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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - 14

It could be you.... 

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, 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 for her to respond in the column.


Black sheep or just different?

The second daughter of a successful couple came to my attention some years ago when she confided in me that she had no idea if her parents were ‘satisfied with how she had turned out', as she put it. This young woman, the middle of three children, had achieved excellent A level results, swept through university, and climbed rapidly through the ranks of her profession to consultancy level by the time she was in her late thirties. She had worked hard and played hard, and was not averse to taking risks in both of these areas.  She was married, had two children, but felt she had received no feed-back from her parents.

I got the other side of the story in a recent conversation with a retired couple. It was a different family, and in this case they felt frustration and sadness at not really understanding their daughter.  They also felt alienation from her and her husband, who they perceived as totally hostile to them.  Their other children were easy to relate to, frequently in touch or visiting.  Just one, somehow, had turned out ‘different'.

So what went wrong? 

In many ways we tend to relate best to those who behave a bit like us. The young woman in my first story, the seemingly neglected middle child, was different. Her older sister was a typically responsible eldest child, helpful, serious and hard working. The youngest child, a son, was the apple of his mother's eye and a ‘chip off the old block' who spent a lot of time helping dad in the garden. The ‘black sheep' seemed to spend her life doing spectacular things, but they didn't seem to be the ones appreciated by her parents. She excelled at sports, passed tough exams in record time with top marks, and her professional status was such that she and her husband enjoyed a privileged lifestyle. Yet she complained to me, ‘Mum and Dad are seriously unimpressed with me for some reason'.

What the young woman described to me all that time ago was the discomfort of feeling her siblings were jealous and critical of what they saw as her easy life, though she knew it was far from it. No matter what she did and how hard she tried, her parents seemed disapproving. Her husband now felt angry on her behalf and would leave the house if they visited. She felt she just didn`t fit and it upset her greatly.

We all have different ways of showing that we care about our families but it is very important that we find a way that is understandable to all. The oldest and youngest of these children are attuned to their parents enough to read subtle messages of approval. The middle child needed a different approach, one that fits with her direct way of doing things. In childhood perhaps she felt her siblings had all parental approval and successfully acted up or worked extra hard to win some for herself. This tactic is no more useful to her now than her parents' one of hoping she will see how much they care by expressing worry over her hectic lifestyle.

What if, I wondered to myself…

  • They start to show interest in her life  

  • Ask questions about her work  

  • Offer to have her children to stay more often  

  • Tell her from time to time how proud they are of her many achievements  

  • Reassure her that they care very much about her  

  • They are able to resist criticising and expressing worry, which to her sounds like disapproval.

Maybe she in turn might be able to admit how exhausting her life is and stop trying so hard to be different and better. They may find that if the relationship with their daughter improves, her husband will see them as less of a threat and make more effort to get to know them.

I think creating a little space for being different within the family would free them all to be adults, rather than just keeping to the roles of Mum or Dad, Son or Daughter, Brother or Sister.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years. We hope you find the column useful and interesting …  and if you have any comments or suggestions, Maggi would like to hear from you. email her on .

Please don't send any confidential information to

To view previous articles  - see the Relationship Counselling & Advice Index page  



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