All about what we "should" do according to our family or what we "want" to do according to our need to adventure. We will usually seek security in commitment or avoid it all together.
A man in his 20s feels he has to do well in his work or be ridiculed.
His greatest love is his career.
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', 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 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 are the 'deadline decade' .We suddenly realize, 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.
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 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.