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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 80     

                             December 2008

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.



I'm at a loss as to how to help my wife


We have been married for 37 years and have survived all kinds of changes and crises as we raised our kids.  But now I’m at a loss as to how to help my wife.


In the last couple of years she has stopped taking care of herself and doesn’t eat well even though she cooks decent meals for me.  Actually even those aren’t as delicious as they used to be. It’s as though she doesn’t care about things.  She doesn’t go to friends for a cuppa anymore and her friends aren’t invited here, although she would do anything for them if they asked. When I suggest a weekend away or talk about a little holiday she says it is such a bother planning and getting organised.


When I ask her if there is anything wrong she just says she is tired. She says she isn’t depressed but sounds as though she is.  The children have noticed a difference in her even though she is a bit more animated when they visit with their families. She looks so weary and is a lot thinner than she used to be.


We have always got on pretty well, had our own tasks in the house and have been good parents.  We’ve worked hard and kept a clean house and good garden.  None of it seems to interest her any longer. She won’t hear of visiting the doctor and says there is nothing wrong.  She talked to our son-in-law a month or two ago about her own mother, who ‘decided to die’ when she reached seventy.  She was a strong woman who just chose to let herself fade away, having worked and struggled all her life and sort of wore out.  I’m really afraid it is what she is doing too. Am I getting this out of proportion?


This is really sad and very hard for you to watch, unable to get to the bottom of what is troubling your wife. In the meantime you have taken up the slack and are doing much of the shopping as your wife doesn’t go out, the cleaning and the gardening that you both enjoyed; you the veg patch and your wife her flower beds.

In fact the life you have described sounds really full and busy and I wondered how much time you had to just sit and chat.  What has been the habit of a lifetime isn’t going to change very easily and she might not be used to pouring out her worries to you.  Whatever is troubling her is obviously hard for her to put into words and she will need help to try and do that.

It is important that somehow she is persuaded to go to her doctor to check that there is no physical problem that is sapping her energy. She is at a stage of life where many changes both physical and emotional have to be accommodated.  The menopause occasionally affects women quite deeply in many ways and requires patience and strength from both the woman and her partner to work through.  There are a lot of ways in which we can alleviate menopausal symptoms, I have written in this column about the emotional challenges that can occur (see Index and Archive Index at bottom of article) and there have been plenty of Healthwise articles that talk about help too.  There are illnesses that can be treated very easily, once they are diagnosed, which could present some or all of her symptoms.  She needs to see that a visit the surgery is not a threatening thing; but could bring her great relief, a) if the doctor finds she has something that can be treated, or b) that nothing physical is wrong and she can therefore stop worrying about it and concentrate on what is missing in her life that might help her feel more alive and cheerful.

This is where you and the family can get together and work out what you can do to support her.  There could be some deep-seated fear of ‘What happened to mum will happen to me’.  I recall my own mother being depressed preparing for her sixtieth birthday by telling me that it was likely she would not be around for much longer as her mother had died of a stroke at sixty and therefore she could too.  It was hard for me to hear that, with my young family loving their grandma.  I knew she worked incredibly hard throughout her life and was about to take some time for herself at long last.  But for her it seemed highly likely.  She seemed perfectly healthy but was already cutting off from us, getting ready for what might happen. Needless to say it didn’t and she lived on to see her beloved grandchildren well into their teens.

You mention your son-in-law having a conversation with her.  It sounds as though she has a close, trusting relationship with him.  There is no need for any of the family to be jealous, it often happens that a spouse of one of the children develops a really close bond with one their parents-in-law. In fact it is something to be pleased about he could be able to encourage her to talk or to go to her GP for a check-up.  He might even be able to pick up on what she told him of her mother and ask straight out if that is something that worries her.

Whatever happens the ‘Pull yourself together’ or ‘Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to worry about’ approach is not going to help.  She is worried, and no-one who feels so down chooses to stay there for long if they are capable of seeing a way of changing things. 

What your wife will need is a gradual stepping up of your showing a willingness to talk and to listen to her; as though it is the only thing you have to do today.  You don’t have to spend hours talking or listening, just a ten minute break with a tea or coffee giving your undivided attention might be all she needs to feel that she is still important to you and to everyone else.  You might not even talk about anything important or relevant to your worries to begin with, but as you spend time with her she might voice more of her thoughts or fears without fear of ridicule, giving you the opportunity to ask about what she might want to happen in her life now and how you can help her.

She needs to know the following things: that she is loved by you and by the family, that you want to help her, that she is safe and that she is well.  Your task is to gently convince her. Take your time and good luck.



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

back to the Relationship Counselling Index


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