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Relationships - January 2015

It is the same every year...

 

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.



It is the same every year...

I love Christmas, but it is what is coming next that makes me feel miserable. In our family the tradition of having individual Christmas celebrations but a full family gathering in January has been fixed for years. It feels like it is written in stone.

This is not the first year without my husband. We were married for 15 years when he left. He now lives in Australia with his partner and her family. Our children have visited a couple of times and he has been back once to see them and his sister and father.
But we have sort of closed the gap left by him and Christmas is ok. My son and I go to my daughter's for our Christmas meal and often stay over, and that is lovely. But it is the expectation of my parents and three siblings that weigh on me.

On New Year's Day we all go to a holiday house somewhere. All the children and grandchildren assemble and have a long week with our parents.

It used to be alright and sometimes fun, but each year since I have been on my own I seem to be marked the odd one out. Someone will always reminisce about when my ex was with us and what fun it was. Another will comment on me being alone and how I should be doing something about it, which usually triggers a mass search in papers and online for a perfect date for me. My parents get tearful about losing a son-in-law and my perceived loneliness. It is all so uncomfortable.

The trouble is, I never feel lonely until I go to the family gathering!

 

The trouble with family tradition is that it becomes hard for any one person to break away from, even if only now and then. It becomes personal. Other members of the group focus on the one who declines to conform. Though not all will look negatively at the person's action, there will be those who quietly wish they weren't expected to attend every year without fail.

Are they right though? Loneliness is sometimes heightened when in the company of others. It is not surprising if you feel it more when surrounded by your family, who all knew your former husband, and enjoyed his company. It is not a bad thing that they remember him openly - both of your children come to the family holiday and need to know he is not a pariah who must never be referred to. But, to go on to point out your aloneness and interpret it as loneliness - and there is a difference - is inconsiderate.

There are things you need to do, for yourself, and for the family.
Consider carefully if you really are, underneath your busy life, lonely. You have your son living at home still, but do the hours at home alone drag on you? Does going to bed at night turn into something you delay as long as possible until you are exhausted enough to fall asleep immediately? Do you avoid other social gatherings because you go alone? Does seeing a happy couple walking together or enjoying a meal bring on pangs of regret? If yes, then it is time to make a few changes to help you feel more positive about the life you live now, rather than wish for the life you lived then.

Try to find new ways of spending leisure time, especially now your son is a young adult. He will have his own plans socially which, if you make no changes to your own free time, will make your solitude more apparent. Perhaps finding a drama group, choir, book group, a new hobby or craft class might give you fresh confidence. Change your bedroom, if you haven't done it already. Give it a lick of paint, new curtains and maybe shift the furniture around...or get rid of it altogether! Make it a place you enjoy going to at the end of the day, to read, rest or relax. Being in the company of happier people than oneself is always an illusion. What some folk display when out and about can be very different to their home life. Don't be fooled by what you see, just feel good for couples who are obviously enjoying each other's company. They will have their trials at some point - we all do.

Going alone to parties can be a bit of a test. But if you feel confident about how your life is now, with new freedoms and interests to talk about, and are interested in others, then you will be welcomed and listened to and appreciated. That is a pleasure to feel.
Of course, as you say, you only feel lonely when with all of the family, perhaps you do actually have a fulfilling life which has no room for loneliness. Good for you, but it brings me on to the family gatherings.

Obligation is an honourable thing, so long as we make our own decisions about to whom we feel it. To be persuaded into obligation is less admirable. It is akin to hidden persuasion, a little manipulative. People do this without realising of course: it is often not a conscious thing. 'Oh but it just won't be the same without you!' or 'Well, if you're not going I don't think I can go, I won't enjoy myself', are classic manipulations. Some are centred around other loyalties such as, 'What about your father? He's not as young as he was y'know'. These heavy hints of mortality are powerful.

Try to clarify for yourself if you go because you feel obligated, or because you really want to be there. If the former, what would you rather be doing? Find something, then do it. Phone or write to your parents to let them know you are otherwise engaged.  Assure them you will see them soon to hear all about it and wish them a good time.
If the latter, that is, if you really want to be there, think more about the parts of the gathering which spoil it for you. If these are due to particular family members, talk to them. Explain how it leaves you feeling, reassure them you are content with your life and not lonely, so they don't need to feel sorry for you, and ask them to let go of the reminiscing over your ex-husband, you have moved on and would like them to as well.
I'm sure that as your parents age, it becomes harder to drop the tradition. It is, at the heart of things, a very good tradition. These gatherings can be life - affirming and deeply bonding, especially for the older and much younger members of the family. But there might come a time when simply through the fitness of the elderly members or spare time available among the middle aged, that the week is scaled back to a weekend, or even a family day somewhere. But until then, be clear what you want and what you need, and ask others to help you enjoy that valuable time, just as you will want to help them. There is no rule that says you can't miss the odd one.

 


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


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