Today’s guest post is by MoHoHawaii. We’ve all heard stories of men who had a midlife crisis and ended a decades-long marriage in order to trade up to a younger, often blonder, wife. Here’s a story from my own family.
As it turns out, my entire genome marched across the plains with the Mormon westward migration and was happily replicating in Utah well before the end of the nineteenth century. I was secretly thrilled to learn as a child that both of my grandmothers were the children of polygamous marriages. It seemed exotic and slightly scandalous. It was proof that we were from authentic pioneer stock. It seemed to fit with the stories of handcarts and Winter Quarters and the pioneer sun bonnets we made in Primary on July 24th. (Did the wives have matching bonnets? You have to love the eight-year-old imagination in matters like these.) I always wanted to know about my grandmothers’ childhood experiences with polygamy, but I didn’t dare ask them for details when we visited. My curiosity was satisfied only later in life after a frank talk with my father, who knew the whole story.
My father’s mother was the daughter of my great-grandfather’s first wife. Sometime in midlife, after perhaps 25 years of marriage, my great-grandfather took a second wife. My great-grandfather left his first family to fend for themselves (subjecting them to great hardship) and started a second family. The family group sheets don’t say if the new wife was any blonder than my great-grandmother, but they do say that she was about 30 years younger. My grandmother never forgave her father for his act of abandonment, and a level of bad blood that is frankly beyond my imagination persisted between them until the day he died.
This story has a number of interesting twists and turns that I don’t have space to relate, but I have to say that when I finally got all of the details out of my father I was disappointed. My many exotic childhood theories about my ancestors living the Principle had been destroyed in the space of a single afternoon. What had happened with my great grandparents seemed depressingly ordinary and explainable: my great-grandmother had been traded in for a new model. My great-grandfather had had the Mormon pioneer version of a midlife crisis. The only part of the story that was in any way beyond the ordinary was that, beyond all comprehension, he fell for someone named Bertha.
As a gay man I find it hard to empathize with my great-grandfather. For one, gay people don’t seem to have midlife crises; our once-in-a-lifetime family drama occurs much earlier when we come out of the closet, and we have no desire for an encore performance. For another, our spousal relationships are too hard won. We feel lucky if people aren’t spray painting slurs on our garage or glaring at us when we shop together as if we’re portents of the apocalypse right there in the produce aisle. It seems extravagant to us to make a major life change just because we reach middle age. We’re just happy we made it to middle age in one piece. We knock on wood and watch Project Runway reruns.
Is there something to this gulf between me and my great-grandfather? Are gay men (and women of all orientations) somehow different when it comes to midlife crisis? Is a propensity for midlife crisis some sort of curse bestowed on straight guys?
Pastor D. heads a large mainline Protestant church in the Deep South. He and I have been close friends since third grade. He’s had 25 years of experience in pastoral counseling and social services outreach and knows more about human troubles than any person I know. I called him on the phone and asked him what he knew about the phenomenon of midlife crisis.
What I learned from my expert friend is that midlife crisis is reflects a tension between “generativity vs. stagnation.” This is psychological jargon for boredom and fear of obsolescence. He also told me that women have a stronger nesting instinct than men and that their focus on raising children is sometimes at odds with male sexual and relational preferences. He also mentioned that some men don’t understand that relationships in one’s 30s are different than those in the 50s and beyond. When men act out it’s usually from fear and boredom.
My friend Pastor D. is probably a nicer person than I am. When I think about midlife acting out I recall the exasperation I’d hear in my mother’s voice when she would tell me as a teenager that men think they are the blankety-blank center of the universe. My father was Stake President at the time and was in fact the center of our local universe. It was hard to argue her point. So I have to confess that my bias on this subject is that male midlife crisis has something to do with male privilege.
What can be done about midlife crisis? After talking to Pastor D. and thinking about this for a few days here’s what I came up with. This is from the perspective of a gay person looking at the problems of straight relationships. It’s not meant to be comprehensive.
- Prevention is easier than a cure. Start early. From your 30s onward be careful realize that you rebuild your relationship with each passing year. Don’t let church responsibilities or raising children overshadow the fact that you and your spouse are partners. If you don’t watch out for this, you may realize that there’s a problem only when it’s too late to fix it.
- Be aware of the difference in nest-building emphasis that might exist between spouses. Men and women often have different views on this subject.
- Don’t let the institution of marriage ruin your marriage. There are a million stodgy conventions that go along with being married. If these work toward reducing your or your spouse’s sense of personhood, they aren’t doing you any favors. Flout convention. Let your marriage be what it needs to be and forget about “roles” or the expectations of the church or your extended family. If there’s one thing gay people know about relationships, it’s that the ones that make it blaze their own trails.
- If you’re bored, deal with it early. Don’t let it fester.
- If there’s something that needs to be said, say it. Dealing with issues realistically (even painfully) is the only way to keep them from getting worse.
Feel free to comment, especially if you have anecdotes about things that happened to you or someone close to you.