane Kelly, spokesperson for the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP), believes a 'crisis' can occur at any age. "I like to call it a 'life crisis' since we've discovered more and more young people suffering from anxiety about their lives," he says.
Kelly believes social media plays a huge role in the growing number of men and women suffering from life crisis as it erodes self-esteem. "We are exposed to success on a daily basis. We used to compare ourselves to the rich and famous but now, thanks to social media, it's our peers and this is putting pressure on people to have the 'perfect' life. A lot of the time you'll find people aren't having a better time than you. It's important to look at the crisis you're having and ask yourself how real it is, identify the things that make you happy and look at taking small steps to get there."
So, can we help our loved ones when they decide to channel their inner Peter Fonda and 'hit Glastonbury' on their new wheels and ponytail? Probably not. The trick is to stay calm, try not to laugh when they decide to run a marathon in unfeasibly tight Lycra and maintain a sense of humour until they get back on track. After all, you're lucky if the only signs of his midlife crisis are moisturising and joining a gym.
Better a midlife male buys a mountain bike and signs up for a triathlon than buys a Ferrari and signs up to Ashley Madison looking for an affair.
The good news is happiness economists view the midlife crisis as a normal dip in life that generally doesn't last, petering out when we realise that most of us are reacting to the boredom of routine, are pursuing the wrong dreams and that our lives are just fine as they are. "The societal pressure of men being seen as the 'breadwinner' definitely feeds into the male midlife crisis," says Shane Kelly, "especially when their career doesn't work out the way they wanted and they may have to rely on someone else. It's important to do an honest audit of your life, look at all the good things you have and the things you haven't achieved yet."
Midlife crisis comes with a negative stigma but can it be a good thing? After all, there's nothing wrong with your other half suddenly taking up an extreme sport, or 'jamming' on his new guitar in his man shed a few evenings a week. In fact, if approached in the right way, the midlife crisis can be fruitful for all involved. Use it as an opportunity to reignite your physical relationship or take that trip around the world you've always talked about.
It's only when he rocks off to the hair transplant clinic with a newly pierced ear and a picture of David Beckham that you should start to worry; when that appealingly childish behaviour starts to become embarrassing for him (and you) that you may need to have a word in his ear. "It's important to realise that what you're feeling is normal," says Brian Colbert. "But it might be wise to take it easy on the new cars and hold back on the younger models (yes people, not cars). Your current feelings are not a good guide for action."
As Colbert points out, midlife is tough, but it's not final, just unfinished business. So could that be the case for Ben Affleck? Last week the actor gushed about what a "fabulous person" and parent Jennifer Garner is, saying "we don't know what the future's going to hold" before the couple were photographed taking their children to Easter Mass together. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before she and I find ourselves on the back of a Harley, in an inappropriately short skirt, with his ponytail blowing in the wind.