“With aging, you earn the right to be loyal to yourself.” —Frances McDormand

All the world is indeed a stage — a series of characters moving in and out of the scene. And a life can be the same way, measured by its relationships. I’ve been married to the same man for more than a quarter-century. I’ve raised four children and have managed to maintain a few longstanding friendships. It’s becoming clear, however, that the way that I relate to others has evolved. I am not the woman I once was. The woman in the middle of life has changed with regard to herself, her people, and her experiences.

In my case, the “pleaser” has lost patience with the dull characters of the world, and she suffers fools much less gladly. After decades of hyperengagement with others, I’m becoming a woman of fewer words and more crystallized thought. (Although those who live with me may argue this assessment.) I want support, but I also want solitude. I want lots of silence and space. Usually, like Greta Garbo in 1932’s Grand Hotel, I just want to be alone.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Virginia Woolf was in her late forties when she published A Room of One’s Own. She was in her own midlife when she wrote this: “Five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door.” Inflation aside, the sentiment is spot on.

I’m not alone. According to a survey conducted by the AARP, 66 percent of divorces are initiated by women in their forties, fifties, or sixties; the reasons are many and varied. American psychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, suggests, “The mommy brain unplugs. Menopause means the end of the hormones that have boosted communication circuits, emotion circuits, the drive to tend and care, and the urge to avoid conflict at all costs.” Others chalk it up to career changes, “empty nest syndrome,” medications, or diminished libido. All ingredients in the stew that makes up a typical woman’s midlife experience. I would argue that it’s also part of a slow-to-come rejection of societal expectations. We just will not play the game anymore.

Sex and aging is a hot topic, and I’ve heard an avalanche of chirpy claims. Sex is awesome as we age! Lust for life: Why sex is better in your 80s. (“I hope we make it,” says my husband.) There’s a point to be made: Experience helps. The body gets more comfortable the longer we wear it; we learn its quirks and requirements. We’re often less inhibited, especially in a long-term relationship. But aging, as every human knows, presents a new, often challenging set of quirks. And peri/menopause can turn the game upside down. Insomnia drives a woman mad. The random furnace blast of a five-alarm hot flash is as good as a neon Do Not Enter sign. Vague, unspecified dissatisfaction with everything and everyone is not an aphrodisiac. Pain is the world’s wettest blanket. Passion is a challenge when one doesn’t want to be touched (or looked at). There are issues, sometimes many and all-consuming, that preclude romance.

“I’m so hot,” I say, peeling off the layers and feeling miserable. The husband (with bedroom eyes and bobbing eyebrows) coos, “Yes, you are.” It’s as if we truly live on separate planets, and it annoys me, as if innuendo is anywhere near the neighborhood of what I want or need right now. It’s also nice, though, and it tickles the corner of my brain that still imagines I might be hot (in the good way). The corner that wonders if I will ever even want to be hot (in the good way) again.

This is the strange landscape of sex in the middle — leave me alone while I fall apart, but do you really think I’m hot? I’m yearning for the next chapter, when the falling apart is over and I can just be hot. Will I soon get my share of what Margaret Mead called “post-menopausal zest”? When can I get busy with my experience and count on things to not fall apart? I’m still waiting.

When I tumbled, blindly, into the pit of perimenopause, my first inclination was to fill my life with women. I did this instinctively, it seems, without thinking or planning. I didn’t even realize the pattern until years later. I reconnected with my best friend from high school, and we’ve nurtured a thriving relationship ever since. I cultivated a group of women for a book club that includes books but has really served as a regular women’s afternoon of food, wine, and commiseration. Conversation isn’t specifically midlife-related, but in dissecting the subjects of our bodies, our relations, our fears — our lives — we are filling in the blanks, winking and nodding along with one another.

Gale Berkowitz writes, “A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. It’s a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research — most of it on men — upside down.” (What’s stunning to me about her words is “most of it on men,” but that’s a hallmark of our patriarchal approach to medical research.) Women have known forever that a girlfriend can sometimes be the best port in a storm.

Women also, paradoxically, sometimes dump friends at midlife. This could be caused, in part, by hormonal fluctuations. Mickey Harpaz writes, “The brain produces oxytocin in greater quantity, prior to perimenenopause. This enables the building of friendships. With the onset of perimenopause, and then postmenopause, less oxytocin is produced. With less of it present, the urge to bond with friends during menopause lessens.” We are, therefore, possibly less inclined to seek connection. In my experience, however, it is more a culling of the herd, a shedding of the friends who don’t serve you. According to Dr. Brizendine, a menopausal woman becomes less concerned about keeping the peace and less inclined to be as attentive to others’ personal needs. She becomes more attuned to her own needs and wants.

In other words: Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

My relationship with life itself has changed. Where I was bold, I am now cautious. Where I was blissfully oblivious, I am now hyperaware. The sounds and the colors and the very vibration of life are different; or, rather, I am different, more sensitive and wary.

As a young woman, I was likely to grab the world by both ears and give it a big wet kiss on the mouth. Now I wait a beat or two. I worry — about propriety, about safety, about the mess. Perhaps the world will bite back? Perhaps this world is not the same one I thought I knew? I skirt the world now, here in my midlife.

But along with this new sensitivity and trepidation has come a stalwart confidence, a genuine contentment. I am — whether at the whims of oxytocin or intellect — less concerned with the world’s opinion. I am actually, finally, an island unto myself.

But I might like you to visit sometime. I’ll let you know when.