Sofia M's Self-Portrait
Henry H's Self-Portrait
To survive a midlife marital crisis, couples must dig deep into their personality styles.
Henry had always been a star. First-born. First in class in high school plus president of the senior class. Football captain, fraternity president. Rhodes Scholar, Harvard MBA. Recruited by a major Silicon Valley tech company.
Henry jumped to a start-up after five years. It collapsed during the Great Recession. Seamlessly he joined the international management team of a major pharmaceutical company based in Paris. Now he’s been offered a place close to the top of the corporate pyramid if he agrees to relocate to headquarters.
Henry’s wife and kids don’t want to pick up and move again, certainly not outside the country. Absolutely not.
The perfect couple
Henry had married his college girlfriend, Sofia. Now, 15 years later, though they had three boys under 12, she was still a looker. He was proud that she appeared to be in her late 20s–without even Botox! Though she’d been a fine-arts major, she worked as a travel agent right after they married. The skills she learned proved to be a boon to him as he traveled upward in his career.
Sofia handled the myriad logistics involved in frequent moves. She found houses and schools and activities for the kids. She kept up Henry’s wardrobe as well as her own. The boys were smart, athletic, and well-behaved. Henry was proud that they looked up to him. At least they’d look up from their devices when he talked to them, he’d joke to his colleagues.
His family always celebrated Henry’s successes. That seemed appropriate to him, considering the wealth and security he had amassed for them.
“I don’t get it!”
That became Henry’s spoken mantra. How could Sofia be rebelling against such an incredible opportunity for them all?
“Incredible opportunity for you!” Sofia snapped back.
Henry was stunned. Never had his wife failed to understand how hard he’d worked to build a great life for her and the children. Of course, it was about him! As he saw it, he was the one who delivered the good life. All they had to do was support his efforts. Was that too much to ask?
The more Sofia held firm, the worse Henry’s control over his temper became. The more critical she got, the rockier their marriage became.
He just couldn’t hear what she was trying to tell him: that she had a life too, in addition to being his wife.
He said, she said
Did he even know what she cared about? How did she spent her time when he was at work–did he have clue? Did he ever really think about her or the kids as individuals separate from him? Moving again, to another country with another language! Had it occurred to him how that would upend the children and remove them from their friends and schools and activities?
Sure, he liked her to look youthful, but did he know what she did to stay that way? She handled the household bills–including her periodic facial Restylane injections.
He threatened her. “Do you know what you stand to lose if you try to divorce me?”
Surprisingly, mentioning a split sent Henry, more than Sofia, into an emotional tailspin. He’d never told his wife about his affairs on business trips. They were nothing to him. He never thought about them afterwards. How could Sofia reject him just like that…?!
Fury and impending loss battled to possess his psyche. Once when Sofia began to cry during a fight, to his horror Henry felt his eyes well up, too. In shame, he let his tears flow. Sofia reached for his hand but let him cry. After a few minutes she began quietly to tell him about herself and what she wanted out of life. And what she didn’t.
He was surprised by so much. Her eating disorder– she’d been throwing up after some meals for years. Her desire to go back to her art, maybe to teach.
“You never told me!” he exclaimed. She responded, “You never paid attention.”
Over the next weeks and months, as they talked Henry began to look at his wife and his kids differently. Sofia, to her credit, did not stay on the attack once he began to open his eyes and, really, his heart. It was tough for him to alter his stellar trajectory by trying to negotiate the relocation to Paris.
And it bordered on another marital crisis when the company withdrew the promotion offer. In a first for him, Henry consulted the whole family on what to do next. They’re all thinking about it.
Finding the flexibility necessary for a healthy personality
Henry and Sofia are managing their marital midlife crisis. That is a testament to the flexibility that is fundamental to personality functioning throughout life.
They did seem to be a “perfect match” in college. Henry’s personality was dominated by self-focused stereotypically “masculine” styles: Self-Confident, Idiosyncratic, Adventurous, Aggressive. His style impressed young Sofia. And her stereotypically “feminine” traits–Sensitive, Devoted, Self-Sacrificing–attracted him mightily.
Sofia was happy to rely on Henry and put him and eventually the children first. Both were driven to achieve their Conscientious goals. They shared a delight in making a good impression. That and their deep Dramatic passion for one another made them a star couple in others’ eyes.
Years later, when Sofia suddenly refused to accede to Henry’s plans, Henry took it as a terrible betrayal. But he hadn’t been paying attention, true to his Self-Confident style. Similarly, Sofia’s deference to her husband held her back too long. It prevented her from expressing herself sufficiently to get through to him.
Surviving the midlife crisis
What Henry experienced as a loss of love, adoration, and respect truly undid him. That turned out to be a good thing, for it triggered change.
Self-Confident people are motivated to win, and a healthy personality style provides inherent flexibility when presented with new goals. Sofia, emboldened as a mother and as a woman coming to terms with herself, found her voice.