SHIFT: Middle age blues — and rage — is totally normal

The dip in the joy of life that happens in our 40s and 50s may be sewn into the depths of the human condition, for both women and men.

Lisa Machado 7 minute read July 26, 2021
midlife rage

Evaluating your life at 40 is common. So is a dip in satisfaction. Getty

When my forty-something friend spontaneously booked a trip to Mexico, leaving her husband to care for their two young children for a week, all of us ladies cheered her on. But our guy friend – let’s call him Frank — could only smirk.

“She’s giving everyone the Big Middle Finger, man” he said, shaking his head. “This is what happens when a girl hits 40 – her husband doesn’t know it yet, but this is ‘her’ time. Next comes the rage.”

We all laughed, but he was right. We had all seen it coming. Our friend had left her job as a graphic designer years ago to take care of her kids while her husband built his career. She was an artist at heart, but he refused to acknowledge her passion, preferring instead to send her random corporate job postings for “when she was ready to make some money.” The trip was billed as some well-deserved me-time, but it was actually the beginning of the end of her marriage.

Filing for divorce was a big deal —and especially anxiety-provoking for someone without a job or a credit card that wasn’t tied to her husband. Still, the moment came for her when the fear of staying in the unhappiness had become greater than the fear of leaving.

“You need a good partner for this part of the ride,” she said after she told me about the divorce. She also shared that her parents shamed her for “breaking up her family” and how stressful it was to divvy up money and assets, realizing she was going to be starting over again in so many ways. And, perhaps worst of all, her doctor offered hormone replacement meds and suggested she “wait it out.”

As if her hormones were to blame for an unsatisfying marriage.

The after-40 years can be tough as women navigate what The Mayo Clinic calls a “dramatic reproductive hormone plunge” — when ovulation ends and hormone production drops in a relatively short period of time. Our bodies heat up and then a second later, leave us shivering, our metabolism slows, we have trouble sleeping, and our hair thins. Plus, things get dry.

But disappearing hormones aren’t the only things to be blamed for the discontent of middle-aged women. In fact, the cause of midlife rage runs much deeper than that.

Zenifer Khaleel writes in Friday that the reasons for midlife rage in women include “living inauthentically,” parenting difficulties, relationship problems, health problems and — finally, we are getting to the crux of it —not living the life they wanted, all with an extra chin hair or two thrown in. Yup, there’s nothing more irritating than looking back and realizing you aren’t where you want to be, and knowing that the minutes we have left on earth are ticking away. Loudly.

And certainly, while staring down 50 or 60 is enough to make anyone feel a little anxious — think of all the changes humans typically move through during this time, from kids leaving home to losing parents to retirement— therapist Mandeep Jassal tells Friday that it’s not the only time in life women may feel overwhelmed, lost and angry. In fact, she says that similar feelings are also sometimes experienced by women in their 20s who face similarly big transitions, like employment and relationship changes.

Maybe the rage never goes away. Maybe it just simmers under the surface for a few decades only to emerge decades later, exploding to the surface with the realization of, as Rose LaFerla puts it in The New York Times, “mingy salaries, thwarted ambitions, waning sex lives and — gasp! — impending mortality.”


But there’s something else.

Let’s take soul-sucking hormone changes and the general sallow, “Is this all there is?” feeling and heap on a little science. Apparently, feeling a little underwhelmed during middle age is not just a hormone thing, or even a consequence of realizing the roads not taken. In fact, according to research, a dip in joy may actually be sewn into the depths of the human condition, for both women and men.

Jonathon Raucher writes in The Atlantic about a study on life satisfaction done by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald which found that happiness with life decreased with age for the first twenty years of adulthood and bottomed out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s — which may explain our propensity to experience a midlife crisis or feel rage during this time. The researchers also found an increase in the use of mood supporting drugs during this time — being middle-aged “nearly doubles” a person’s likelihood of using antidepressants, writes Raucher. The good news is that, according to the data, this pattern of life satisfaction — known as a U-curve — then trends upwards as you grow old, so much so, that you may actually reach or exceed the level of happiness of youth when you are elderly.

Woot. Can’t wait to get old.

What these findings tell us is that it’s completely normal to feel deeply unhappy in middle-age. Some of us work through it, and some of us, like my friend, make really big changes.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that while women tend to get all the shade when it comes to the behavioural effect of hormones — somehow our less pleasant emotions get often dismissed with “must be that time of the month” — men also experience hormonal changes that can influence how they act and the decisions they make. On average, testosterone declines one per cent a year after age 40, and while not all men experience the symptoms of low testosterone, when they do, it shows up in things like reduced sexual desire, breast discomfort, decreased energy, depressed mood and increased body fat.

Yet, unlike the grumpy, sex-hating, sweaty and frazzled image society has of the middle-aged, hormone-deprived woman, what’s happening physiologically is not always top of mind when we come across the middle-aged guy. You know, the one who spices up his existence by having affairs with younger women and trading in boring crossover SUVs for fancy sports cars. In fact, we kind of expect it. And weirdly, we laugh about it.

For sure, women and men experience midlife crisis — experts say ‘midlife transition’ is a better way to put it — differently. Men tend to want to prove something and look successful, according to Dan Jones, director of the Counselling and Psychological Services Center at Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina. Hence, the convertibles and the younger women. Middle-aged women, however, often take this time to reevaluate their accomplishments and relationships, he says, maybe choosing to get back to goals that may have been abandoned during child-raising years. They may feel that they have “paid their dues,” and become more selfish. Ah, there it is: Frank’s Big Middle Finger theory.

And then there’s the rage. Most women are raised to be caregivers — many of us spend a good chunk of our lives looking after others. But as Doreen Yomoah told the podcast Unchained, Unbothered, it’s not because we’re better at it than men, we have just been socialized to believe this is what we should do. And so, when a woman’s life hits the halfway mark, and she notices that all she’s got under her belt are some well taken care of people, with her dreams buried in her back pocket, it makes sense how she may feel a little, well, annoyed.

It’s been four years since my friend left her husband and she’s doing really well. She says she is happier than she has ever been. She is running a successful business, painting in her free time and owns the house she once shared with her husband. He is apparently happy too, living in a condo downtown with a younger woman.

I recently shared Frank’s assessment of her trip to Mexico so many years ago, and she laughed.

“I don’t know that I was in a rage, exactly,” she said. “Sure, my hormones were probably a little unstable, but I was also legit scared — terrified — that I wouldn’t ever be truly happy, and I only realistically had another thirty good years on earth, if I was lucky. Was [leaving] a Big Middle Finger? Maybe. But it was so, so worth it.”

This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Click here to subscribe.




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