If I say the words ‘terrible two’s’ you know what I’m talking about. We know the developmental stages of children but what about adults?
Most teenagers think that once they’ve grown up, they have arrived and all the stages are over and done with. How wrong can we be! There are crises related to each age-related stage we go through. The stages stop when we stop breathing! Gail Sheehy in her life-changing book ‘Passages’ says ‘There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before’. Whatever you’re going through has been experienced before.
Knowledge is power
This book could give you the self-help knowledge you need to tackle the various life tasks that you face. If you’re just entering adult-life it could give you the preparation you need to face the various crises that you will inevitably face.
Times of crisis are good
Times of crisis are not only predictable, they are also desirable because they make us grow. We complain about things that happen to us but maybe instead of complaining we could ask ourselves this question: What can I learn from this situation?
Most of us enter adulthood ‘blind’, we don’t know what to expect and we just coast along from one stage to the next. Just as in childhood, we give up crawling in order to gain the advantages of walking; the same applies to the stages of adult life. We have to let go of techniques that worked for the previous stage in order to make way for the new stage.
Each stage of life has to be successfully completed to move on properly to the next stage. For example behavior such as sulking and anger might get your needs met as a child, but they need to be given up in adulthood as they are no longer appropriate. Yes, they are NOT adult behavior!!
A Lobster Shell
We are not unlike a lobster. The lobster grows by developing and shedding a series of hard, protective shells. Each time it’s left exposed and vulnerable until a new covering grows to replace the old.
With each passage from one stage of human growth to the next we, too, must shed a protective structure. We are left exposed and vulnerable – but also capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before.
Times of crisis, for men and women happen at different times. Probably a good thing or else the whole home front might collapse.
ADULT LIFE STAGES
This is the transition year into adulthood. The first year out of school is often a lonely time as adult roles start being tested. Inner feelings of inadequacy are covered up by bravado of `I can do anything’. Studying further, leaving home to travel or even getting a drivers license are all part of the passage into adulthood. This helps the adolescent to form a base of their own, to become people in their own right, separate from their parents.
It’s also time to come to a realistic view of the parents as being imperfect. They are not God-like and all knowing. This realization gives us the go-ahead to learn to have confidence in our own judgment, to test and then to keep or reject beliefs that we learnt while growing up.
As we start separating from the family and a group of friends become a substitute for the family sanctuary. This need for belonging can make peer pressure hard to resist and can push one into trying out alternate styles of living and behaving. I used to look at my students who smoked and I wondered why they even started smoking when there is so much bad publicity about smoking. It’s actually understandable as it’s part of the push to form an adult identity, part of the experimentation that’s involved in finding an identity that is uniquely your own. We all seem to have to learn our own lessons, which is bad news for some parents who would prefer to protect their children from life’s hard lessons.
- Stressful time for parents
Many parents get distressed when their teenagers go off the rails. Some parents get angry taking it as a personal insult or disrespect from their children. Parents might be concerned with what people will think about them as parents. Just remember, it’s not a reflection on you, the parent, it’s about the adolescent and motivated by the need to develop a unique identity.
- Parental pride
Often parents will pride themselves on their children who never gave them a day of trouble. The children might be just following parents’ rules, which might not be as healthy or desirable as it sounds. We have to test out rules or belief systems before they truly become a part of us.
- Living is a risky business
It’s a risky business growing up. Young adults think they are omnipotent and nothing will happen to them. They cannot see the bigger picture, like the dangers of reckless driving, alcohol and drug abuse, unprotected sex. Insurance companies know the dangers of this age and that’s why motor insurance premiums are at the maximum for the 18-22 year age group..
- Some good news!
Gail Sheehy relates a study in her book that found that most highly successful men went through a delinquent period as boys. A stormy adolescence often boded well for a normal progression of the adult life cycle!
- Facing the future
Our past experience of success and failure will determine what road we travel into adult hood.
On the one hand we might feel quite omnipotent, ready to conquer the world. On the other hand we are drawn to safety, to stay as children with someone else looking after us, so we might just slip into the role and expectations that our parents have for us. If this case we could take over the identity our parents have scripted for us, and do what they want us to do. We go to the same university, go into the same job direction, marry and have children, and do exactly as they did. We tread in their footsteps and continue to be good children.
- Tasks of late adolescence
The tasks of this age are to find belonging in:
a peer group role,
a sex role,
an anticipated occupation,
an ideology or world view.
- Parents! Cut those apron strings!
Treat your adult child as a separate person who is responsible for their own lives. This gives them the belief that they can cope. I have counselled many middle-aged adults who are angry and suffering from depression because they are still being treated like little children by their ageing parents. The balance is wrong.
TWENTY TO THIRTY AGE GROUP
After the inner turmoil of adolescence we get a breather in the 20 – 30 age group. This is really a time for looking at external factors.
- What should we be doing!
This time of our lives is all about finding our place in the workplace, our community, our family. Our focus is really on what we feel we should be doing, what we are supposed to do. Being very aware of the opinions of others, we try to impress and often we mold ourselves into what we ‘believe’ others want us to be like. Our family models, our culture, and the attitudes of our friends affect these decisions.
- Making a base from which to operate
The fear of being alone is what pushes us to fit into society’s norms. Most people get married in their 20’s because it is seen as the right thing to do, the thing they should do.
- Common thoughts in this stage
Time to make a base from which to operate so:
I should get work experience in a big company first.
I should work to change the system (often this age get involved in bigger causes).
I should help my people.
Now is the time I should be free and try everything.
I should be married now (late 20’s)
I should wait to get married until I’ve accomplished something.
In a conversation with a 20-something year old, she shared with me all the things that she had to look forward to, her dreams. I want to get married to a man who can support me, have children, get a house and a nice car. I smiled to myself because I thought this really sums up the 20’s age group.
- Society’s gender expectations
Society’s expectations for men and women at this age are very different. A man is encouraged to follow his dreams and ambitions, to become independent and take initiative. On the other hand, women are encouraged to put aside their dreams and ambitions in order to look after a man’s needs, see to the home and children. Her personal identity is put on hold and her needs are suppressed.
At this stage a woman who has career ambitions has the same problems as a man who has no career ambitions. Both have the fear is that no one will marry them and they will end up all on their own. At this age men don’t want powerful wives as it’s too threatening.
- Marital happiness
In the first year of marriage people find the peak of happiness. After that it starts going down. Divorce reaches a peak for women at the age of 28 and for men at 30. We’ve all heard of the 7-year itch. And if the couple stay committed to each other, the relationship has to be reworked; reassessed. Twenty-something year olds believe that change is easy. There are many jokes about women trying to change their husbands and then a few years later complain that he’s not the man they married. We realise change doesn’t happen easily and frustration and disillusion sets in. As we approach our 30’s we feel that we’ve achieved everything that we should do and now there’s a vague but persistent sense of wanting something more. I liken these life stages to a roller-coaster. The downhill ride is about to start! The lobster is starting to shed its skin again.
THIRTY TO FORTY FIVE AGE GROUP
- Common thoughts in this stage
The single person feels a push to find a partner.
The childless couple reconsiders children.
- Problem! – Conflict of needs
The man feels competent in his job, he has proved himself and no longer so dependent on his wife’s encouragement and support. He doesn’t want to worry about her problems because he’s focused on work achievement.
The wife, on the other hand wants him to spend more time with her and the children. She wants some of his time. Her confidence deteriorates further and she starts looking outward. What does she have to offer the world? The woman who was previously content at home with children wants to venture into the world, make her mark in the world.
The age of 35 is the average age for women to re-enter the working world and will be there for the next 24 years or more. Most women go back to work to help make ends meet.
- Marital dissatisfaction
Marital satisfaction continues downward and finds its lowest point in the late thirties. The most common age for women to have an affair is at the age of 38. For men it’s 10 years earlier in their late twenties.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that women at this age are at their sexual peak and their husbands were at their peak at the age of 18. Sexually we’re also out of sync. The rationale for having an affair is that it is the last chance to have a fling before I lose my looks, this rationale applies to both sexes. So an affair is often an attempt to see their youthful self-image restored in the eyes of a new lover.
- We notice the physical decline
Physically we are on the decline. Time is running out and we come face to face with our mortality. Some find this idea too terrifying and become even more work focused to get to the top. Others play more sport, give bigger parties, find younger partners, all in an effort to delay the inevitable realization that we are mortal and will die.
The death of elderly parents at this stage also brings us closing to facing our own mortality. We are now the old generation. Parents, no matter what our age, give us some sort of security. With their death, we feel exposed and vulnerable. The death of the remaining parent is recognized as a major crisis point in a person’s life. You now start experiencing friends dying.
- Female Assertiveness
At 35 women also start becoming more assertive. She has an opinion of her own and no longer there just to support, please and affirm her husband. Her identity was put on hold and she realises that ‘It’s not too late to start what I put aside!’ A woman’s newfound assertiveness and aspirations may be seen as a threat to the husband. Many men enjoy having the lives of their wives and families revolve around them.
- And the man …
The problem is actually made worse because at the age of 40 the man feels stale, restless and unappreciated. He then starts worrying about his health and wonders if this is all there is.
He now turns back to his family. He reaches out for his children and they’re not interested. He starts becoming family focused but his wife’s focus is now elsewhere, making her mark in the world. She has spent the last decade ‘family focused’ and is now seeks recognition and growth outside of the family.
` What’s wrong with me, that you’re no longer happy at home, being a homemaker?’ says the husband. ‘I want you to be at home for me’. The truth is that it has nothing to do with him; it all has to do with her needs and her personal growth.
- Advice to husbands
Enjoy your wife’s growth, you’ll benefit in the long run as you’ll have a content wife and a happier marriage. Rather walk alongside each other on the journey than try to control her to meet your needs.
- Advice to wives
Your husband is insecure. Reassure him of his importance and that his help is needed. Ask him to support you as you pursue your goals as it will ultimately positively impact your marriage.
As you go through all the turmoil of this season of your life, you may experience a major depression. This is a wake up call to assess what you believe. The average age for men to experience depression is at about 40, a bit later than for women.
At this life-stage we have to face and deal with parts of us that were previously suppressed. We have to face our demons, face our dark side.
We realise that:
we are selfish,
we are greedy,
we are competitive,
we are dependent,
we are jealous,
we are possessive,
we have a destructive side,
we are proud.
These are all part of us and its no good pretending that we’re somebody who we are not. It’s only when we accept our good and bad parts do we come to a place of wholeness. If we acknowledge these parts we can do something about them.
- Go with the flow …
It’s a time of re-examining our purposes and re-evaluating what we believe about life. The most important words in midlife are – Let Go, go with the flow, let it happen to you. Let it happen to your partner. Let the feelings happen. Let the changes happen.
This is the only way to come out the other end successfully and to find a new, fuller life. Become self-aware. Go for therapy, it is often a short cut to health. Deal with the childhood hurts that are now resurfacing so that you can move on to the next stage. Use this experience as a time for personal growth.
- Moving out of prescribed roles
What’s happening is that we are moving out of roles that were prescribed for us. We’re becoming real!
We can say:
I’ve finally come of age. I can state my opinion and have it acknowledged by others- including me- as valid.
I don’t feel the need to impress people any longer, I can just be myself.
I feel at home with myself.
I’m grown up, finally.
I feel like I’ve arrived. I’m secure and satisfied with who I am and what I am doing.
I am growing into more of an awareness of who I am.
I can think for myself. I can make decisions without needing permission or affirmation from others before coming to my own conclusions.
- We’re alone in this world
When we become whole we realize that in a sense we are alone in this world. We are responsible for our lives and we cannot expect anyone else to live our lives for us, just as we can’t control anybody else’s life. We are responsible for ourselves.
The psychiatrist Jung sums it up well:
“Above all we have achieved a real independence and with it, to be sure, a certain isolation. In a sense we are alone, for our inner freedom means that a love relation can no longer fetter us; the other sex has lost its magic power over us, for we have come to know its essential traits in the depths of our own psyche. “We shall not easily ‘fall in love’ for we can no longer lose ourselves in someone else, but we shall be capable of a deeper love, a conscious devotion to the other”.
If these identity issues are not dealt with they will come back in the 50’s. The issues from each stage don’t just go away. If unresolved they will come up during another decade. All being well the 50’s may well be the best years. There is a more relaxed attitude. Personal happiness takes a sharp turn upward for partners who can now accept the fact ‘ I cannot expect anyone to fully understand me’.
We can forgive our parents for the hurts from our childhood. We can let our children live their lives and take responsibility for themselves without each calamity being seen as a reflection on us, the parent. Friends become more important than ever, but so does privacy. There is a greater honesty at this stage. Marriages are happier; spouses are accepted with their idiosyncrasies. There is true companionship.
- Giving back to the world
The urge to give back to the world arises within us. This stops us from becoming self -absorbed and stagnant. It’s time to invest in other people and the next generation. They need the wisdom of the older generation!
Peace has been made with the past, let go of old dreams. It’s time to move forward and create new dreams.