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The Stages of Midlife Crisis

By Kenda-Ruth Stumpf

In his book Men in Midlife Crisis, Jim Conway applies Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of Grief with adjustments to Midlife Crisis.

    Stages of Grief: Kübler-Ross
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance
    Stages of MLC: Conway
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Replay
  4. Depression
  5. Withdrawal
  6. Acceptance

According to Conway, Midlife Crisis ranges on average from 2-7 years. The crisis often begins slowly, beneath detection from outside sources. Anger follows in the failure of Denial. This then leads to the Avoidance that is Replay, ensuring the transition becomes a crisis. Denial attempts to maintain; midlife avoidance pursues lost youth via regression, falsely creating greater distance to death. The application of stages is useful, but also has the negative effect of false security in the idea that they create a predictable map. Each person's journey will have similarities as well as great variation. The early stages are most similar, with greater divergence deeper in the Midlife Tunnel. Archetypal themes are the predominate forces driving the crisis in the beginning; but as each person progresses, his personal lost fragments surface, yielding divergent pathways.

There is also a danger in viewing the stages as ordered steps in the process. Literal terms for the stages, such as those used by Conway, can be confusing when describing emotions and conditions which are not isolated to the stages they reference. Midlife Crisis is about Denial and Depression; both of these permeate all stages. Overt and Covert Depression are an overarching theme of the journey. Neither of these is isolated to certain stages. The same is true of Anger, which is often an outward expression of Depression. Replay is Conway's only metaphorical term, so named because at this point the midlifer seeks to return to his lost youth, reliving such experiences "One More Time." This fantasy phase invades all areas of life. For some it is re-experiencing previously fulfilled dreams to prove youthful vigor and capabilities, for those whose dreams were unfulfilled, the youthful regression may be even more severe. It is a different type of Denial--rather an escape in which there is an admission of midlife and aging, yielding an attempt to flee the inevitable through youthful regression. Many midlifers in Conway's Replay stage spew venomous anger and hatred at their spouses. This anger differs from Conway's label of Anger which refers to general Anger with God and life; the victim's why me? cry at the unfairness of life.

In his book In Midlife A Jungian Perspective, Murray Stein identifies three stages of a Midlife Transition.

  1. Separation
  2. Liminality
  3. Reintegration

Since a Midlife Crisis is a Midlife Transition of catastrophic levels, the transition stages must be a part of the Crisis stages. I will use the stages outlined below. These are not a Map, but rather a loose structure for the process of growth. The phases cycle and recycle throughout the Midlife Journey. For this reason the main phases may be viewed as a loose order, but the subphases are synergistic characteristics rather than ordered steps.

    Pre-Midlife: Accommodation
  1. Separation
    1. Rejection & Refusal
    2. Resentment
    3. Escape & Avoid (Covert Depression)
      High-Energy: Reply
      OR
      Low-Energy: Wallow
  2. Liminality or Liminal/Overt Depression
  3. Rebirth
  4. Reintegration

Separation may begin with Rejection & Refusal, but these do not end to allow for Resentment which in turn does not end to allow for Escape & Avoid which is the result of the integration of Rejection & Refusal and Resentment. Escape & Avoid (especially Replay) is covert depression--a denial of depression--which leads to anger as rage or stoicism with outbursts of rage. It is a snowball effect, with each characteristic adding to the others to create Separation. The unnumbered placement, Limbo, is not a stage of the crisis, but a place of transitioning between the stages. It is most prominent between stages 1 and 2, but may occur at other times. I call the depression stage both Liminality and Liminal Depression because it makes depression something less dangerous or frightening--rather than something wrong as is commonly considered; instead it is a time for self-contemplation where a person retreats inward.

A midlife transition is the bridge between Accommodation, the life before midlife, and Individuation, the life path following midlife. It is liminal; the MLC phase of Liminality is a midlife transition. Separation is a mini phase of preparation for Liminality and its additional MLC characteristics may not be present; Rebirth and Reintegration are the acceptance and experience of the anxiety that comes from leaping without turning backwards into avoidance again. They are mini phases of preparation for reentrance into the world and Individuation. In MLC denial of the transition leads to a prolonged Separation phase which may be longer than Liminality. Growth and development--progress--is a function of Liminality.

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