December 09 2009
Think for a moment, if you will, of The Good Life, the 1970s BBC sitcom starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal who turned their Surbiton garden into a farm. Some would say it was about self-sufficiency. Yet what Briers’ character, Tom Good, really exemplified was surely a midlife crisis.
Good had reached his 40s in advertising, saw it all as worthless and chucked it in to become a subsistence farmer. And what larks Tom’s midlife crisis provided. Even his wife, Barbara, never took his desire for a life change completely seriously.
Consider also Lord Drayson, the defence equipment and support minister, who resigned in 2007, aged 47, to race cars. Or the TV presenter Chris Tarrant, whose wife left him shortly after he was found hanging out in a local wine bar canoodling with an unidentified blonde.
In each case, we smile knowingly. Male midlife crisis (or what suspiciously resembles it) is still widely regarded as a joke at worst, an indulgence at best. While women fall off a hormonal cliff and it’s a recognised medical crisis, men just go a bit silly, buy a Harley, dye their hair, wear inappropriately youthful clothes and form a relationship with an inappropriately young woman. Or they sell up, open a delicatessen in Wiltshire and find themselves a year later a bored, urban whale beached in the countryside.
Yet midlife crisis is not a joke. It’s manifest that something seismic happens to men between 40 or so and 55, especially high-achievers. Ask almost any successful man in the zone and he will “know someone” who has suffered it to some extent. That someone often turns out to be himself.
One problem is that the typical male experiencing these issues would not care to be spotted in a psychotherapist’s waiting room. Addressing the need for an alternative source of help, Helen Moore and Bernie Muir – two smart, former corporate high-flyers – set up a unique counselling service solely for those affected by midlife crisis. Even before their target client began facing the additional challenge of the economic downturn, they quickly found themselves being approached by busy, successful men.
I discussed the midlife condition with Moore and Muir, who later gave me access to two of their male clients. The women have no formal therapeutic qualifications, but believe that, with a combined 50 years spent in the corporate world, plus nearly a decade of studying midlife crisis and mentoring corporate men, they have more experience than a general counsellor.
“Men sense that we like and understand them, and they find it easy to talk to us about everything from business problems to the fact that they’ve started seeing prostitutes. They sense that we won’t fall off our chairs,” Moore explains, “and that makes it easy for us to have a proper conversation.”
“We deal with the A-type personality who’s used to being in control but, for once, a situation arises where he doesn’t feel he has it,” says Muir. “These guys are major players and have families, properties, multiple business interests and investments, but don’t have open communication with friends. Problems are sorted by their lawyer or accountant, but for these [more personal] issues there’s nobody.”
“They are also,” continues Moore, “the kind of guys who want solutions. They’re not inclined to spend time analysing their navels. They know their life used to work but it doesn’t any more, and they want to sort it out and feel good again because at the moment they’re like unguided missiles.”
Muir likens midlife crisis to getting caught in a riptide on a holiday beach. “We swim along parallel with you,” she says, “and bring you back to the beach a mile down. You may then walk back down the beach to your family, or you may not. But you will have made a choice in an informed, considered way rather than rushing into something you don’t really want.”
How much of the tidal pull, I wondered, is driven by a desire to have one last plausible tilt at sleeping with a younger female? It seems, as my subsequent interviews with Moore and Muir’s clients confirmed, that a sexual version of Custer’s Last Stand is central to midlife crisis.
“It is more complex than a shift in hormone levels,” Moore explains. It seems that a midlife crisis for men is a toxic combination of work and sex issues, with money and alcohol often playing supporting roles. It can be triggered solely by a feeling that one’s sexual powers are dwindling but is typically accompanied by a career-related issue, such as when an older man feels threatened by a high-flying “young blood”.
“Sexual powers are always an important part of the mix, though, because men are profoundly sexual beings. Also, at this time of his life the home environment may exacerbate midlife issues, with a cocktail of teenage angst, a wife who is suffering herself with menopausal problems or feels ‘free to grow’ after looking after the children, and even issues to do with ageing parents. Thus, his feelings of not being happy with work and sex may be compounded by a feeling of being ignored and entrapped at home. He may feel he no longer has choices in his life – which, when explored, is often not the case.”
An important point about Moore and Muir’s approach is that they do not necessarily talk clients out of making radical changes. “Not everyone who makes changes to their life in midlife is having a crisis,” Moore says. “This may well have been the case with Lord Drayson. People who make positive changes tend to be happy with who they are and in control of their destiny. These kind of changes may attract the ‘midlife metamorphosis’ tag but, by and large, they are exciting and positive changes for the person concerned – although not necessarily for their families. The wife of a City trader who suddenly wants to be a pig farmer will not always be thrilled.
“However, the people we see are often profoundly unhappy with most aspects of their life and are prone to act in irrational ways to try and fix things. This is the crisis at its most dangerous, and it’s the period of time when we seek to work with them to keep them on an even keel.”
For the Moore-Muir clients I spoke to, it was not so much infeasible ambitions that seemed to have overcome them as a realisation that the ambitions they had achieved had done little to satisfy them – and much to cause anguish and unhappiness.
“Dennis”, now 54, was on the board of a media company. When he went to Muir and Moore for help he was 48, with a country estate and teenage children. “We lived a dream, but I was haemorrhaging money. And this feeling grew, that I was surrounded by unnecessary stuff. I started questioning the purpose of my life. I realised materialism isn’t as important as relationships and quality of life. I asked, ‘What have I got? What’s for me?’ My work began to suffer, I drank too much and became nasty. To compound matters, I fell for a woman who was also married. The only thing in my mind was to leave, walk away from everything: wife, family, home and job. Bernie was the first person I had spoken to about it, and I felt some of the weight had been lifted from my shoulders. We met over lunch, with Helen too.
“It was good to be with two intelligent women who could talk about business and social matters. Over a few glasses of wine, the whole story came tumbling out, with Bernie and Helen being totally non-judgmental. They wanted to help me achieve what I really wanted, rather than making rash decisions I would regret later.”
The counsellors subsequently held Dennis’s hand throughout the process of de-coupling from his wife and family and starting over with his new partner. Dennis now works as an independent consultant. Economically, he says, he is comfortable, but without the towering expectations and concomitant debts that he feels were the essence of his previous life.
Another client, “Tom”, worked in IT, putting together international deals and travelling extensively. “I’d been married for 20 years and had a good marriage,” he confided. “But for a long time I’d been having short-term relationships with women, mainly because I could. All the women knew there was never a possibility of me leaving my wife. And these relationships never affected the feelings that I had for her. However, one woman did become a longer-term affair, and this coincided with a turbulent period in my career. I was unexpectedly made redundant from a company where I was really happy and successful. I soon had other offers, but it made me realise how vulnerable my life was. I didn’t know if I could keep fighting at the very top level of my business.
“The other woman lived a simple, comfortable life in another country, and it made me question everything about my fast-lane, materialistic lifestyle. Everything seemed bad – my wife, my home, my lifestyle, my career. I was drinking, and feeling dreadful. I was a successful man on the surface but underneath I felt my life was a mess.
“When I spoke to Bernie, I was very low, but it was so good to talk to a businesslike person who thought I was normal.” As Dennis had done, Tom arranged a lunch with Muir and Moore in an area of London he doesn’t normally frequent.
“Dare I say it, that first meeting was actually fun,” says Tom. “My story came pouring out. They were supportive, but gently hinted that I needed to look at different scenarios and let the dust settle before I dashed off to another country.
“I came to realise that this new life was far from a solution. I started a new job and my wife and I simplified our life. We downsized our house and commitments, and started spending more time with each other again. It was like falling in love again.
“I’m still with my wife and happier than I have been. Helen and Bernie were a guiding force in the background that year. They were the most important part of my life and they saved me from myself.”