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Planning Retirement Online



Relationships - February 2016

New Start For Widower

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 for her to respond in the column.

New Start For Widower

I am a widower who has been living alone for three years, since my last son moved into his own home. My wife died eight years ago and although I miss her presence I can’t pretend we had a happy marriage. We didn’t get on very well for half of our time together. She seemed permanently annoyed about something or other and I really disliked rowing with her.

Just before my son left home I met an old school friend who has become the love of my life. She is so warm and affectionate and we have a ridiculous amount of fun together.  She too has been alone for a long time. She had a fairly difficult time of things with two short marriages which were disasters, which is so sad as she had a hard time as a child I remembered, with her heavy drinking dad.

I would love for us to get married and she says wants that too. But she does everything to deflect the conversation if we get too close to that subject, and then I don’t see her for a week or so. I feel she has been badly damaged by her relationships in the past and is afraid of getting hurt again. I try to reassure her but we are at a kind of stalemate.

What can I do to help her settle down?

I have a feeling you will need to proceed with extreme caution here. It is wonderful for you to meet someone who has links that connect you so far back. And it is good that you describe your time with her with words such as ‘warm’, and ‘fun’ – ‘ridiculous amounts’ of it too!

You describe how happy you seem together, but say she feels she needs to shut down any conversations about settling down with you. That sounds alarm bells with me.
Perhaps this is a good time to ask yourself some fairly hard questions.
How much has she spoken about her marriages and what went wrong?

Is there any sign that she wonders if she might have played some part in their failure?

Does she feel she chooses ‘the wrong kind of man’?

Does she ever say you are so like her father, or first/second husband?
How is she with you if you’re feeling a bit down, or even a bit grumpy? And how are you when she is like that? 

Did either of those husbands drink or behave badly to her?

How does she react to anyone who’s drinking too much – or does she drink to have such ‘ridiculous fun’?

Have you ever avoided arguing with her?

Have you ever just sat or walked quietly together with no-one else around, and talked at length about your lives and expressed your pleasures and regrets while thinking about those years?

Every relationship that lasts more than a few years will have times when differences will surface. When handled openly and honestly, the relationship can grow and strengthen. When hidden or ignored, the opposite will eventually happen.

I’m asking all those questions because you are so convinced that the next logical step is marriage. Perhaps it isn’t.
You would love to marry her and have all the warmth and fun you have now while living together as man and wife. Her experience of husbands and wives is even more negative that your own. She saw her father messing up his own and his family’s lives with his alcohol abuse. She went on to have two marriages that quickly failed.  You don’t give any clues as to why, but it is quite possible that her experiences as a child have left her with a reluctance for intimacy, having seen and felt when young what damage it can do when things go wrong. She could have a wariness which allows her to give warmth as a currency in order to be liked or loved, and to amuse, again as a currency for the same reasons.

But if you push someone with that kind of damage into too close an intimacy, the old instinctive fear and mistrust can flare and ring an alert. Hence the need for her to back away for a week or so if you bring the subject up.
Yes, in theory, she is genuinely in favour of being with you permanently and even marrying. But her old defences are too strong for her to drop the barriers too far.
To have found you after so long and know that you’re aware of her childhood situation must be a relief to her. I am sure she appreciates your understanding and basks in you loving her.
But, just as a soldier home from battle celebrates being back with his family and drinks up all the love and affection there is for him, there  might be scars and memories of awful things that can, as a defence,  automatically rush in and shut that person down emotionally. It will override all the love anyone can wrap them in - and can damage that love as a result.

What can you do?
Exercise great patience.
Be prepared to accept the safest option for her, or for both of you. It might be to remain very close but maintain your own separate homes, so that the 24-hour intimacy of married life will not ultimately become a threat or danger.
Must you be married? There might be some way in which she sees living together as unmarried partners as less of a risk.
But that isn’t a reason to shy away from gently asking about her reaction of leaving when wary. If she declines to explore that, you can still let her know you’re aware of it and explain that you care enough to want her to feel safe. If you want her to eventually feel safe enough to live with or marry you, ask her to help you and guide you in this.
Ask yourself how you handle threat, and what things trigger avoidance in you. Perhaps you avoid confrontation and she’s afraid of her own suppressed anger. That would cause you both to dance delicately - and endlessly - around any risk of annoyance.

This is a time for being honest with yourself about your own approach to relationships. None of us has complete ease with all aspects of being a good partner. We all carry experiences that colour our approach to the more difficult corners of getting a relationship balanced and healthy. And we all need to keep working at these, asking ourselves tricky questions about how and why we change over the years.
It is called regular maintenance. A car gets one ever year! How often do we give ourselves one.

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

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