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Relationships - June 2014

Talking it through

 

Maggi Stamp is a highly qualified relationship counsellor and trainer who writes each month about emotional and practical concerns and challenges that many of us meet in later life. For 20 years, as well as running a private practise, Maggi worked with the organisation Relate to help married and single people, cohabiting couples, same sex couples, families, young and old people and the bereaved to develop, foster and enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships. No less important, as she is herself a wife, mother and grandmother, she brings a lifetime of varied and eventful experience to enhance her empathy and understanding.  

Many of her examples are based on concerns that clients, family and friends have presented over the years. In the monthly articles where she responds to issues raised by readers, she strictly respects confidentiality and never identifies those who write to her. But the individual worries they raise are invariably felt by others, so her responses can help many.

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



Indecision.

I am in a bit of a mess. After 25 years with my wife, 20 of those married, we have two grown kids, a great little home, a dog, two cars, just enough income to be secure and not much else it seems to me. The children are independent and we spend most of our no-working hours in the company of friends and neighbours. We live in a close sub-urban community and a group of us socialise every weekend and often have weekday evenings in the local pub.

Now I'm coming up to fifty I'm beginning to look at our life and imagine what is left to look forward to. I don't see much. My wife is a busy, attractive and very active person and popular with everyone. She always has pals calling in or inviting her or us out. I have plenty of pals too but they don't always suit her.

The more I look at things the more I realise we don't have that much in common except the community we live in. This depresses me as I'm sort of lonely if I am honest. To me she is still lovely and very attractive, but when I get close to her she laughs me off and moves away to 'do something'. I think she is ignoring me. It is too early for either of us … I think... to lose interest in sex, but that seems to happen very rarely now, and when it does it is generally a disappointment as it is over so fast.

We do go out with friends together and come home together, but while we are there she is soon off to talk with others.

I suppose you might say we are just not intimate any more. I wish we were but don't know how to go about it. She seems quite happy, so I have no idea if this is all she wants from our relationship or if she is just not talking about it. How can I get her to talk?

We can spend so many years with our heads down, eyes front, trying to make a good home and a happy and successful life, only to stand still one day and look around, not quite recognising how we got here. Reaching a 'halfway' mark can be a tricky time and a natural time to take stock and adjust things where necessary.

You talk about lack of intimacy and say you rarely have sex. Though the two things are connected they are not the same thing. Sex is part of intimacy, along with privately talking, listening, reassuring, caring and sharing in all kinds of small ways which nourish us.

It is good that you have spotted the lack of intimacy. It gives you the chance to address this with your wife and strengthen your relationship. It is likely that you have both been so busy over the years that neither of you have noticed – or acknowledged – the missing component. And what an important component it is.

It is easy to ignore things, until it becomes too uncomfortable to go on. Leave it too late and a couple can grow so far apart that needs might be sublimated with alternative activities, such as a busy social life - or might have been found elsewhere through an affair. This is why you really need to talk as soon as you can. Always a very difficult subject to raise, as it can be so easily misunderstood, great care needs to be taken when addressing it.

I will talk about that further on, but first let us look at some of the reasons why relationships in general, and long term ones particularly, get into this state.
No-one can deny that there are always areas of compromise when sharing your life with another. We aren't clones. Even the best 'matched' couples have different ways of looking at things, or spotting and dealing with potential problems. Here are just a few styles of dealing with problems:

  • sail on, oblivious of change
  • fret over small stuff and be resentful
  • sweep it under the carpet
  • blame it on the partner
  • blame it on the outside world
  • get angry and meet it head on
  • think, worry, say nothing and internalise
  • say you are worried and ask to talk about it calmly.

How many can truly admit to always being the last of these types I wonder? I think I must have tried all approaches from time to time in my life. However, the last is the one which will move things along most effectively as it creates a situation where you can offer each other information on the state of the relationship, which is, after all, a joint responsibility.

Useful things to remember when you do try this approach.

  • Try to work out beforehand the main points of what you need to say and even make a note if it helps you.
  • Tell your partner how important they are to you.
  • Make clear you are not criticising or blaming, you just want to try and make things better and need their help.
  • Tell your partner how you see the relationship as it is now, how you feel about it, what you value in your marriage. Say how you'd like it to be and what you see as what might need adjusting.
  • Ask..and this is important... how they feel about your relationship. Ask if they would like to make changes in it and how they picture the future. If you get to that point you are already changing things.

Well done. It is never easy to put one's hand up to start that process rolling.
Just as many changes happen in the second half of life as in the first. Physical change – general ageing, menopause, or loss of vitality or health - plays as large a part in altering the balance of a relationship as it does in tailoring the outlook and activities of the individual. The psychological hurdles of career change or unemployment, worry over pension, loss of parents, seeing children leave home, fear of ageing, the emotional effects of menopause – not just on the woman it happens to, but her partner too – can put pressures on a relationship.

But advantages are there too. For most people there is less need to strive for things. Once a couple have grown used to their children having left home they can take satisfaction on having achieved the main task of parenting – steering children safely through childhood to a point where they can enter the adult world and be independent. Couples find they have more disposable income and more time to spend following their own plans without having to arrange everything around children. A little later...one hopes...will come the welcoming of new family members, of grandchildren and a whole new joy! The second half can be full of new experiences, of exploring activities or places there was no time or funding for earlier, of spending time with the people you really like, and of finding new pleasures in re-assessing your relationship together.

This is the most important thing for you to address now. In your own process of re-appraisal you have recognised the lack of intimacy in your marriage. If you can sit down and talk this over with your wife, remembering to listen as much as talk, and not trying to sort it all in one conversation, the resulting closer feelings lead a stronger relationship. Tell her how important and how attractive she still is to you. Sharing the navigation of your relationship will naturally be part of the restoring of your intimacy.

Be prepared to hear things which might sound like criticisms too. We work together in a marriage to create whatever is there. Try to hear and understand, and when you don't understand, say so. Ask your wife to explain a little more. Her avoidance of closeness might be boredom, her own lack of confidence, or that she has grown unused to it and is now more comfortable spending time in a group, where personal problems can be buried. Perhaps changes are needed in the way you express yourself, or even the way you make love. Physical changes in a woman's body are beginning to show by the time we reach our fifties - even in these days of forever looking young. It might be that she has discomfort during sex and can't say, or needs you to do or say different things. Even small changes make a lot of difference, so don't dismiss them. Make time to talk together and listen, really listen. There is nothing so seductive and flattering as a man who listens. Make sure it is you who becomes this person before someone from the outside becomes the confidante.

This is going to take all your nerve, it is so hard to speak out, but when you do you will have created the space for change, and that is what will happen. Don't forget that a Relate trained counsellor or other specialist relationship counsellor can help guide you through this process.


Relate | The relationship people

www.relate.org.uk/
Relate offer counselling services for every type of relationship nationwide. We provide advice on marriage, LGBT issues, divorce and parenting.


BACP Find a Therapist - Counselling and psychotherapy ...

www.itsgoodtotalk.org.uk/therapists
Just enter full postcode or town name. Find a Therapist is a directory tool from BACP that allows you to find a private therapist suited to your needs.



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


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