By Lee Wohlfert
July 26, 1976 12:00 PM

At 39, freelance journalist Gail Sheehy is, by her own accounting, “solidly in the Deadline Decade.” Born in Mamaroneck, N.Y. (her father was a Mayflower descendant), she graduated from the University of Vermont, married a medical student and switched from newspaper fashion editor to feature writer before divorcing Dr. Albert Sheehy in 1967 (they have one daughter, Maura, 12). A brush with death while on assignment—she witnessed a young boy’s face being blown off by a bullet in Northern Ireland—and her own sense of unease at mid-life impelled her to explore whether the upheavals and crises of adult life fit into a pattern as predictable as children’s “terrible 2s” and “noisy 9s.” The result is a best-seller, Passages (E.P. Dutton), based on other research in the field and her own interviews with 115 subjects. A prize-winning journalist—her previous books include Hustling (a study of prostitutes) and Panthermania (about the Black Panthers)—Sheehy discussed her findings with Lee Wohlfert of PEOPLE.

What do you mean by the “predictable crises of adult life”?

They are inner turning points we all seem to pass through between one stage of adult life and another. During these passages, like a lobster, we shed a protective cover, are exposed, vulnerable and ready for change. After such crises or passages come periods of stability.

Where does the adult cycle begin?

Obviously the first stage begins around 18 when men and women pull up roots, exit from home, family, safety and comfort. They find their identity, their own heroes and heroines. They experiment with the sexual code and belief systems.

What follows young adulthood?

What I call the Trying 20s, when you are trying to gain a foothold in the adult world, busy trying on life’s uniforms and new partners. You try to anticipate your life work, find a mentor, shape a dream. During this time, you search for, and generally find, what you feel is the perfect fit—the answer to what you “should” be doing. It’s a relatively stable time.

What happens as you approach 30?

In the late 20s or early 30s, a surprise hits. The “fit” no longer seems perfect. It’s a Catch-30—whatever choices you’ve made, suddenly they don’t seem right.

What are the symptoms of discontent?

Men and women alike speak of feeling too narrow and restricted. They blame all sorts of things—their choices in their 20s of mates and careers. But what it boils down to is that choices perfectly suited to the 20s are no longer enough. Some inner aspect was left out that is striving to be taken into account. The single person feels a rush to find a partner; the childless couple reconsiders children, and almost everyone who is married feels dissatisfied. Suddenly one is less concerned with what I “should do” than what I “want to do.” People become more selfish.

What is the outcome of Catch-30?

Things stabilize. People begin sending out new shoots around 32 or 34. They become more rational and orderly. A lawyer gets into political action. His wife starts trying on new religions. She joins the League of Women Voters, studies spiritual cults, yoga. Suddenly people buy houses—often houses reminiscent of their childhoods—renovate old ones, pick up family heirlooms and become earnest about climbing career ladders.

What about the mid-life period?

That is the most intense. It is a long and treacherous passage. It starts with a Deadline Decade—between 35 and 45. That’s when you feel a sudden time-squeeze. You note the first signs of physical decay. Life is half over and you ask, “Will I have time to do it all?” There’s a sense of hurry up—”my one last chance” to fill in what I’ve left out. Generally, it’s a time of danger and opportunity—time for an Authenticity Crisis, when we struggle to know and realize our potentialities.

How do women handle this Deadline Decade?

They sense this inner crossroads earlier than men and often feel a sense of exhilaration. They feel, this is my last chance to be sensual, to see if I’m still attractive. Usually they have packed their last child off to school. It is the time when they want to restore illusions of youthful appearance, romantic love. The years 35 to 39 are the infidelity years for women. If she’s going to be unfaithful, that’s the age.

What about single women?

The top level of executive women start to realize they’ve set aside their femininity, their nurturing aspect. It’s time to integrate all the things they weren’t able to do in the 20s. Many single women adopt children. I personally tried to integrate them all—career, husband and child—in my 20s because I felt I would be inadequate if I could not handle them. Something had to give—and it was my marriage. However, what isn’t possible at 25 is possible at 35—restructuring makes the difference.

And men in the Deadline Decade?

It’s their last chance to pull away from the pack—to become part of top management, to write that hit novel, to pull real weight in politics, to start that business. They may depart from their long-standing baselines, including their marriages. This is also the age when a man generally feels depressed and unappreciated, insecure on the job and in bed. Some look for reassurance with a younger woman; some start a second career.

When does stabilization begin?

At about 40 both sexes begin to exchange roles a bit. Women become more assertive. They’re not interested in picnics now; they want to get involved in politics, causes, wave the banner in an adult way. And men become more tender, responsive, compassionate. An engineer becomes interested in the ethics of his career; a tycoon turns philanthropist; executives take on the role of mentor. As parents, both men and career women reach back for their children, just as their children are starting to repudiate them.

Where does this role-change lead?

I call it Switch-40s. At the time a man has begun to feel stale and stagnant, his wife has emerged with a new independence, and he often envies it. She may start selling real estate and feeding him frozen pizza for dinner. She may stop piggybacking her dreams, acting as a husband’s caretaker; he may feel the loss acutely and feel devalued. Both are confronted with their own separateness. The couple contract must be renegotiated here. Readjustments must be made. Otherwise, she may turn into a domineering harridan, Big Mom, while he slips into the passive and effeminized role of a Dagwood Bumstead.

Meanwhile, what is happening on the sexual front?

It’s the phenomenon I refer to as the Sexual Diamond. Looking at research figures, the two sexes are most alike at two stages. Eighteen is the first, when the issue is emancipation and when sexual potential is probably most alike, although that’s difficult to say since the 18-year-old girl’s sexuality is socially repressed. The second stage is after 60, in the unisex of getting old. In the 20s, men and women begin moving apart in sexual capacity and in their social roles. By the late 30s and early 40s, the distance across the diamond is at its greatest—men and women exhibit the most strikingly dissimilar aspects of their sexual capacities.

How does this affect sex in mid-life?

The man begins to decline in his sexual powers as early as the 30s, but by the 40s he may really notice he is slower on the comeback. The real culprit, of course, is anxiety, which incapacitates him and can cause his male hormone level to drop. At such a stage, the worst thing a woman can do is mother, or smother, him. The best thing is to help him see the advantages of being a middle-aged lover—which really can be the most satisfying of all.

What happens in later mid-life?

The stability of this period depends on how you’ve handled the mid-life crises. During mid-life, drinking, suicide and hypochondria are on the rise, and they may become worse. Some people resign themselves to trivial maintenance duties in their own lives, feeling it safer than reexamining themselves. Resigned people feel their work is just a job. They feel a tremendous, irreplaceable loss when parents die, and they hang onto their mates as substitutes for parents or children who have gone.

What can be positive about this later stage?

People who have refused to permit an Authenticity Crisis during the Deadline Decade may have it now, and the wallop will be tremendous. But people who have already stopped, reexpressed themselves and thrown off narrow roles find renewal—energy, aliveness, excitement. These can be the best years, 45 to 55. People are not threatened, not trying to bootleg from their mates. At this point we stop hating our parents and forgive them. Personal happiness takes a sharp turn upward for partners who accept the fact that “I cannot expect anyone to fully understand me.”