The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Why Do Men Go Through a Midlife Crisis?

It’s the wife’s, not the husband’s, age that prompts his midlife crisis

In an earlier post, I explain why some women may (unconsciously) choose to stay in their relationships with physically abusive husbands and boyfriends.  The question of why some men physically abuse their wives and girlfriends is a separate theoretical question, for which there is also an evolutionary psychological answer.

As I mention in the previous post, from an evolutionary psychological perspective, spousal abuse is an extreme, maladaptive, and largely unintended consequence of a man’s desire for mate-guarding.  Because of the possibility of cuckoldry (unwittingly investing in someone else’s genetic offspring), men are strongly motivated to guard their mates to make sure that they do not have sexual access to other men.  And they use any means, including intimidation and violence, to achieve this goal.  Unfortunately, sometimes their adaptive strategy of mate-guarding goes too far and results in a maladaptive outcome of spousal abuse and even murder.

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Because young women are reproductively more valuable than older women, men are more motivated to protect and guard their younger wives than their older wives, with the unfortunate consequence that younger wives are at a greater risk of spousal abuse than older wives.  This is why it is the wife’s age, not the husband’s, that predicts the likelihood of spousal abuse and murder.  Even though a 50-year-old man is typically much less violent and criminal than a 25-year-old man, a 50-year-old man married to a 25-year-old woman is much more likely to abuse and murder his wife than a 25-year-old man married to a 50-year-old woman (even though there are very few such men) or even a (more typical) 25-year-old man married to a 25-year-old woman.

This is an excellent opportunity to shed evolutionary psychological light on a common misunderstanding, since it allows me to shift my attention from a dark topic like domestic violence and apply the same logic to a much lighter topic:  the midlife crises.  Many believe that men go through a midlife crisis when they are in midlife (in middle age).  Close, but no cigar.  Many middle-aged men do go through midlife crisis, but it’s not because they are middle-aged but because their wives are.  Just as it is the wife’s age, not the husband’s, that determines the risk of spousal abuse and murder, it is the wife’s age, not the husband’s, that prompts the constellation of behavior commonly known as a “midlife crisis.”  From an evolutionary psychological perspective, a man’s midlife crisis is precipitated by his wife’s imminent menopause and the end of her reproductive career, and thus his renewed need to attract younger, reproductive women.

Accordingly, a 50-year-old man married to a 25-year-old woman would not go through a midlife crisis (he’d be too busy murdering his wife), while a 25-year-old man married to a 50-year-old woman would (although, once again, there are very few such couples), just like a more typical 50-year-old man married to a 50-year-old woman would.  It is not his midlife that matters; it is hers.  So when he buys a shiny red sportscar, he’s not really trying to regain his youth.  For men, there is usually very little that’s good about being young so they would not want to relive their youth.  Very few 50-year-old men would want to return to their life as a 25-year-old.  He is instead trying to attract young women to replace his menopausal wife by trumpeting his flash and cash.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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