Psychology Classics

Passages: Predictable Crises in Adult Life
Gail Sheehy

As a reporter, Gail Sheehy was sent to do a story on the Northern Ireland conflict, and got caught up in the events of Bloody Sunday, the Catholic civil rights march in Derry in which 14 civilians, mostly young, were killed by British forces. The day might have remained simply a bad memory were it not for the fact that right in front of her she witnessed a boy have his face blown away by a bullet.

Returning to America, she took stock of her life. At 35, suddenly her lifestyle of journalistic travel did not seem enough. She felt she had been a 'performer' in life, not really participating in it, even though she had had a child and been married and divorced. Her 'whole jerry built world' as she describes it, threatened to come apart. She had seen herself as the optimistic, fearless, loving an ambitious 'good' girl - but now she seemed to be looking at the dark side. Half her life had been lived.

With this terrifying thought, she wondered: what do other people do when this happens to them? Some seemed to push themselves harder with their careers, others began playing dangerous sports, or giving bigger parties or taking younger people to bed. But she knew none of these things would fill the gaping hole in her psyche.

Passages was one of the publishing phenomenons of the 1970s. The subject of adult life crises was not an obviously 'hot' one, but with its groovy cover, serialization in popular magazines and the author's talent for publicity, Passages became a bestseller. The writing style is what you would expect of a classy magazine feature writer, pulling the reader in from the first page.

It is easy to dismiss the book as dated pop psychology, but many readers of Passages are moved to exclaim 'That's me!' as they recognize themselves in Sheehy's descriptions of the stages of adult life, and has made many feel less alone as they negotiate life’s rapids.

Marker events and deeper crises

Sheehy realized that the terrible event she had witnessed was simply a trigger for deeper changes going on within her – some kind of midlife crisis. The experience sparked her interest in other people's turning points, and to her surprise she discovered that these 'passages' happened with predictable regularity at roughly the same ages. People tried to blame external events for how they were feeling, but as with herself often the outer events were not the answer. Dissatisfaction with lives that had seemed fulfilling only a couple of years before indicated there was something going on at another level.

There was a difference between 'marker' events like graduation, marriage, childbirth and getting a job - which all obviously have an impact, she noted - and developmental stages which change us from within. We tend to attribute how we are feeling to the marker event itself, when more often the event is simply a catalyst to move us forward into another stage of life. Though uncomfortable, often painful, these transition times should not be feared, as ultimately they mean growth. If we choose to embrace the change, we at least know we are growing. Sheehy was influenced by psychologist Erik Erikson's idea that at certain turning points we can either move in the direction of personal growth, or stay with the security of what we know. Either way we will experience change; the choice is whether we have more control and awareness over the process, or allow it to happen to us.

The stages of childhood and adolescent development had been exhaustively identified, Sheehy noted, but not much attention had been given to adults. To write Passages, she immersed herself in the literature on life cycles, read a mountain of biographies, and began collecting life stories of people between the ages of 18 and 55. As most of the research related to men, she made sure the book included the stories of plenty of real women. She also explored life changes within the dynamic of a couple, and the stresses this can place on the relationship.

Changing through the decades

To make the life stages easier to grasp, Sheehy’s innovation was to break them down into easy-to-understand decades.

The Twenties

In our 20s, we have to work out our path in life, whatever ways of being or doing give us a sense of aliveness and hope. We are likely to go one of two ways: do what we 'should' in terms of family and peer expectations; or pursue adventure and 'find ourselves'. We either seek security and commitments, or avoid commitment altogether.

A man in his 20s feels he has to do well in his work or be ridiculed. His greatest love is his career. While women do not have the same pressure, if they go the stay at home child-rearing route they may end up with less self-esteem compared to their male partners, who have a very clear feedback on how they are doing. Women can begin to feel cut off from the world and feel valued less for who they are than their role as a mother. While men in their 20s feel they can do anything, women often lose the confidence they had as an adolescent.

Couples in their 20s feel that they will overcome all obstacles, yet behind this bravado is often a level of doubt or insecurity. Women often go for a 'stronger one', a man who can replace to some extent her family ties. But in doing this she avoids her own work of development, and may have to face it later – for example, the woman who marries young and changes significantly in her thirties, coming out of the shadow of her husband.

When people near the 'big Three O', Sheehy notes, normally we feel a dissatisfaction with the career or personal choices we have made, that we have outgrown some of them. We have to chart new directions or make new commitments. We may want to change career, or go back to work, or to start having children. If we have been in a relationship since our early twenties, we may get the 'seven year itch'.

Generally, Sheehy warns that if you don't have some kind of identity crisis in this 'pulling up roots' period of the 20s, you will inevitably have one at a later point when it may take a greater toll.

The Thirties

The thirties are the 'deadline decade' .We suddenly realize, as Sheehy herself did, that there will be an end somewhere. "Time starts to squeeze", which refines our priorities. While the twenties are the 'anything is possible' decade, the thirties let us know that we may not have all the answers, and this can be a shock. We demand authenticity of ourselves and begin to see that we can't blame anything on anyone else. For women, who may have bet everything on their marriage and family, there may begin a rising assertiveness, as they realize that their life is not simply about pleasing others or living up to cultural norms.

Life usually becomes a little more settled. We tie ourselves to a certain career, we may buy a house to put down roots. Men will feel that this is their 'last chance' decade in which they must become partner in the firm instead of being the assistant, or become an established author instead of being ‘young and promising’.

For both sexes, the conclusion is arrived at that life is a lot more serious and difficult than they understood it to be in their twenties. The ages between 37 and 42 are peak years of anxiety for most people. In Sheehy’s research, the age of 37 in particular came up again and again as a crisis year.

The Forties

A sense of stagnation or disequilibrium is felt entering midlife. Those who have seemed to climb upwards through life effortlessly find that life catches up with them. Having intensely pursued a career, a person may think, was it really worth it, why don't I have children? Many a man turning 40 will feel underappreciated and burdened, with the sentiment, 'Is this all there is?'

The good news is that in the mid-40s a certain equilibrium returns. For those with a renewed purpose this can be the best years, as we see that no one can 'do it' for us, and therefore that we finally become master of our destiny in a more assured way. The motto of this stage in life, Sheehy suggests, might be 'No more bullshit' - we are who we are.

A woman is likely to get more assertive while a man may want to get more emotionally responsive, having put his emotional needs aside for career striving. The other sex can begin to lose its magic power over us, since we can now incorporate the opposite of our own sex within our psyches. We feel more independent, less likely to fall in love but more capable of devotion to another person.

Trying to become ourselves

The search for self-identity is what Jung called 'individuation' and Maslow 'self-actualization'. Sheehy's phrase for it is 'gaining our authenticity'. Whatever you want to call it, this is the aim of the successive life stages.

At each point we have the chance to either further define ourselves, or succumb to the ideas of the group and its expectations. We have two selves: the one that wants to merge with others and things, and the one that that seeks creative independence and freedom. Throughout our lives we may alternate between one or the other, or they may be competing within us at the same time.

Many of our decisions may be simply a desire to get away from or differentiate ourselves from our parents. People often marry for this reason. Intriguingly, of all the couples Sheehy interviewed, none married for love alone. There was always a stronger reason e.g. 'my girlfriend expected it', 'my family wanted it', 'in my culture, it is what you do at my age'. For both sexes, a common reason was that 'I need someone to take care of me'. The problem with this is that we come to judge a spouse on how well they take the place of a parent, rather than on their own merits as people. It allows us to think, when we are not happy, that 'he/she won't let me do it' instead of taking responsibility for ourselves.

To make things more difficult, the development cycles of couples will rarely be in tandem. When the man is growing and enthused, for instance, the woman may be going through a time of doubt and instability, and vice versa. A common result is that we blame each other for what we are experiencing, when the major change is really internal.

Final word

The chief enjoyment of Passages in the vignettes of actual people, individuals and couples, Sheehy interviewed. Though these are now obviously out of date, there is still a timeless quality about their stories. She includes a quote from Willa Cather: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." To have greater awareness of the stages of our lives does not mean we are giving up all control; what it does is allow us to see that the problems which seem unique to us have probably been experienced by millions of others, and may have more to do with your time of life than other people or situations you may be blaming.

Since the book was published, timeframes for the stages of life seemed to have changed. In mid-1970s America, the average marrying age was 21 for women and 23 for men. Today, with people settling down much later, it is almost expected that you spend a few years of your 20s and maybe even 30s discovering what you want to do and having minimum commitments. It is also more common for women to delay having children, or not have kids at all. And Sheehy did not consider life much beyond the forties, an age when - given longer life expectancy - life really begins for many people.

This begs the question: What form will transition points or life crises take when, as scientists predict, people are healthy even beyond 100? Perhaps we will become more willing to see life as a series of inevitable transitions, separated by relatively stable periods. Perhaps we will abandon the old distinction between 'youth' and 'maturity' and instead see ourselves as fluid, constantly evolving creations instead of having a fixed identity.

Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston), Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do: Insight and Inspiration from 50 Key Books

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Gail Sheehy

Sheehy, who had the anthropologist Margaret Mead as a mentor, is well-known for her incisive magazine character profiles which have included George W Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Newt Gingrich, Margaret Thatcher and Saddam Hussein. A long time contributing editor to Vanity Fair, she has won a number of awards for her journalism.

Passages was on The New York Times bestseller list for three years and was translated into 28 languages. It was named one of the ‘ten most influential books of our time’ in a Library of Congress survey.

Other books include Pathfinders; The Silent Passage (about menopause); Understanding Men’s Passages; Passages, Sex and the Seasoned Woman; and Hillary’s Choice, a profile of Hillary Clinton.  To take account of changes in culture and society, Sheehy provided an updated version of her work in New Passages. ©2015 All rights reserved.
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