Written by Randi G. Fine
Life is a series of beginnings and endings. Seasons change; trees blossom and then go barren, flowers bloom and then go dormant, day turns to night, years begin and they end, we are born and we die.
Endings are not sudden, nor are beginnings. They come about through the process of transition. Transitions, the uncertain spaces between the beginnings and endings of change, the pauses and processes of life, are inevitable.
Life does not exist without transition; it conveys us through the stages of life. Many processes of transition are subtle, occurring fluently and without our awareness. Our bodies and minds easily acclimate to them. But change, whether good or bad, can also be very difficult. We feel off kilter when the comfort of the familiar and convenient becomes the discomfort of the unfamiliar and inconvenient, when we are forced to adjust our lives in ways that seem foreign to us.
We each view the transitions that occur in our lives differently. The way we perceive them is based on a variety of factors; our personalities, life experiences, emotional fortitude, coping skills, habitual behaviors, life styles, age, economic status, and more.
Transitions are stressful for everyone, but for those who are creatures of habit and very resistant to change, transitions may be extraordinarily so. Those who look forward to and welcome change more easily adjust to the process that goes along with it.
Couples go through many transitions as they mature in their years together. Their values, decisions, and choices as individuals and as a couple will change through the years. They must be willing and ready to accept, respect, readjust, and re-balance as each person navigates through their own stages and experiences of life at their own pace and in their own way. Some transitions, like getting married, moving in together, having a baby, making career decisions, buying a house, or relocating are navigated jointly. Both people will have different points of view and must work together to compromise a happy medium. The skills that they apply to make these transitions flow will strengthen the relationship, making future transitions a little easier to go through.
It is normal to feel vulnerable, fearful, inadequate, and disoriented when the big question mark representing your future looms large in front of you. But transitions serve a very important purpose in our lives; they are opportunities for us to learn, grow, and gain new understanding of ourselves. They show us what we are made of, what our strengths and weaknesses, assets and liabilities are, so we can evaluate our lives and set new goals. They allow us to edit the story of our lives and give ourselves a new beginning.
Change may be voluntary and welcomed, but it may also be involuntary and unwelcome. Unexpected, involuntary, unplanned, and unanticipated transitions such as the death of a loved one, the loss or death of a pet, a painful separation or divorce, a financial or job loss, the loss of a home, an accident, or an illness are always unwelcome. Unprepared for this types of transition these events typically leave us with feelings of shock, anger, denial, depression, betrayal, fear, insecurity, abandonment, and a whole host of other negative emotions.
Expected, voluntary, planned, and anticipated transitions come about at specific times in our lives. Though planned, the feelings leading up to them are still are anxiety producing. Common anticipated transitions begin with graduation, retirement, a welcomed change in job or career, going away to college, getting married, having a baby, the first day of school, moving to a new home, or a young adult moving out on their own.
Some transitions come about unexpectedly but are the result of a welcomed change such as a job transfer, the start of a new relationship, a promotion, or relocation to another city. Transition such as aging, declining health, the loss of a role as occurs with empty nest syndrome, or an anticipated job loss are anticipated and expected but involuntary.
We not only transition in life, we transition between lives. Birth is a transition, death is a transition, our journey to the other side some call heaven is a transition.
Children make anticipated transitions throughout their stages of development, but according to Dr. Daniel Levinson, so do adults. Dr. Levinson, a retired professor of psychology at Yale who is now deceased, developed the well-regarded “Levinson’s theory,” a comprehensive theory of the stages of adult development. The ages that are shown for each stage fluctuate; we are all different and so is the way we progress through life’s stages. And though Levinson’s progression is linear, we do not move from one stage to another in that fashion. We may revisit previous stages as life presents us with unexpected events.
To successfully move through each stage we must allow ourselves to experience the emotions that go along with it, be accepting of the changes that are occurring, and be willing to let go of the past.
According to Dr. Levinson, the first stage of transition, called “Autonomy/Tentative Choices,” happens from ages 18-26. At this young adult stage we are developing a sense of who we are as a person, independent from our parents and childhood peers. We are defining ourselves as individuals, initiating an independent lifestyle, testing out new friendships, peer groups, and romantic interests, and changing our focus from our family to our peers. The commitments we make at this stage are tentative with the awareness that we can change our minds in the future.
The second stage, called “Young Adult Transition,” occurs between ages 27 and 31. This is a time of disquietude. At this stage we question our sense of self, who we want to become, and what we want from life. We evaluate the choices we tentatively made in the previous stage, deciding whether or not to maintain them or change them, with a sense that the time of our carefree youth is quickly running out. We begin making commitments and connections, and sorting through our relationships, deciding which ones we will hold onto.
The third stage, called “Making Commitments,” occurs between ages 32 and 40. This is a stage of calm as we establish a more permanent sense of self. We implement the choices made in the previous stage; who we want to become and which direction to take in life. We feel a sense of mastery of our profession and focus our efforts on accomplishment. We make deeper commitments in our connections to society and community. Our relationship commitments to friends, peers, and romantic interests become more permanent.
The fourth stage, called, “Mid-Life Transition,” occurs between ages 41 and 48. This is a stage of discontentment, boredom, disillusionment, and rebalancing. We take a hard look at ourselves, questioning whether or not we achieved what we set out to do in life. Now half-way through life, we are coming to terms with our mortality. We focus less on our values and more on making up for whatever and whoever we neglected, wanting to make the best out of the next part of our lives. We re-assess the perception we have of ourselves, evaluate his values, and revise our priorities. We no longer feel the need to conform to peer, cultural, and societal pressure.
This stage is more commonly referred to as, “Midlife Crisis,” a natural maturing process first identified by Carl Jung. Though Levinson estimated the age of mid-life transition to be between the ages of 41 and 48, a midlife crisis might occur anywhere from about age 37 through the 50s. Due to the processes of life that may occur during this time of life, the difficulty of this stage may be compounded by simultaneous transitions such as divorce, bereavement over the loss of a parent, friend, or loved one, or worry over accumulated debt.
It becomes a crisis when we don’t understand the process and cannot come to terms with changes such as our aging appearance. When this happens we may find ourselves stuck, depressed, and frustrated. Dealing with this transition in an unhealthy way may cause us to do damaging things and make irrational choices that we may eventually regret.
At this stage, men typically feel the need to prove their worth, achievements, and job performance while trying to appear more youthful and successful. But they also soften their macho side and begin embracing more feminine interests such as cooking, or artistic endeavors.
Women, typically defined by their roles and relationships, begin reevaluating their performance in their roles as mother, wife, or partner. Realizing that they have put in the majority of their time raising children or being devoted to a career and are now free to make choices, they feel the urge to pursue the dreams they had previously shelved. Feeling that they have paid their dues, they focus more on satisfying themselves.
If you are in this transition, take notice of any negative changes arising from the difficulty of it. Are you suffering from depression and the symptoms that go along with it such as change in eating habits, fatigue, sleeping pattern changes, anxiety, irritability, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, or obvious indications like thoughts of suicide? Are you suffering minor physical ailments that have no explanation? Deal with these symptoms as soon as possible, before you lose control or something terrible happens. Consider consulting a therapist to help guide you through the process.
When dealt with in a healthy manner, mid-life transition can be a time of tremendous growth. Support from close friends and loved ones will help us more easily navigate our way through the process.
The fifth stage, called “Leaving a Legacy,” occurs between ages 49 and 65. At the peak of our maturity, this has the potential to be one of the most productive stages. At this stage we focus on values that mean the most in the scheme of life. We are driven to make the best out of the time we have left by helping others, and we feel compelled to leave a positive legacy. We let go of our false ego and accept ourselves as worthwhile, regardless of our weaknesses. We feel less compelled to impress others and more compelled to make things better for them. We engage in deeper and more productive relationships with family, friends, and are driven to make contributions to society.
The sixth and last stage, called “Spiritual Denouement,” occurs from ages 66 and beyond. This is a stage of completion and fine-tuning. At this stage we are completing our spiritual development and the development of the person we wish to become. We come to terms with the limitations of ourselves and our mortality, recognizing that life is only a part of our existence and accepting that there is greater universal wisdom. And with that acceptance we become more willing to submit ourselves to its will or whatever higher power we believe in. As we prepare to leave our mark on the world we have a strong desire to pass the wealth of wisdom we have gained onto others.