The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather for the devil. -C.S. Lewis

Author Lewis was 43 — squarely within the 40 to 60 age frame of most men going through a so-called midlife crisis — when he wrote of the well-known itch that can transform a once-loving and dependable partner into a hot-blooded hellion.

In middle age, a self-indulgent spell is common as men try to come to grips with their own mortality, according to psychologists, and a guy is especially vulnerable to midlife high jinks if he never raised Cain as a kid. He's gone along with his parents' rules and his wife's wishes, but never made his own devil-may-care calls. He has felt forever burdened by kids and compromise, budgets and mortgages. And he begins to fear he's getting old without any chance for madcap adventures.

"He looks back at his life and looks forward," says Teri Coleman, a psychotherapist and relationship counselor in McLean, Va., and he says to himself, "If I don't do this now, I'll never get to do it."

Signs of Midlife Strife

Your husband used to be your rock — upright and honest — but lately has become a selfish scoundrel. Experts say these more defined signs suggest that he's entered the phase of midlife psychological conflict:

  • You used to have a peaceful partnership, but now you seem to fight day and night.
  • He has — or wants to — quit his job that's been stable and satisfying in favor of sailing the high seas or living out another pie-in-the-sky scenario.
  • He makes other financially rash decisions.
  • He's taken to other reckless habits, such as abusing alcohol or drugs, or even abusing or deserting the family.
  • He is having extramarital flings.

Controlling What You Can

If your guy isn't himself lately — e.g., hates your house, wants a hot rod, criticizes you, starts dieting and dressing younger than his age, asks for some space — he isn't out to hurt you, assures Pat Gaudette, founder of the Midlife Wives Club, whose Web site at www.midlifewivesclub.com offers a support group for women "survivors." Don't take his actions personally, Gaudette encourages: "We have a tendency to say 'He's doing this to me.' No, they're doing it because of something within themselves — nothing to do with her, everything to do with him."

Because you can't control his "male menopause," as men's midlife blues are sometimes called, Gaudette recommends that you take some steps back and protect yourself during the unavoidable emotional storm:

Do:

  • Avoid blaming yourself, even if he tries to pass the buck onto you — "This is your fault because you're always so controlling!"
  • Give him space. Let him spend time with his buddies or alone; it might give him time to think more rationally about this turning point in his life.
  • Do things for yourself. Spend time alone and with friends, and even consider counseling — without him if he doesn't want to participate. And protect yourself financially, too, by becoming informed about your jointly held funds and making sure you have equal access to them.

Don't:

  • Smother him or expect reciprocation of your affection. Until he's ready, these expectations will likely push him away even more.
  • Make empty threats about what you'll do if he doesn't change. He might just take you up on your "offer" to leave him alone.

Also, Gaudette says, avoid badgering him about how he should get his act together, which is a common mistake women make. "You can just beat your head against a wall trying to force a man to understand what he's doing to you. It's his own course, and he'll adjust that course in his own time."

Women's Ways

Women aren't immune from a kind of midlife madness, but they act out by taking a less risky route, Coleman says. Sometimes they'll go on "strike," leaving their husband and kids to fend for themselves for awhile. A woman in her middle years might have more girls' nights out and start wearing sexier clothes, but she's less likely to jeopardize the marriage by her newfound merriment. So it's his midlife crisis that could be your relationship's biggest-ever stress test. By thinking about yourself while he expels his demons, you can survive your partner's midlife crisis — even while your marriage has the chance of succumbing to the strain.

More Support During This Precarious Period:

For additional information about men and midlife, read How to Survive Your Husband's Midlife Crisis: Strategies and Stories From the Midlife Wives Club by club founder Gaudette and co-author Gay Courter (Penguin Group, 2003); and Surviving Male Menopause: A Guide for Women and Men by Jed Diamond (Sourcebooks, 2000).