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Planning Retirement Online



Relationships - March 2013

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 for her to respond in the column.

The Circle of Negativity

This month I return to one of the problems that is trickiest to resolve - breaking out of the circle of negativity which can surround a bad experience, either within a relationship or at the end of one.

I have three examples in mind. One is a man in his late 40s struggling to handle the vengeful and vindictive behaviour of his wife without reciprocating in kind. The second is a man in his early 30s who thought he’d found the love of his life who, for her own sad reasons, was using his love as a means of escape from her parents, her bullying boyfriend and even her country. And thirdly, a woman whose recent e-mail to me about her concerns repeated almost word for word the problem she asked for help with several years ago.

It seems that all three are striving to cope with negative feelings about ending relationships as well as the fallout afterwards. Most people are bound to have feelings of loss, anger and hurt but the more insidious feelings – bitterness for example, the desire for vengeance, blaming the ‘other man or woman’, resentment or prolonged denial can, if allowed to fix themselves, have a devastating effect on life.

So many heightened emotions run concurrently when a relationship breaks, especially if it is not a mutual decision. The sense of loss, the hurt caused from feeling rejected, sometimes a denial that the leaving partner is really serious and will change their mind, anger and blame which well up with the sense of betrayal and recognition that the partner is serious - all these feelings give rise to distress or even depression.

These are normal reactions to the shock of an ending and the changes it brings. Over a period - different, I must stress, for each individual - pain does lessen and anger does fade. Day-to-day survival, especially if there are children to care for and/or a job to maintain, somehow begins to ground a person in the present rather than the past. The very getting on with life is a healing process. What’s more, passing through and managing a time of intense strain can, if allowed, boost the sense of confidence. The repairs are underway.

Often, it is self-confidence which takes a huge knock. Being rejected is akin to being made redundant, or told you are a failure or are no longer important. This can be devastating. If ignored, it can lock a person into that harmful cycle of negativity. Sometimes, other people fail to see that and try to be encouraging, saying how well a person is doing. But while seeming outwardly to be coping well, deeper down some can nurse a grudge or, indeed, struggle to cope. What no-one but the person can do is to be honest with themselves and question any negative thoughts towards their former partner, or their ex’s new partner or, as can also happen, towards themselves.

This tendency to hang on to negativity always contains a strong element of denial - if not of their own part in the break, then in denying the reality that the ending itself has ended and that time has taken everyone concerned to the present, firmly lodging that ending in the past.

The first person I mentioned, the man in his late 40s, is steadily working on letting go, trying not to be unpleasant, while his almost-ex-wife appears to be getting stuck in bitterness and revenge, especially financial revenge.

The younger man, someone who prides himself on caring for those he loves, is still in the throes of grief and is trying to maintain an affectionate dialogue with an immature and not terribly stable ex-girlfriend. Perhaps punishing himself by not eating or communicating with family, he is in danger of slipping into depression, his default negative position, forgetting to care for himself.

The woman who wrote the repeat e-mail seems, sadly, to have become so bogged down in her resentment of all that happened years ago that she forgot my reply about her problems. Nothing has changed I assume, and to still be in this frame of mind indicates that she badly needs help from a counsellor or therapist so that she can let go of these feelings and so find pleasure in her loving family once again.

Recovery from this cycle of negativity is vital for quality of life. Without it, the sufferer is locked into an unhappiness that taints everything, from the ability to sleep well, to enjoy being with friends or family who are happy in their own relationships, or to relax and take pleasure in one’s children and grandchildren, who feel hurt if a parent can’t help them celebrate a birthday or any other occasion because the presence of the other, separated, parent is too painful for them. That unhappiness skews judgment. The feelings considered and protected are always of the person choosing to be trapped in the cycle, not of the family member wanting to share the joy of their achievement, nor anyone else around them.

To have come through the initial pain and upheaval, the confusion and fear, is an achievement. It is at this point that people can decide to move forward, having adjusted to their new situation, prepared to adjust further as time moves on, knowing that they have passed the hardest part. To ignore that opportunity is a choice. It might be that it was not seen as such at the time but it is there, and will continue to be there, whenever the person asks themselves:

  • what benefit do I get from feeling like this?
  • who am I helping by being like this?
  • who can make this different for me?
  • without turning back time, what do I want for myself?
  • how can I make this happen and who will help?

The truth is that no-one else can make the decision to let go of the past. Now and then external help and encouragement is needed to do that, especially if negativity is entrenched. It’s a big, positive step to ask for help. It means you’re already moving on and retaking control of your life. Be prepared to talk to family, friends or a counsellor honestly, hear what others have to say and take another step forward with strength.

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

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