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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - 43

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 in later life.

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.


A daughter’s marriage in danger

A client – let’s call her Juliet – came to me to talk over a family problem. It took place on a special birthday celebration, when the whole family was staying in a hotel for the weekend. There were Juliet and her husband, plus two married daughters and their husbands and four grandchildren.

It was Tess, the younger daughter and her husband Peter who appeared to be in trouble. Peter openly said he was neither happy nor successful in his job. Immediately, with unerring maternal instinct, Juliet could see Tess was tense and worried and Peter very quiet and distant.

Tess was not her usual chatty self and she was short-tempered with the children. The symptoms were all too apparent as, during their first evening meal, Peter yelled at Tess, openly criticising her in front of the family.

What can one do in such an unexpected situation? The assumption was that he was exhausted after the long car journey and that maybe wine was playing a part. The family pretended not to notice, but for Juliet the worry over Tess gave her a sleepless night.

The following morning brought worse events. Tess said something Peter disagreed with and after insulting her loudly he stormed off for a long walk, leaving the rest of the adults to try to distract the children, who had witnessed the outburst, and to calm Tess down.

When the rest of the family went to the indoor pool, Tess, in tears, confessed to her mum that she would probably have to leave Peter at some point as he had recently become unbearable.

What Juliet was feeling

  • As mum-in-law she felt she had no right to say anything to Peter about the marriage.

  • But as Tess’s mother she felt she did have a right to express her concern.

  • She was very worried about the effect all this was having upon the grandchildren.

How Juliet got through the dilemma

  • Juliet knew that the subject of the state of Tess and Peter’s marriage was not her business, so when she finally plucked up the courage to talk to Peter, she expressed her own worries as a mum, thereby keeping it personal and not pressing him to respond or explain his behaviour. She did not mention what her daughter had said to her.

  • She said that she was concerned about her daughter’s and grandchildren’s happiness, as well as acknowledging Peter’s dark mood. She did this without judgement or condemnation.

  • Peter did not respond immediately and she worried that she might be making matters worse. But she sensed that he was thinking about the consequences of his actions.

  • The entire family had been careful not to over-react to Peter’s behaviour. Had they ignored it completely they would have been guilty of ‘not noticing the elephant in the room’. Instead, they took time to assess what was needed and worked together instinctively.

  • The children were recognising the tension between Tess and Peter. Grandpa and Uncle Mark took charge of them, ensuring that they had plenty of fun things to do, keeping them all together but away from the situation.

  • Rachel, the older sister, sensing her mother’s worry, made sure everyone was cared for and fed, so that Juliet could talk to Peter and comfort Tess.

  • The family gave the couple time and space to work out their problems.

The next day, at breakfast, there was no sign of Tess and Peter. Finally the unhappy couple appeared, somewhat sheepishly. Tess had obviously been crying but seemed calm and Peter made it clear he was ready to talk.

He told Juliet that what she had said the previous day had made him realise that he was turning the celebration into a disaster. He had not known how to tell his wife that he had been made redundant just before the weekend. The very thing he wanted to avoid was happening anyway. The atmosphere lifted, the couple’s relief was clear to everyone.

This story demonstrates several of the pitfalls of close family life and some of the ways that, with openness and care, the family can hold and sustain all of its members.


You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

To view previous articles in this series - see the Relationship Counselling Index page




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