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Relationships - March 2016

Bad Start To The 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.


Bad Start To The Year

Nothing can have prepared me for what has happened since Christmas. So far this year my son has said he's leaving his wife, my car has been stolen and my wife has been told she might have cancer.

I'm feeling knocked for six by all this. We are worrying about our son and his wife, and about the two little grandchildren. They are 18 months and four years old and we see a lot of them. We love having them with us and they always seem very happy to come to us. My son says he has lost his love for our daughter-in-law, who has told him she feels indifferent to him and wishes she wasn't married. 

If that was all we'd be worried enough, but then my wife, who I love as much, if not more than I did when we married, has been recalled to hospital after a routine breast scan. She's terrified, as she is sure now she has cancer, cries a lot and can't sleep.
To top it all we woke up two days ago to find our car, a sporty one we have been wanting for years, was gone from our driveway. We called the police immediately but they asked if anyone had been hurt or if there was a break-in and then said someone might be round later and gave us a Crime Report Number and told us to contact our insurer.

It feels like I'm the one who has got to steer the family through all of this but the awful thing is, I can't stop thinking about my car. What is wrong with me? I should be helping my son and comforting my poor wife.

It certainly sounds like there are worries in every direction for you. For them all to present themselves at the same time is sheer rotten luck, so I'm not surprised you are feeling awful.

Let me try to help you put them into some kind of rearranged context.
First, the one you feel is dominating your thoughts - your car. What a shock. This was a car you were both longing for and finally managed to own. Such a car can hold huge significance for people. I know many will dismiss its theft as an irrelevance, given the other worries you have, saying it is just a lump of metal and electronics, but it is what was behind the planning, the anticipation and the shared pleasure of ownership that hurts - along with the knowledge that a criminal has stolen it from your home. The loss, shock and the sense of violation goes deep and will unsettle anyone who experiences it. But layer that on top of your other worries and it becomes the most easily spoken about of all those things. Your anxiety over your son and his family, and about what might be happening with your beloved wife are so potentially upsetting that speaking about them freely can be difficult. But speaking about theft of your property is somehow acceptable and when it comes to explaining away being forgetful, bad tempered, sleepless or however worry shows itself, is the default way of expressing all your feelings.

The news about your wife's recall for further checking following a breast scan is worrying for her. It is an experience many women will have, me included. Some find that a second check shows the apparent suspect area is easily explained and found to be non-threatening, but for others the investigation can lead to the need for more serious intervention, and it's causing your wife to be fearful. It is an outcome everyone fears and I feel for her - and for you, while waiting in the uncertainty. Your task here is to be reassuring but ready to let her discuss her fears should she want to talk about the 'what ifs'. Encourage her in the knowledge that nothing has been confirmed as yet and all might be well, but allow her to voice her fear of finding she has a cancer. It what is terrifying her but, again, allowing for that being a possible outcome, reassure her that it will be better for it to be found early and treated. The prognosis for early intervention and treatment is now very promising thanks to huge advances in medication, surgery, chemo and radiotherapy. 

Whatever the outcome of the follow-up check, your wife needs you to be at her side, ready to listen, reassure realistically, and comfort her. You will need to be sensitive to her needs and even to her moods, and understanding when those feel like they exclude you. It won't be a deliberate thing, but a natural need for the occasional outburst of anger or for solitude. It will help her face whatever she might need to go through. But, once again, this is hypothetical. I hope the wait is no long.

Your other worry is the sad news that your son's marriage is on the verge of breaking apart. Most of what happens here will be out of your everyday life, and as a result will be fed to you gradually as things happen. But stay in contact with both your son, his wife and their children - most importantly the children.

I know they are very young but they will be quite aware of things changing between Mummy and Daddy. Even babies pick up tension from their parents. A baby is so finely aware of hormonal changes, their sense of smell is incredibly tuned. Any extra anxiety, any anger, any sadness and our bodies release different hormones, at changing levels. The baby or young child unwittingly picks this up and will react. They are also highly aware of physical tension, body language and tone of voice. Let no-one tell you that little ones are fine because they don't realise what is going on. They might not know exactly the adult reasons but they will feel it all the same. 

Your task here is to stay the welcoming and loving grandparents who are always there and happy to give them your normal attention and affection. A reliably unchanging environment is one of the best things you can offer to those young children. Schools and nurseries are vital points of stability at such times too.

There is little you can do about your son's difficulties, but you can encourage him to talk to you or your wife whenever he feels the need. I don't know how you feel about your daughter-in-law, but she will need support as well. I hope you can encourage her to talk things through with someone, even if you don't feel able to do that yourself. She will always be the mother of your grandchildren and therefore part of your family group, though less involved, but you will need to maintain a healthy relationship with her for the sake of the little ones. 

The ideal would be for them both, together or separately, to go to Relate or find similar counselling which specialises in relationship work. The fact that they are possibly intending to split makes no difference. Counselling in that situation is as useful as when trying not to break up. A good counsellor will help them discuss all aspects of a separation with an eye to the future, learning to avoid some of the problems that have beset them,  and keeping them focussed on damage limitation for their children. 
You have a lot to balance right now, so take care of your own health too. I wish you and your family luck and strength.


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


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