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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - January 2012

It could be you ....

 

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor in private practice after 20yrs with Relate, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet as we pass our half-way markers. 

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.

You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.

 

 


IT COULD BE YOU...

I can't get over my divorce

I have had a response to my column on the rising number of divorces in our age group.

The email was long and heartfelt and I shall print parts of it here in my reply.

In brief, the writer says she identifies with much of what was in my column but, like me, had divorced much earlier. She was 48 when the marriage ended after 31 years. But she is still struggling with feelings of loneliness and strong resentment towards her ex-husband and, especially, towards his second wife. Her family tell her she ‘should be over it by now’ or to ‘let it go’, but that is proving impossible for her.

She tells me her home had a granny flat and for many years of their marriage they each cared for their own parents there.

"Our children were tiny when my father came - having been told he had 6-8 weeks to live - and stayed for nine years. My mother stayed for 14 years and my father-in-law for seven months. My husband insisted his mother lived with us after his dad died despite none of us liking her. My daughter and her children were also living with us temporarily. My son was back and forth, sometimes into mental care. Mother-in-law became doubly incontinent and often bit and scratched while I changed her. I went out to work too, but my husband had very little to do with her. "

This was a recipe for extreme marital strain and I am impressed that the marriage lasted as long as it did. On top of this, the husband suffered redundancies, felt inferior to his wife because she appeared to cope with everything, and became depressed when his father died. It appears that the writer just got on with the burdens of caring for her parents and parents-in-law. Three of these elderly people had Alzheimer’s disease. As well as that, their son’s mental health issues meant he became estranged from his father. The stress this family suffered was immense.

Although our writer did finally have a couple of relationships after her divorce, she found it hard to trust again; indeed, the last one was affected by this as well as by health problems.

The writer’s email is full of strong feelings about the second wife’s involvement in the family.

"I still resent what happened, especially his wife’s relationship with my family. My ex-husband left me to deal with everything. He is now in a relationship which is, in some ways, ‘stealing’ my family as well as him.


The latest disruption is an argument over where Christmas will be spent.

"My family lie to me when they see their dad and keep saying I should be over it by now. I have had a dreadful row with my daughter. She altered Christmas plans to accommodate an invitation from my ex’s wife. My great-grandchild calls her nanny and it’s like a knife being twisted inside."


She finds that her family aren’t being open with her, as they know she will be upset by their contact with their father/grand-dad and his wife. Her grand-daughter tried to explain things to her:

“Grandma, 17 years is a very long time, let it go. It is affecting us all. We don’t see them very often but we lie so as not to hurt you, what can we do about it?” That woman has stolen my husband and is stealing my family, which he promised she would not do. My grand-daughter says I shouldn’t make it awkward for the children and grandchildren who have done nothing wrong."

I feel this email highlights not only the hardest part of life after divorce but also the dangers of getting stuck in one part of what is the normal sequence of shock, loss, anger, fear of the future and being alone.

The writer’s story is one of remarkable stress in the midst of normal busy family life. It is hard to imagine how much energy that caring for ageing parents can take - not only the physical effort of cooking, cleaning, laundry and lifting, but the emotional strain of listening, comforting, of being alert to changes in the parent’s state, and distress of watching a parent grow less able or less aware. That is bound to affect how a couple relate to one another. Some can cling on to each other and, for some, this is a time when the strain becomes a wedge between them, so they will slowly grow apart.

However, if such stress is replaced by further struggles, like marital upheaval, it might mean that sufferers cannot recover fully before more falls in their shoulders. The writer certainly had more to contend with after the last parent died. I wonder if the load has been so great that it was never fully worked through.

Shock of any kind creates a similar series of experiences. All of these need to be lived with and passed through - not necessarily in some set order, before the person can move on in confidence once again. We need to accept that things can never be the same as before, but then nothing is, even in the smoothest of lives as, simply by existing, we age and experience changes in our family and surroundings. Accepting that we can never get back to where we were allows us to move forward with more emotional strength.

The stages of grief are:

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  • Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

At any stage in this process, people can become fixed, or stuck. If that happens, it is important that help is found to unblock progress. This is when counsellors can be most useful. With them, you can talk through feelings in total confidence. They can help allay whatever fears you might have, fears which stop you from being more contented.

For example, the email writer is still, after 17 years, fiercely angry towards her ex-husband and his second wife; she nurses huge resentment that this person has to a degree been accepted by the rest of her family. They too have gone through feelings of loss and anger and moved on, perhaps with thoughts such as: ‘This is how things are in Dad’s life, I accept it is his decision. It doesn’t and cannot change the fact that he’s my dad and I still want him in my life, especially for the sake of my children and grandchildren’. The family might not fully trust Dad but that could change too, the longer he remains reliable. They might not grow to love his wife but they can like her in her own right. Everyone has some likeable qualities and deserves respect for something. They all know that she will never replace the love they naturally have for their own mum/grandma/great-grandma.

It is as though the memory of the last two years of marriage has grown so dominant through anger and resentment that our writer can no longer remember any good in the previous 29 years. That was a long marriage, full of hard work by both partners even though she feels she had the toughest load. That could be true. But her husband did manage to work hard enough to create a home large enough for many members of the extended family at various times. His mistake was that he probably didn’t notice just how draining and exhausting her caring role was and therefore couldn’t rescue her from overload.

What I’d like to say to the person who took so much time to write to me is, first of all, I appreciate it very much indeed. Thank you. I too experienced the loss of a marriage in my early forties and went through all the stages of grief, including the one where I couldn’t accept that my children were ahead of me in meeting ’the other woman’. Having cleared that barrier, with my children’s reassurance and support, my own confidence and acceptance of the situation recovered. I grew into seeing her place in our extended family. As I mentioned in an earlier column, we’re now firm pals and I absolutely see what my ex. saw in her. Also, I am sure from what you say that your daughter and her family will never allow their father’s wife to replace you in any way. It is because they love you that they try to protect you from news which, they have learnt from experience, will upset you, stirring up all your hurt and angry feelings. But being open has the same effect so they are at a loss as to how to behave. What you experience is their adjustment towards acceptance and they will find it easier to show their love to you once you have caught up with them.

You will never forget how hard this has all been, but I assure you your life will feel freer once you have found independent support and help to guide you forward. You are a brave woman. Use that courage and ask your daughter to help break this cycle of anger by giving you reassurance. But your side of the deal is that you need to trust and believe what you hear. Find a counsellor and work with them on unblocking this anger. Your energy can flow again and you will be amazed at yourself.

 


You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.


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