Patricia Redlich

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Emotional Bully

13th December, 2009


Please help before I go mad. My husband and I have a very rocky marriage and I would leave if I could afford to. As long as I can remember, he has been very close to his sister. He's 55 years old and she's about three years older. He tells her all the details of our marriage problems, and also spells out every row we have, twisting the truth to suit himself and making me look like the bad guy. I've heard him on the phone to her, so I'm not dreaming this up. His excuse is that he needs someone to talk to. I tackled her about it once, and she just defended him all the way, saying she knew her brother. The fact that I'm married to him for 30 years didn't seem to count.

He has always been an emotional bully, saying terrible things to me in front of the kids and running me down to my family. So much so, that my family no longer want anything to do with him. I feel sorry for him really as he suffers from depression and low self-esteem, and just lashes out at me with all his suppressed rage. However, at this stage I just can't take any more and he needs to get help for his emotional problems, which go back to his childhood. I feel if his sister would help him see how wrong he is, it would set him on the path to healing, but instead she just reinforces him. She is a bitter, discontented woman herself and not happy in her marriage either. But my husband, of course, thinks she is wonderful. It's ironic that both of them blame their partners for their problems.

What can I do to let my husband know that it's just not right to tell his sister intimate details of our marriage? Nor is it fair on our children, who bear the brunt of his awful moods. He won't seek help even for their sake, saying that his depression is not of his making. They are teenagers and need a strong father figure, not some weak person running to his big sister. I just think he is so disloyal and underhand and I basically can't trust him anymore. Please give me some advice on how to cope with this situation. I am at breaking point and feel I'm in danger of doing something which I'll later regret.

The problem is not that your husband talks to someone. Like it or not, we all need friends to share our troubles with, even when it involves revealing marital intimacies. The fact that it's his sister he talks to is not even the issue - although a wise person treads carefully there, because old family stuff can get in the way of being a good friend. The problem is that his sister and he have formed a victims' alliance, reinforcing each other in their victim mentality, rather than seeking enlightenment, or wisdom, or the insight to take responsibility for themselves. That said, there is nothing you can do about that. There's no point being jealous about the relationship, trying to compete with the relationship, or trying to break it. It's your husband's choice.

What you must do is change your own attitude to him, which subtly, but firmly, also reinforces him in his role of victim. He is not an emotional bully because he's depressed, or had a hard time as a child. He bullies you because he chooses to do so. He doesn't lash out at you because of all the pain of his past. He does it because he gives himself permission to use you as an emotional punch-bag. More importantly, he's vicious to you because you allow him to be. There is no excuse for his behaviour, yet you give him one. You must not do that.

There is no way around saying this, and I do not mean it unkindly. Focussing on your husband, and particularly on his sister's reinforcement of his behaviour, is an intellectual and emotional dodge on your part. It allows you to overlook the central fact that you take the punishment. It allows you to avoid responsibility for your own behaviour.

You won't do anything rash if you start a systematic change. He's nasty, you walk away - out of the room, up the street, out of the car, the church, the children's birthday party. You just don't stand there and take it. You don't try to fix the situation for the sake of the children, or out of social embarrassment, or because you feel sorry for your husband's past emotional hurt. You are not his whipping boy. In fact, by accepting that role, you're holding him back, allowing him to continue in his belief that his problems are made by others. And, of course, accepting the abuse is the reason you feel so frantic. That's the first step, you get the message. The rest you can decide for yourself.

Fumbling Fiancé

6th December, 2009


I'm engaged to a nice man, but am having a few problems lately. A few weeks ago he booked a weekend away, a lovely hotel in beautiful park-land. I was looking forward in particular to a romantic walk through the gardens. He was two hours late picking me up, it was dark when we arrived, and the grounds were shrouded in darkness. The evening meal was nice, and I then watched the X-factor in the bedroom while he watched the match in the bar. When I went down to join him, we took a short walk in the pitch dark, he bought me one drink but wouldn't wait for me to have it in the bar, so I sipped it in bed while he quickly fell asleep, snoring. I felt so alone. My romantic weekend was a disaster. Why did he bother taking me away just to lock me in the bedroom? Am I expecting too much? Are my dreams unrealistic? What is he going to be like when we get married? Things can't get any worse - or can they? Will I be a prisoner if I marry this man? I think he gets jealous if I talk to anyone, male or female, yet he can talk to anyone he likes. I am so disappointed that he ruined my weekend.

One disaster of a weekend with your fiancé and you're considering calling it all off. Why? Every couple has disasters, and lots of them. Or is this weekend symptomatic of the way your relationship runs? Because then, of course, you're in trouble, although not necessarily because of your boyfriend.

From where I'm sitting you had a silent row. I don't know where it began. Maybe you'd been nagging him about romance, so he reluctantly organised a weekend, you know, being all passive and angry, doing what you 'demanded' of him without wanting to, and then sabotaging it. In that scenario the real row started long before lift-off. Or maybe he half-broke his neck trying to get things right, and you went into a silent punishment routine when he arrived late, which got seriously up his nose. Whatever, by the time you drove through the dark parkland there was a row going on.

Why do you do silent rows? What's all that passivity about? Your boyfriend didn't lock you in your bedroom. You went there to watch the X-factor, either because you couldn't bear to miss it, or because you were angry he was watching the match, or just generally angry at him. And why did you go for the walk in the dark, where you could see nothing? Did you suggest it to punish him about missing your romantic stroll in daylight because he'd been late picking you up? Or did you, in silent anger, trail slightly behind him while he marched you through your bloody parkland?
You get the picture.

Couples who succeed say their piece, and then move on to make things work out. Passive angry silence kills intimacy, and hence kills love. So does going on too long about something. His being late should have been dealt with when he arrived, and then let go, while you whistled your way through the dark. Wisdom is necessary too. If you can't miss the X factor and he can't miss the match, then don't go away on a Saturday nights. It's simple. And go easy on the romantic weekends. They are mine-fields, too much expectation, too many potential pitfalls, failure rate rather high.

Lying Son

6th December, 2009


I'm at my wits' end. My almost-17 year old son is doing my head in. His dad died when he was small and there's only been him and me since then. We always got on really well, could always talk to each other, but in the last six months everything has changed. He has started to hang out with a different group at school and as a result has changed utterly.

He has started to smoke and drink, two things he used to turn his nose up at. I have no problem with him having a social drink, and he only drinks at parties, not at home and not in a pub. But the smoking has become serious. He has stolen cigarettes from his aunt and from me. To-day I found out that he had also stolen money from me - to buy cigarettes. And he lied about it. He is constantly lying to me about what he's doing and where he's going.

He is very talented musically and academically, and has a wonderful future ahead of him. He's doing his Leaving Cert next year. But he will no longer listen to any advice I give him. I am not an overbearing parent who gets his back up. I always listen to him, try to see his point of view, and give advice without actually telling him what to do. What really bothers me is the stealing from me, and the lies about what he's doing. Only to-day he told me he was going to a particular party with some friends I know, and I've just found out that these friends are not going with him at all.

I'm totally at my wits' end with him. I can't believe anything he tells me. I really believe that a teenage boy needs the discipline that only a father can give. Unfortunately a mother uses 'softer' discipline that doesn't seem to work. He's tall, too big to deal with physically. And denying him the internet, computer games etc. doesn't seem to work. I don't know how to get things back on track. The atmosphere in the house is unbearable at the moment. He is only happy when he gets his own way, and gets everything he wants. I can't, or won't go along with that. I want to bring up a good, independent young man who will not expect to have everything he wants. What can I do to make him behave like the half-decent person he used to be?

Oh but you can't lose faith in your son now. He wasn't just a half-decent person in the past. He was a good and very decent human being. And he still is. Such despair, of course, is really a loss of faith in yourself as a parent. And you can't do that either. Panic has no part in parenting, particularly when our children start finding their own feet, as your son is attempting to do. Of course he's making a mess of it. But that's all he's doing. He hasn't suddenly become a bad person.

Let's deal with the dad issue first. Yes, two parents make it easier in terms of keeping the communication lines open, particularly when some specific disciplinary action has to be taken. But that's different than thinking your son needs a father as someone who will make him do what he's told, simply because he's bigger or stronger. Your son doesn't need a heavy hand, he needs a skilled and steady hand. And that's something you can do. Of course your son also needs role models on how to be a man, which is what he's obviously seeking. And yes, a strong steady man in the house helps hugely. But role models can be found elsewhere, and you just need to be wise enough to steer your son towards them.

I simply don't believe your son suddenly wants everything. I don't hear any real sounds of greediness, or excessive demands for consumer items, or insisting on expensive life-style choices. What I hear is a struggle to be independent. He just doesn't know how to do it properly. You have to show him how.

Frankly, when it comes to the cigarettes, you haven't got a leg to stand on. You smoke. He lives in a smoking household. Can't you see? In psychological terms, it's the ideal place for a struggling young male identity to challenge your authority. Because on this one, you have no authority. Yes, I know it's against the law for him to buy cigarettes, and yes, I know that nobody should smoke, and yes, I understand that all parents ask their children to do things they haven't managed themselves, but there you have it. He's chosen a good battle ground. You need to back off. Unless, of course, you love him - and yourself - enough to give up the cigarettes. And I do understand that that's a big ask.

Stealing money is unacceptable, particularly in the home. People can't live together without basic trust. If you have to take your purse with you to the toilet, then domestic togetherness becomes impossible. Have an adult discussion about this. Agree on a reasonable level of pocket-money. And never use withdrawal of pocket money as a disciplinary measure. Some financial independence and discretionary income is essential for a 17 year old. Kids generally co-operate on this. After all, they don't want to pack up their ipods, computers, and favourite trainers every time they go to the toilet either. It's something they understand.

You won't be told lies if you don't ask unnecessary awkward questions. Put another way, parents have to choose their battle-grounds carefully, only getting involved in the issues that really count. Disliking everything your son does will only get his back up. Are this new crowd he hangs around with a problem gang? Find out from his teachers. Or are they just an opportunity for him to move away from the tight circle of family and neighbours, to be his own man? I mean, if he's slipped into a bad drugs scene, or serious drinking scene or even criminal scene, then you have to move, hard and fast, with whatever help you can get. Otherwise, learn to like it, because it's independence you're fighting, and that's not good.

Don't drive your son away by allowing the atmosphere in the house to sour. Smile and laugh and show him you love him. Trust him. And above all, trust yourself. What would he say to you when in a good mood? Lighten up mum? Exactly.

Recent Abortion

29th November, 2009


I'm a 27 year old who had an abortion recently. I met the father, who is several years younger, a few months ago when we were both working in Dublin. He seemed really nice, but it was pretty much only sex that he wanted me for. He then moved with his job to the country, I was offered a post-graduate course reasonably near-by and decided to take it. At that point I realised I was pregnant and got very panicked. I told him about it and he too sounded panicked. I used to call him a lot as I didn't know what to do. I very much wanted to succeed in my chosen career, which involved a very heavy study load. I decided to go to London for an abortion. I let the father know, and he said it was up to me, that he would be happy with whatever decision I made.

I have since had the abortion and am struggling to get on with life. I often called the father in a bad mood and feel that he was not very supportive with the whole ordeal. I don't think he wants to communicate with me anymore, and feel sure he asks his flat-mates to say he's not in. I am broken inside and feel very hurt, as I was really only protecting him because of his youth and his future career. How can I get over this? I have made a huge mistake and take full responsibility for my rubbish behaviour towards the father and my rubbish behaviour over-all. Please help me.

You are in a dreadfully lonely place right now and I strongly suggest you ease that loneliness by seeking help. Check out your college counsellor, or ring around the specialist agencies listed in the phone-book, or talk to your doctor, or any doctor. A medical check-up wouldn't be a bad idea anyway. Post-abortion counselling is a solidly-based specialist service. Everyone understands the need for it. It's not necessary that you struggle alone with this. So don't.

You can forget the father. He was irresponsible, having sex without worrying about contraception. He was even more irresponsible by blithely saying he'd be happy with whatever decision you made, and then leaving you alone to get on with it. Of course the abortion made it easier for him. He could have faced a paternity suit and life-long maintenance. But worst of all, he had sex without due concern for your emotions. He was carelessly amusing himself. The kindest thing we can say is that he has a long journey to take before he becomes a decent human being.

Don't waste your precious energy thinking about him. He's not worth it. You are. The abortion was a traumatic experience. I think it's also clear you were in emotional trouble before the pregnancy even happened. You were not taking care of yourself. And I don't just mean in terms of contraception. From the sounds of it, you were trying to build a relationship on the shifting sands of a young man who had no sense of commitment towards you. Your behaviour was not 'rubbish' as you put it. It was a desperate bid for some kind of connectedness. Despite the fact that you're obviously bright, and have clear career objectives, you were emotionally adrift, and trying hard to find an anchor. Such lack of emotional anchorage lies in damage done to us in early years. So what happened you? Where does your obvious low self-esteem stem from? When the pain of the abortion has eased, those are the questions you need to check out.

Cheating Son

29th November, 2009


I am trying to make sense out of something which is really distressing me. Our 34 year old son was in a relationship with a lovely girl for five years. A few months ago he moved out of their apartment. The still see each other, but he is also seeing another girl, and lying to both.

I cannot condone what he is doing and have talked to him about it. My distress, however, is with my husband's reaction. He will not talk to our son about his behaviour and accuses me of interfering. It appears my husband sees nothing wrong in what is going on, and somehow gets some kind of kick out of what my son is doing. I am aware that all of this has deep roots. And I'm wondering if my son is playing out some role his father played in the past, just to get from him the recognition he always yearned for.

While they were growing up, the children were exposed to a lot of fighting between me and my husband due to my husband's insane jealousy and moodiness. I kept the peace at all costs because the marriage was a dangerous place to be at the time, and with four children to raise there were also practical considerations. Because of his job, my husband was always in the company of young, attractive girls. He still is. And now I can't help wondering if my husband cheated on me, and my son knows?

Some years ago my son said he had no idea how I put up with his father's behaviour, but presumed that there was nothing I could have done, and nowhere I could have gone. I was very taken aback, because I thought I had done a fairly good job at covering it all up. At that time I thought he was talking about his father's bad moods. Now I wonder if he was talking about other women my husband might have had? He is a very loving person, has a terrific career, and I would be devastated to see him mess up his life.

Would it be unfair on my son to ask him if my husband cheated? Or if he saw my husband's involvement with his young female colleagues as a form of cheating? And am I wrong to ask my husband to be responsible and talk to our son? My understanding of parenthood is to always be there.

There are two storey-lines getting entangled here, namely your son's and yours, so let's try to untangle them.

You are absolutely right to let your son know that you don't approve of his behaviour towards the women in his life. He either told you about it, or allowed you to witness it, so it is entirely correct to take a stand. That's not just because you're a parent. You are also his friend. And a good friend does not pretend bad behaviour is acceptable. That said, don't fool yourself into thinking you can change your son. His behaviour is not your responsibility. It's his. Having said your piece, you must then bow out.

I don't think it's appropriate to try pushing your husband into making a similar stand. The danger here is that you're pushing him for the wrong reason. You're testing him. You want to hear what he has to say. You're seeking clarity about where your husband stands in the fidelity stakes, for your own peace of mind. It's alright to want reassurance. Asking him to criticise your son's behaviour is not a good way to go about getting that reassurance.

No, I don't think you should ask your son about his father's fidelity either. Dragging children into their parents' private lives - no matter how old they are - is never a good idea. But there is something fundamentally important that you could do for your son. He has already set the scene, even though it was a few years ago, by telling you he wondered how you had stuck it, how you had put up with his father's behaviour. Talk to him about that. Tell him that there was, indeed, nowhere you could go. Or rather that you judged, on balance, that it was better to stay. How it did not mean you condoned his father's behaviour. Let him know that you worry about the role model his father may have been for him. Tell him you're concerned that perhaps, in staying, you left him with the unconscious, but powerful, message, that it's somehow alright to be less than nice to women.

Please understand that I am not attempting to lay a guilt trip on you. I know you love your son and I'm just trying to help you express that love. The bottom line is that we're not responsible for the legacy anyone else leaves our children. What your husband has done, or failed to do, is not down to you. The only behaviour we can legitimately explain is our own. Nor am I for one moment criticising your decision to stay and put up with your husband. All I'm saying is that it might be very wonderful, and indeed necessary, for your son to hear you talk about it. And don't you see? Having that talk is your very best shot at weakening your husband as a role model, somebody your son might want to please by behaving badly, which is what you're really worried about.

Alcoholic Parents

22nd November, 2009


I am a 22 year old student who has had abuse intertwined in my life. My mother physically abused me and my father sexually abused me. They were both alcoholics and are now recovering alcoholics. Do you think there is hope for me?

I am terribly sorry that your parents failed you so badly. And yes, there is hope, not just that you'll survive, but that you will walk away from the emotional wreckage of your family life as a stable and complete human being. That won't, however, happen automatically. Think about it. If it were a serious car wreck you had been hurt in, you'd need lots of professional medical care, and you wouldn't think twice about that. Or think of the counselling services which are set up for pupils after one of their school-mates dies tragically. You've survived much worse. You don't just deserve some back-up. You need it.

In a situation like yours, there's the actual abuse itself, which is obviously wrong. And then there's the psychological damage, which may be harder to see. Just to give you a snap-shot: You may feel guilty, or responsible, thinking that you should perhaps somehow have rescued the family situation - although of course none of that is true. The guilt and responsibility lie solely with your parents. You may have very low self-esteem and feel that you are somehow unworthy, or unlovable, because your parents failed to treat you with respect and love and care. Huge anger may lie buried deep. That anger is justified. But if you leave it unattended, it can eat away at you. Psychological pain can take many paths.

Life regularly demands that we tackle problems with courage and intelligence. Sadly that's something you've had to face under very brutal circumstances. I just want you to remember that you are not alone. Yours is not a once-off case. Many parents fail their kids. Young people everywhere are picking up the pieces. Counselling services have heard it all before, and understand. Yours are not shameful secrets. Please get the help you need.

Absent Husband

22nd November, 2009


I feel my life with my husband is so empty, I don't know where to turn. He is home, but not present in my life. We've been married 33 years and have four lovely children who are all doing well. But I long for a relationship and for friendship. When I look around me, I see couples talking and laughing and having general chit-chat.

My husband and I both work full-time. Up until now, I kept myself busy rearing the children and even though I often felt annoyed at my husband's lack of attention, I just got on with things. We never had a social life. We only went to family weddings, special birthdays, or general occasions which did not have to be organised by my husband. That is still the case. No dinners for two, no trips to the cinema, no weekends away together. Such things never enter his thoughts.

I've attended some of his staff functions over the years, and he invariably takes off as soon as we get there, leaving me alone to talk with anyone I can find. He has never introduced me to any of his staff. I have no problem mixing, but always feel hurt that I do not see my husband again until it's time to go home. I have had to leave early once or twice, but he stays on, not even walking me to my car. And he recently invited me so late that it was impossible for me to attend. I know staff had time to invite their partners and when I expressed my annoyance, he said he forgot. He often contradicts me when I speak in company, and to keep the peace I now just stay quiet when he is around.

My husband spends long hours at work and when he gets home he has his meal, and then retires to the lounge with the TV. He also watches unsavoury films later on. I know this because he switches channels when I enter the room. He also watches soft porn movies when staying in hotels - he did it on several occasions when I was with him. We do have sex, but no romance or real communication. I would love to plan events with him like holidays, Christmas shopping, a night out, but he never gets involved.

I am at the time of life when I need companionship. But I also feel happier when I'm on my own, without my husband. On the other hand, he is a good person, works hard, goes to church, pays all the bills and we have no money worries. I often think that maybe he didn't want to marry me in the first place. I organised the wedding, planned all the details, even booked the honeymoon, while he stayed with his parents at the other end of the country. He has never got up one night with the children when they were small, and I always took full responsibility for rearing them and managing the house. To me it's as though he does not enjoy my company, does not enjoy being with me.

On the outside nobody would guess how I feel. But on the inside I am screaming.

You feel very wounded. I can hear that. The scream isn't just one of frustration. It is one of despair. Rather than trying to come up with some kind of recipe - which I haven't got anyway - let me just say a few things to you. And forgive me if they sound very down-beat in the face of your distress.

Basic courtesy covers a multitude of situations which pain us. That's old-fashioned good manners, or simple civility, or being properly respectful. It is a failure of good manners on your husband's part when he doesn't introduce you to people at his work functions. You are there as his guest. He is letting himself down, as well as being disrespectful to you, if he fails to be properly polite. And since you came as his guest, of course he should at least escort you to your car. If you could find the strength to say this to him, without the angry heartache of believing you're not loved, you would feel much better. It's about putting down a marker that you expect respect.

You are clearly not a confrontationist, maybe damagingly so. Confrontation, however, is not about having rows. It's about nailing down what's actually going on. If your husband tries to turn it into an angry exchange, you can simply walk away. If your husband contradicts you, you may stay quiet once, or even twice, depending on the social situation. You do not choose permanent silence as an option. You are not a mouse. You work out some smiling, courteous but firm way of over-riding his bad manners, and continue to participate in the conversation. It's not you with the egg on your face. It's him.

Couples accommodate each other. They work out the terms of engagement, if you like. And yours are clear. You did the home, the children and the full-time job. Your husband did the long hours at work. In many ways you lived quite separate lives. You didn't like all of it. But you found solace in being busy, particularly with the kids. I don't know how your husband felt. But he, too, made a life for himself, albeit largely outside the home. Now the status-quo has changed. The solace of the kids has slowly faded. Your husband's life has remained intact. I don't think it's entirely fair to blame him for that.

There's a hole in your life now. You want companionship. Is your husband really the only candidate? Is he the only solution? Women friends are wonderful, particularly when combined with a mutual interest, be it lace-making, golf, or shopping trips. You'd be in a much better place emotionally if you took the focus off your husband, and your painful sense of not being loved, and turned your attention to creating a new and vibrant social life - one where you'd be just too busy to bother about that careless last-minute invite to his stupid staff knees-up.

No, I'm not suggesting you give up on your husband. I'm saying that changing things is down to you. Instead of blaming him, or feeling hurt at his failure to initiate say a nice night out once a week, take charge. Arrange a dinner date, be bright and entertaining, ask for small courtesies like passing the water jug or filling your wine glass. All you're doing is taking responsibility for your own happiness by attempting to change the compromise you both made, as the basis for your marriage. Only if you want to. Like I said, he's certainly not the only swinger in town. And no, I'm not talking lovers, I'm talking friends.

Nasty-In Law Brother

15th November, 2009


I am becoming increasingly frustrated with my brother-in-law. I feel obliged to act, but am fearful of making things worse. The issue is the way he treats my sister. They have been married five years, and he constantly tries to control her. Part of this involves throwing a temper tantrum if she expresses any desire to spend time with our family. He doesn't care who is present, and often makes me feel very uncomfortable.

I know all relationships have bad times, and that things often look different from the outside, but my sister has confided in me that she fights a constant battle against this attempt to control her. Her husband is sulky, moody, and much worse, cruel to her. He plays mind-games with her. She is so loving and gentle, she forgives him.

I want him to realise that I will not stand by and watch during cruel manipulation of my sister. Are my hands tied?

No, your hands are not tied. Your approach, however, needs to be tactful, wise, and intelligent.

There are two distinct scenarios here. One is the private relationship between husband and wife - the one you don't witness, but only hear second-hand from your sister. The second is the situation where your brother-in-law is nasty while you are present. Let's talk about that one first.

If your brother in law harangues your sister when you're there, then it's important you register your disapproval. If you don't, you are effectively condoning what's going on, giving him tacit permission to proceed. How you register your disapproval, however, depends on the circumstances - and the possibilities are too numerous for me to make any kind of list. The bottom line is that you should not witness nastiness and simply sit tight. That said, your only option may be to withdraw from the scene. There's no child to protect. Your sister is a grown up woman.

Tread carefully when your sister tells you her troubles. Certainly, you can listen to her sympathetically, and you should, of course, your piece, in terms of how you see things. But always remember, your sister not only chose this man five years ago as her husband, she continues to choose him as her husband. Yes, she may be gentle and loving. That's not the reason she forgives and forgets. Perhaps she believes that this is a battle worth fighting, for the sake of her marriage to a man who has other qualities she values. Or perhaps she is truly living out the victim role, allowing herself to be bullied. Either way, she believes her marriage is the place she should be. Rescuing her is not an option. It's her choice.

Violent Parents

15th November, 2009


The past few months have been the hardest of my life. I'm 33 and feel like I'm having some kind of mid-life crisis as my abusive past catches up with me. In so many respects, I believe I've made it. I have a good job and friends who really care about me. But I desperately want to begin the next phase of my life and have my own family. Yet I never get to even dating point. I spent a night out with friends recently, met a man I talked to for hours, and was sure he'd ask for my phone number. He didn't. I have a catalogue of similar experiences with men. I am attractive, so clearly I'm giving off some other vibes which send them away.

My father was physically abusive to me and my mother. My mother was depressed for much of my childhood and made me the scapegoat as I was an easy target. She hit me too. Recently my father got very aggressive with me and I am now no longer talking to either parent, as they chip away at my self-esteem. I feel my world is closing in on me. I feel so powerless, alone and so lonely. I feel I've worked so hard to have a different life, but right now I cannot make things different for myself.

The majority of the time I feel like everybody else, someone who has come from a somewhat normal family. However, my inability to have an intimate relationship with the opposite sex makes me painfully aware that all the suffering in my childhood is still affecting me now. Also the fact that my father was recently physically aggressive with me has brought up a lot of memories. I get upset, scared and angry about the life I have lived and the fact that he just doesn't get it. I warned him a couple of years ago that I would not put up with the abuse as I was now an adult and had choices about contact with him. He changed for a few years. During the last year, however, he has been extremely verbally abusive, screaming if I leave the heat on, or forget to take the washing in. And now he's hit me again.

I am really struggling with the fact that I cannot have a relationship with my parents. Although I know it's necessary to put down markers about the unacceptability of my father's violence, I still feel incredibly guilty about not talking to them. And I'm struggling, too, with the fact that I really do not know how to have a relationship with the opposite sex.

I'm taking it that you're still living at home. At the very least you're still intimately involved in the daily running of the family home. You may not be speaking to your parents right now, but you're certainly firmly caught in a tight family web. The reason for that is simple. You're still trying to fix it. The reality is, you can't.

Your father is a violent and abusive man. He won't ever 'get it', as you so earnestly desire. Well, maybe he will, but you can't make him. And it's not even your task to try.

Malfunctioning parents don't just do obvious things like beating, neglecting, or generally abusing their kids. The real damage is psychological. The child feels guilty, believes it's her fault that her parents behave badly. This doesn't just happen because the parents tell her she's bad, or that everything is all her fault, or that it's a criminal offence to forget the washing on the line outside. When we're small, parents are all-powerful. It is too terrifying to see them as bad. In order to feel safe, the child decides that she's the bad one. This has the added benefit that making things better then lies in her hands. If she just tries hard enough to be good, to get it right, all will be well. And here you are, at 33, still plugging away.

You do have to move away from your parents, you know that don't you? It's not possible to change how you feel, and behave, and think, until you've removed yourself from the pattern of interaction which has been built up over a life-time. Not that moving away is enough in itself. It's not. It's just a prerequisite for starting the slow and steady road to a better life.

Of course you're sending off vibes. We all do. Yours just aren't the ideal ones in terms of starting a relationship. Think about it. Your self-esteem is fragile, which means that you probably ask for very little. Take the conversation with the bloke that evening. The chances are that it was all about him, to the point where he didn't even see you properly. Do you understand? When we're abused we learn to disappear into the wallpaper. And we don't just do that because we feel we're unworthy of attention. We do it for safety. Being invisible is important when you're in danger of being bashed up.

You probably also tend to appease. This can be very subtle. It can just mean that you say all the right things, deftly avoid any kind of collision in a conversation. That's great if your job is diplomacy. It's not great for personal relationships because again, it's a form of invisibility. Our personality only shines when there's a clash - and no, I don't mean rows, or being deliberately confrontational, or in any way brash. It's about being you. You have good friends, so you know what I'm talking about. You can also understand why doing this with a man is difficult for you.

I don't think it's as simple as being afraid of men. You have built up a set of habits when dealing with men because of your past experience. Your task is to dismantle those habits. And the point I'm making is that you can't dismantle them while still dealing, on a daily basis, with your father's destructive behaviour. Apart from anything else, where's the dignity in it? How can you truly feel good about yourself when guilt has you staying put, and still taking the abuse? Get help in ditching that guilt. The rest will follow.

Career Doubts

1st November, 2009


At age 33 I am thinking seriously of a career change. And this is happening just when I am getting to a stable place in my current job. I have worked really hard to get here, but now feel that the demands on me in my newcurrent post are too high, and do not suit my personality. I just can't work out whether I'm lacking the confidence to do myself justice in this job, or whether I'm sensibly running from something I'm simply not good at.

What I do know is that my confidence is very low, I am permanently stressed, and I cannot communicate. I find it extremely hard to make conversation with people in work about anything except work. I come across as stilted and one-dimensional, but really crave friendship and acceptance. How do I even start to sort all this out?

I know it's become a cliché, but getting a better work/life balance would be my suggestion. Look at what you're telling me. You crave friendship and acceptance from your workmates. Why? I understand you want the workplace to be reasonably sociable. Everyone does. But craving friendship and acceptance there? That's not a problem with your job. That's a problem with your social life, or rather lack of it. Job skills, in other words, are not the issue.

Yes job skills also involve the social skills of interacting with a work team. But I think you have those skills. What's blocking easy interaction with your work mates is not an absolute inability to talk to them - since you tell me you can talk to them about work - but the fact that you're looking for too much out of these work relationships. You're feeling stilted and one-dimensional because you yearn to be best buddies, rather than just settling for getting along sufficiently well to make the job work.

You can see that a career change wouldn't solve that. You can also see that this isn't a question of work stress, or promotion beyond your capabilities. Yes, I understand that perhaps you're now a boss, or somehow in charge, or in some way seen as an authority on your subject, and all of those things can lead to work-place isolation. But that still doesn't mean that the job is the problem. You want to be loved. That's a legitimate desire. It's just not a good idea to bring that need into work. Sure, some workmates are indeed best buddies. But it is not necessarily so.

My guess is you spent years focussing on your career, leaving other needs strictly to one side. Now you're there - and the loneliness of your life is all too apparent. The point I'm making is that this is a fresh task you have to face, not to be confused with settling down into your new job. Having got the job, you now have to get a life.

Get fit in whatever way takes your fancy, preferably joining some club where you might meet others, however superficially. Breakfast out at the weekend, sitting in a café with a coffee and the Sunday Independent. Link up with some member of your family, if that's possible, even if only for an odd drink. Check out the local female talent. Rent a motorbike to see if you'd like one - whatever. You get the picture. Shift the focus from your career. You've delivered on that front. Now tackle your loneliness. And if that means getting some counselling about emotional isolation, then do that.

No, it's not easy. But you'll have a much smoother path if you can manage to believe you will make it. It's the doubt that gets to us, not the endeavour. And faith is, in fact, an act of will, however philosophically silly that sounds.

Cultural Differences

1st November, 2009


Four years ago I fell in love with a great man. We are still together, both in our early '30's. My boyfriend is keen to settle down now and get married. But Eeven though I love him dearly, I'm terrified of committing to marriage. I don't know if we're truly compatible.

Being totally honest, we come from different backgrounds and see the world in different ways. We joke about it, but it's getting harder and harder to find common ground. We disagree on a lot of things. I feel ashamed sometimes, like I'm a snob, or too judgmental about decisions he or his family make.

Our differences work both ways. He often tells me to come down off my pedestal, or calls me 'the high class one'. And I get frustrated when we have a row. A classic example is a recent disagreement about his father, who has just been diagnosed with a serious heart condition, but who continues with his life-style of smoking, drinking and eating the wrong foods, despite strong medical warnings. When I said my piece, my boyfriend gave the old 'well you would say that' routine reply. The same happened when I saw his sister giver her small child a smack, and I voiced my disapproval.

What will happen if we marry? Can we find a middle ground? As a partner, my boyfriend is very good to me, kind and thoughtful, and we have such fun together. It's a relief to be with him as I can let my guard down and just be myself. I know he is fed up too, wishes I was more like him, and not so righteous. What makes it all more difficult is the fact that I'm very close to my parents and they don't approve of him. This breaks my heart as I feel they're not proud of me, and that I have disappointed them.

Let's attempt some clarity here. Two things are getting confused here. Does your boyfriend actually think his perhaps actually share your views on say his dad's carelessness about his health, or his sister's smacking of the child are a good idea? Does he share their value systems? Or does Does he, in other words, simply dislike your way of pronouncing on such issues, while at the same time actually agreeing with you? Even the most mature of us get can get our back up if our family is criticised because we feel it's a dig at us too. And very often it is.

Let me put it a different way. Why do you feel the need to openly pass judgment on your boyfriend's family? Why do you feel you have to let your opinion be known? Is this perhaps your way of checking out how your boyfriend sees life? Do you think, for example, that he would hit your child if you had one together? And if this is what you fear, do you think criticising his family is the best way of finding out? Isn't it possible he's just being defensive, or plain browned-off, in the face of your righteousness?

Don't get me wrong. Standards can make, or break, a relationship. And yes, a person's background matters. It may not be the defining moment, because people can break free of their family norms, but it does matter. So yes, if your boyfriend's family behaves in a way that is short on standards, than a warning flag should go up. That's not snobbery. That's common-sense. If you don't believe in smacking children, to stay with the example, and your boyfriend does, then you're in for a very bumpy ride. Rows will be inevitable. Snobbery is different. Snobbery pre-supposes that standards are strictly a question of class, that quality automatically comes with money, or social standing, or accent, or family name. And that's just not true.

It's hard when parents disapprove of our chosen partner. It makes it all the more important that everything in the garden be perfect. But of course everything is never perfect in a relationship. Compromise is the key to any successful togetherness. I imagine your parents' disapproval is probably sharpening your criticism, highlighting the differences between you and your boyfriend. Their disapproval is undoubtedly also fuelling your need to voice your feelings so emphatically. Stamping your foot, or being righteous, is your way of carrying the flag, of saying this is who I am and where I come from. And that, in turn, must seriously stick in your boyfriend's gullet.

You won't be happy if you and your boyfriend fail to share basic standards. You won't be happy, either, if you keep harping on your differences, rather than treasuring your togetherness. You won't be happy if you continually feel you have to prove who you are by shouting your beliefs from the rooftops. You won't be happy if your sense of allegiance to your parents makes you constantly critical of the man you love. And nobody can solve any of that except you. All I can say for sure is one thing: If you constantly put someone on the defensive, you will never truly know what they think, or feel, or believe. So stop saying anything critical. Just zip up. Listen and observe instead. That way you'll really hear what's in your boyfriend's heart and head.

Male And Binge Eating

25th October, 2009


I'm a man, aged 33, and have an eating disorder. I'm trying to do battle with it, but am finding it harder and harder to do, because I get up every day and am surrounded by people living their lives. Let me try and explain.

I've had this night-time binge eating for about 15 years. My family life as a child was filled with abuse and neglect. My mother frequently beat us and my father was absent a lot. When he was home, they fought like cats and dogs. I know it sounds as though I'm making excuses for my binge eating - and I suppose that's what I am doing. I also know I sound like I'm playing the victim, which may have been true in the past, but I'm aware of it now and try hard not to let it control me.

I've always felt lost and tried several career paths, but each time just wasn't happy so I packed them in. The most recent was a return to college, which I quit after a year. The eating disorder was ever-present, I felt out of control, so I took a step back and left the course, determined to finally sort out my binge-eating. I started seeing a therapist. That was 18 months ago, and I've made a lot of progress.

As part of my eating disorder, I exercise excessively in order to compensate. To look at me you'd never guess I eat too much at night. I look quite lean and fit. Somewhere along the line I also began to compete in athletic competitions and really enjoy them a lot. At this point, all my focus and energy is put into training and preparing for races. I love competing. At the same time, I'm beginning to look around and see what others have, and I have not. I still live at home, have no car or career, just a part-time job that's going nowhere. I have no girlfriend, never had, and it would be nice to have someone other than my therapist to talk to, just somebody who knows I'm alive. I have few, if any friends, to go out with. A lot of the time I end up at the cinema on a Saturday night on my own, surrounded by couples and groups of people. In short, I'm surrounded by people who are living their lives.

I know the source of my pain is comparing myself to others, and I try to be happy with what I have. But it's a constant battle. I'll come across a situation which triggers negative feelings within me, work hard at discovering their root cause as my therapist has taught me, and then I feel better. But it's a non-stop effort. I feel very tired from training, and from fighting my binge-eating. Is this how it is with eating problems? Do I need to just hold on and be tough? I'm so exhausted.

An elderly practitioner of complementary medicine was asked by a friend of mine a few years ago what, in his experience, made the difference in terms of whether a patient healed himself or not. 'Courage', the physician replied. That is true. He could have added 'energy', but then he was an acupuncturist, so he dealt in the business of helping people mobilise their energy, and put it to good use.

Stop being so hard on yourself. You are not playing the victim. Nor are you making excuses for yourself. You do indeed binge eat because of past emotional damage. That's not an excuse, or a dodge, that's the truth. Unconscious creative elements in your despairing heart sought to make you safe, tried to grapple with the terrifying emotional anarchy with which your parents surrounded you. Yes, of course the use of food was misplaced, borne of the limited room for emotional manoeuvring you had as a child. You now understand that food is a symbol for all kinds of control issues. But you are still very vulnerable, so it's a huge battle. Relinquishing the comfort blanket, while still full of fear, is hard.

Could I make two suggestions? Why not just enjoy the athletics? Yes, I know you took up running to compensate for binge eating, but sometimes good things are chosen for dodgy reasons - and they are still good. Count it as a plus, with no negative connotations. And secondly, would you look for additional help, at a physical level, just to ease the exhaustion?

My promise: As you slowly feel psychologically safer, with the help of therapy, food will loose its symbolic power. Try being more gentle and kind with yourself, while still holding onto your resolve. Battles such as yours are heroic. Why not applaud that heroism?

My Daughter Dismisses Me

25th October, 2009


I'm 52 years old, married for over 30 years and have four grown-up children, three boys in their mid-twenties and a daughter who is almost 20 years old. I have always worked full-time and my husband is a farmer. We have an ordinary life, had no major hassle with the children as they grew up, they played the usual sports, and as parents we took an interest, turning up for matches, the normal stuff. On the home front there were simple rules about meal times, laundry baskets, needing to know where they were, collecting them from discos.

The three boys had no problems with any of this, but our daughter did. She always objected. And when she did her leaving cert and was offered a place in college, she turned it down, taking a job locally instead. Still living at home, she started staying out late, refusing to tell us where she was, never answering her mobile, never having family meals with us, refusing to contribute financially and refusing to fit in with the rhythm of the family when it came to house-work and clothes washing - all of which caused a lot of family friction, not to mention worry for myself and my husband. It also caused a lot of rows between her father and me. I tried to discuss the issues with her, but got nowhere. Her father adores her and she took advantage of this, time and time again. He either cannot, or will not, see through this. Certainly he won't reprimand her about her conduct and attitude.

Late last year she moved into rented accommodation, turned up on Christmas day for a few hours, and has visited us perhaps four times this year. She makes no attempt to communicate with us. On several occasions I've attempted to see her in town for a coffee, or lunch, but she refused to meet me. She also refused to allow me visit her flat. Where did we go wrong with her? Two of the boys live at home, have girlfriends who call in regularly, and socialise with their father and myself at local events. And the one who is away at college comes home regularly. How can four people who were reared the same way turn out so differently? What did I do wrong? This is the first thought I have every day, and the last one I have every night.

I don't know that you did anything wrong. Your daughter rebelled, refused to conform to the family's pace, did things differently. But does that mean you did something wrong? I don't think so.

A therapist friend of mine said recently that each sibling has different parents. Sorry, that sounds like a trick quiz question so I'll start again. People talk about the eldest child syndrome, or the middle child phenomenon, or how it's different being the youngest. In truth, each child experiences his or her parents differently. It's not that parents love one child more or less - although that can happen too. Parent and child interaction is a two-way process. And children come in different shapes and sizes, psychologically, emotionally, biologically and intellectually. Each child challenges us differently.

It probably is significant that the one to do it differently was a daughter, and an only daughter at that. It's not just that your husband adores her, and presumably let her away with murder. Or that the two of you openly disagreed on how to handle her, giving her pretty explicit permission to defy you. Daughters have a different relationship with their mothers than boys. And perhaps the kind of woman you are, and the kind of woman your daughter aspired to be, simply clashed. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with you at all really. Perhaps she never felt cut out for cosy family togetherness.

The point is, your daughter is doing fine. She's just not mature enough yet to handle her differences with you in a more confident and mature manner. She can't face your disappointment, disapproval, or just plain unhappiness because, having bucked the system, she's still busy putting a shape on a different kind of lifestyle, and feels vulnerable. And she's probably particularly sensitive to you, since you were forced into the 'baddie' role of disciplinarian, while your husband bowed out. So she's harsh, uncompromising, and ruthless in her withdrawal. That's what insecure people do.

Let go. You didn't go wrong. Your daughter chose differently. Swallow your disappointment. Respect her choices. Stop trying to change her. Soften up on yourself and on her. Say goodbye to the blame game. Tell her you love her, miss her, and would be happy just to have her company for an hour or so. And keep plugging away.

Am I Gay?

18th October, 2009


I am a very successful 30 year-old man and should be happy. But my thoughts are driving me to distraction. I think I'm gay. I'm willing to accept this should it be the case, but I can't seem to decide.

I used to date girls and would give anything for the husband, dad, family life-style. I now realise, however, that I am attracted to guys. The problem is that I can't separate my desire for the married life from the realisation that I like guys. The resultant loneliness of not knowing who I really am is hard to bear. I don't know if coming out would allow me to get out and meet guys and move on. Or is my attraction to guys the result of a lack of male relationships growing up? How can I sort all this out and finally find some happiness?

Maybe in the days when everyone was hiding their homosexuality, 'coming out' might have helped you meet guys who would then feel free to approach you. I doubt that meeting other men is the trouble right now for you because it's so easy. It's more likely that you're hoping 'coming out' will force you to choose, and solve your distress. It won't.

Part of the problem is the modern insistence on instant acceptance of homosexuality, with the accompanying dogma that being gay is beautiful, carries no personal cost, comes without heartache. That's just not true. It may for many be the only choice, but it comes with a price-tag. That's what your grief right now is all about. You always wanted the dream - wife, children, family lifestyle. No matter how many social, biological and psychological norms are stood on their head - same-sex marriages, surrogate children, two-father households, sex-change - you will have to give up on the dream. That's hard to face, and made harder by society's denial, masquerading as liberal thinking, which says it's all the same. It's not.

You ask me if the lack of male relationships growing up caused your attraction to guys. And here, my friend, we're on a seriously sticky wicket. Everybody wants to hear that homosexuality is inborn, genetic, entirely beyond any social influence. That way, nobody has to think about the influence of parenting, the impact of emotional experiences, or the subtle power of social engineering. We all want sex - and sexual orientation - to be strictly biological, and get angry with anyone who says otherwise. But it is otherwise. Sexual tastes, orientation, and even the depth of desire, are impinged on, if not indeed entirely shaped, by our environment. Sexuality is the product of social experience. Maybe it's not entirely so. Maybe there are, as yet undiscovered, subtle biological differences in some men and women, which predispose to homosexuality. But what makes the difference is the world around us.

I don't, of course, know if your lack of male relationships was a contributing factor in your current uncertainty. Your emotional life would need a lot more exploration than that. But I will say one thing to you about that. Yearning for same-sex emotional closeness can confuse us. Real adoration of same-sex teachers was accepted when I was young. Having heroes and heroines you admired, wished to please, adored even, was seen then as a rite of passage. Now it would instantly label you 'homo' in the school-yard, and not meant kindly. What I'm saying is that longing for closeness with guys doesn't necessarily mean you're gay. Not even if there's a certain amount of sexual fantasy involved. Sexual orientation is a lot more complicated than that - something else our modern liberal world doesn't want to hear, with its emphasis on declaring where we stand, proclaiming it aloud, and celebrating.

Why not go to a counsellor you feel you can trust, to try and tease out what is happening you emotionally? Meanwhile, take it gently. The huge plus side of the world we live in now is that you'll unquestionably find acceptance, whatever your sexual fate, or choice, turns out to be.

Sexless Marriage

18th October, 2009

It's Monday morning and I am off to work after another sexless weekend in an almost sexless marriage. For the past two years I've suffered serious depression because of this. My mood is constant anger. And to-day I will likely have an argument/blow-up with someone in my office. This is me who used to be the most calm, care-free individual you could meet. And this is work, which is a welcome distraction from the stresses of life because I'm so into my job.

I am 41 years old, married for 14 years, with a beautiful and attractive wife who very clearly has no feelings for me - physical anyway. We go to bed, turn our backs to each other and sleep - well I try, but can't sleep properly because of the anxious, negative thoughts. What really gets me is the why?

Imagine the feelings if someone you love, who used to be your enthusiastic physical and emotional partner, just looses all interest, with no explanation. I have tried to initiate conversations on this, but the subject is always swiftly changed to very important issues like her brother's upcoming graduation. I have about ten probable answers as to why all this is happening, some of them ridiculous, which go round and round in my head, driving me insane. It has made me distrustful, sensitive and basically in bad form. I range from thinking that she longs for a former lover, who is still in our broad social circle, but won't leave me because of the kids, right through to thinking that perhaps she's having a lesbian affair.

My approach in trying to address all this varies - from staying upbeat in the hope that I might get lucky, to giving up and just going to bed and keeping my mouth shut and trying to sleep. Neither approach works. I went to counselling last year but I'm not going back. I was talking to the wrong person.

Every couple of months we get together, but I know her heart isn't in it. It's just to please me. I appreciate that this is a common problem, but what is the answer? Where can I turn?

You are dodging confrontation. No, I don't mean a screaming match, I mean a truthful conversation. You don't actually want to hear what your wife has to say. I'd say you're scared, which is entirely understandable. But you're not just fearful about what you'll hear. The real terror lies in the decisions you will have to make when you hear the truth. What will you do if she confirms she longs for an earlier lover? Or that she is, indeed, engaged in a lesbian love affair? How will you proceed if she simply says all sexual desire has vanished? What to do is truly the question, and one you don't wish to face.

Instead you're angry all the time, taunt yourself with painful fantasies, have difficulty sleeping, and mess up the really good part of your life which is your job. And yes, you're right. In counselling you were talking to the wrong person. It was just another way of dodging confrontation. Except, perhaps, in counselling you might have explored your reluctance to hear the truth, talked about your terror, and garnered courage to do what you have to do - namely sit down with your wife and do some straight talking.

It's not just fear which stays your hand. It's hope. You hope your wife will miraculously return to the old sexy togetherness. You feel that if only you could manage yourself, find the right strategy for negotiating this painful period, somehow all might yet come right. It won't, for two reasons. It's not possible to stay upbeat, laid-back, accepting and cool, when you don't know what's going on. I mean if your wife had terminal cancer, you'd manage the sexual frustration just fine. But you don't know whether you are being two-timed, treated with contempt, or worse, indifference, no longer loved perhaps, or simply shut out of something which is going on in your wife's head. So you're angry, down, and undoubtedly often difficult to live with - which at the very least compounds the problem. Secondly, by staying silent you are colluding with your wife, telling her, in effect, that it's alright to shut you out. And that, too, perpetuates the problem. Don't you see?

You are allowing yourself to be treated badly by your wife. Nothing is actually worse than that, because therein lies no dignity, no self-respect, no hope of happiness. I understand you're scared you may have to make a stand, and then lose her, the kids, the house, the whole package. But that is an end-scenario, the ultimate nightmare, which you face, quickly, and then set aside. There are a thousand steps in-between, none of which you can take until you sit your wife down and insist on hearing what is really going on.

You ask me where you can turn to. The only answer is to her.

Feeling Hopeless

11th October, 2009


I'm in my early thirties and have had enough of life. I feel I'm just going through the motions, without any purpose. Even if I do plan things, they don't turn out as expected. I was never the most confident person, but lately I have become even worse. I have absolutely no self-belief. I hate confrontations with people and am very paranoid about what others think of me. I don't want to do anything except stay at home and sleep.

I hate the job I'm in. I have no energy or interest, and it takes so much effort to do the smallest task. I would love to quit, but I have financial commitments. Given the recession, it wouldn't be the wisest move either. Anyway, my boss can't understand why it's taking me so long to do things, so it's only a mater of time before I get the boot. I get distracted along the way, or start thinking too much and put off the task. I get very anxious around other people, or where there's a lot of noise. I was never a very bright person, but I used to try my best. Now I've run out of energy.

I am afraid of growing old alone, but don't have the confidence to go out and find someone. I have never had anyone, but think a lot about it lately. I feel rotten inside about myself, so this doesn't help matters. I don't feel good enough. I'm trying to get over this, but every day my best intentions go very wrong. I've tried talking to the people close to me, but they just seem to give out to me, tell me cop myself on, and say they can't understand me at all.

I hope I don't sound selfish, but I really am very unhappy in myself. I would love to break the cycle, but as soon as I get happy, something happens to make me low again. I don't know how much more of this I can take.

You know I can't make a clinical diagnosis at this remove, but I think anyone looking in would recognise serious depression. Lack of energy, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, simple tasks seen as almost insurmountable, extreme loneliness, low self-esteem, helplessness, a sense of despair, and maybe above all, an almost complete absence of joy - that's just about a classic list of depressive symptoms isn't it?

As a young clinical psychologist, I was very insistent about the origins - and hence the cure - for depression. I saw it as an exclusively psychological problem, and therefore thought psychotherapy was the sole answer. I do still believe that depression needs to be treated by therapy - which means looking at the feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and behavioural patterns which keep the depression going. But I also now think that depression can be helped by intervention at a physical level - in other words working on the body, be that with medical drugs, serious dietary changes, an exercise routine, or some complementary therapy such as acupuncture. Body and mind work as one, and sometimes the body has to be helped first. You can get so stuck in exhaustion that you simply have no capacity for handling psychotherapy.

Of course you are not selfish. On the contrary you have been heroic in your struggle to help yourself. You've done that long enough on your own. Visit your doctor, if that's what makes you most comfortable. And then start searching for the pattern of treatment which suits you best. Depression is a real problem. You need real help. Go get it, tomorrow.

Teacher Seduction

11th October, 2009


I am a mature, 23-year-old student from a very dysfunctional family and am fortunate to have a beautiful girlfriend. Two years ago I encountered a problem with my mother - my father is dead. I needed financial support which was not forthcoming. I related my problem to a teacher at my college, a person I considered very solid, who offered good practical advice and found me part-time employment which helped me over several hurdles.

The problem is, that as time went by, I found myself leaning more and more towards this man, who is in his mid-forties and has a wife and four children. As a conversationalist he was terrific and I learned a lot from him. He understood my difficulties, took me under his wing, and continued to give me guidance. On one occasion he had to travel abroad for a couple of weeks and I asked if it were possible to accompany him for part of the trip. I needed to get away and my girlfriend gave me every encouragement to travel. He agreed - reluctantly, I might add - and I joined him over a long weekend. We had a great time together, nothing untoward happened, and I learned a lot from the experience.

Six months ago, I asked if it were possible for both of us to go away for a night as there was something I wished to discuss with him, in private. We stayed in a hotel, shared a room, talked for hours, and during the course of the night, he fondled my penis. I did not object. Indeed, I felt relaxed. Now he continues to fondle me from time to time, just for a few seconds, and it never goes beyond that. It is very much one-way. Meanwhile, my relationship with my girlfriend has not been affected.

OK, it might be construed that this teacher is using me. I don't see it that way. Strangely, I have no objection to being fondled. My life has changed in other ways. I have grown in confidence, created a new circle of friends, and am happy with my lot. This person is not obsessive, and I don't believe that he has groomed me. I have complete freedom and we only meet at my discretion - maybe once a week. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

My thoughts are simple. Why on earth are you so ungrateful? You had a generally unhappy family situation, a specific critical problem with cash - presumably threatening your capacity to continue studying, a teacher you approached for help who came up trumps, and what do you do? You create a situation of temptation for him - not once, but on an on-going basis. Why would you do that?

This man rescued you. He didn't just provide a once-off intervention. He took you under his wing, as you put it yourself. He filled a huge gap in your life, intellectually and socially and emotionally. This wasn't something he forced on you. You asked. You needed it for your own growth. And he gave it to you, with generosity. Why, then, would you hurt him?

Yes, he is a weak man. No, he shouldn't be doing what he's doing. And yes, his behaviour is ultimately his responsibility. But why don't you care for him enough to say no? Indeed, why don't you care enough to strongly recommend he get therapeutic help? He's your friend. Can't you be a friend to him too?

You're right, he's not grooming you - and didn't groom you. You were 21 years old when you approached him, and you made the running. Of course his weakness was already there. And of course his weakness is not your fault. That doesn't let you off the hook, however. You know what you're doing. In practical terms, if nothing else, you're putting your friend at such personal and professional risk. And I'm asking you, why?

You're wrong about it being one-way. It's not. Yes, I know you mean that you play a totally passive role in these sexual encounters. But being passive is just one way of being involved. It's one of the roles we play. You are engaging in the interaction. More, you're initiating it by turning up. This is a two-way process.
You're wrong, too, to think that this does not affect your relationship with your girlfriend. Yes, I understand that you mean it's not affecting your sexual contact. But everything we do impinges on our relationships. The effect can be subtle - like avoiding any questions about where you're going when you set out to meet your friend, or lying afterwards, or even just omitting to say, when you recount how your day went. Keeping a secret, in other words, changes communication. Or the effect could be severe. How will she react if she finds out? At the very least, you're putting your relationship with this girl at risk.

You tell me you come from a dysfunctional family. I always hesitate to respond when that concept is floated. It can mean much, or little. It does seem, in your case, that somewhere along the line you lost your moral compass, or failed to develop an adequate one. It's possible you misguidedly believe you're doing this man a favour, somehow showing gratitude. Perhaps, confronted with his need, you savour an unconscious sense of power which makes you feel emotionally safer. Perhaps you've transferred, as psychologists might put it, your anger at your parents onto this hapless human being who befriended you, and unconsciously seek to bring him down, or at least place him in some danger. Or perhaps you hunger for that passive homosexual role, are addicted if you like. Maybe that's the damage done in your unhappy past. And if so, that's very sad.

I don't know what you think. I do know that the bottom line is decency and respect, both for yourself and for your friend. You need to end this relationship, and get therapeutic help, if necessary, in order to maintain your distance.

My Married Lover

4th October, 2009


My secret lover and I broke up to-day. We've been together over two years. He and I both believe we love each other, but he said he was not prepared to leave his wife and three small children right now. He never promised me he would. Is it possible, do you think, that he may miss me so much that it forces him to tell his wife that he wants a divorce?

I do understand why you're asking that question, particularly when the separation is all so new. And I'm sure it will rattle round in your head for quite some time, until things settle down. What I'm saying is that it would be silly to even attempt to fight it right now - the hope I mean. You're hoping for a phone-call. You're waiting. That's the way it is.

Let me tell you what I think. Two years of secrecy is a long time. You waited a long time. And your lover remained firm for a long time. He never wavered, never gave you any reason to think things would change. Now he's gone one step further and ended the relationship. He ran the relationship on his terms. And now he's gone one step further and ended it. I think that indicates that he won't be back. More importantly, even if he did come back, it would be solely on the old terms. He would not leave his wife. At best, you would continue to be his secret lover. Only now there would be the added dimension that he'd taught you a lesson. He can leave you.

I know it sounds old-fashioned, but truthfully, love is in the action, not just words. It doesn't matter what your lover said or believed about his feelings for you. He made it clear to you that he was not budging in terms of his marriage. Don't try, either, to see any hope in the fact that he said he couldn't leave his children. Children are a huge, and entirely legitimate reason for staying put. Their weight on the plus side of a marriage is considerable. It's also easier to talk about them, rather than saying to you that, on balance, his wife isn't that bad. Don't you see?

When the fixation on the phone has eased, start asking yourself a simple question. Aren't you worth more? Isn't it actually good, albeit painful, that this secret affair has ended? Don't you deserve a real chance at happiness?

My Aggressive Husband

4th October, 2009


I'm in a state of total despair. I'm in my late forties and my husband is two years older. I work part-time, am trying to further my career by studying, and do everything in the house, as well as organising the lives of our three children, the eldest of whom is in his Leaving Cert year. My husband works long hours and does nothing to help me at all, not even on a Sunday. It's not that I expect a load of help, but an offer to help clear up after dinner might be nice. He lifts his plate as far as the sink and that's it.

The big problem is his aggressive personality, plus the fact that he is totally self-absorbed. No-one else is as tired, or works as hard as he does. I am never asked how my day was. Everything is about him and his problems. He doesn't take much interest in the lives of the children either. His daughter would love to be a daddy's girl like all her friends are, but this will never happen. I feel so sad for her as she is a great daughter and we are good friends. Our two sons need a good example from their father about how to treat women and they are not getting that. They are both great boys, but again do very little with their father.

Over the years there have been a lot of rows which involved my husband becoming very verbally abusive towards me in front of the children, not caring what he says or the damage he is doing. I've told him arguing in front of them is wrong - well certainly to the extent he does. He is an extremely insecure person, perceives any criticism or disagreement as a personal attack, and refuses to acknowledge any blame for anything. Instead, I am the problem and need help. He had punitive parents who never praised him and is very bitter about it. This has resulted in depression which has got worse over the last number of years. He used to come out of his moods reasonably quickly, but now they go on for ever, and he stops talking over the slightest thing.

The atmosphere is terrible for the children but he is too selfish to stop. I've told him he needs therapy, but he is in denial. Instead he blames me for everything. I was always supportive of him, but I have had enough. He is very immature in his outlook, never taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong. He calls me names at the drop of a hat and because I don't want a big row, I don't fight back. This is bullying, because he knows I hate rows in front of the children, so he has the upper hand.

If I had the money I would separate, but I am stuck for now in this hell of a marriage, feeling no respect for him. I think he should count his blessings and not always see the negative in everything. I get on with things and can't stand the constant moaning and long face that is his lot. When he is being normal, which doesn't happen much now, he is a nice person and in the past I was always able to put the bad things behind me. I can't do that anymore. The years of verbal and mental abuse have taken their toll, particularly because he never ever said sorry. How can you get someone to get help when they won't acknowledge they have a problem? I can't stand the thought of spending the next few years with him, let alone the rest of my life.

We could stay focussed on your husband and remain stuck, as you clearly are at the moment. So shall we, instead, turn to you, not as part of a blame game, but for the sake of sanity, and hope, and the chance to change things?

You can't give your children a better father than they have. At least you can't set out to do that. If that's to happen at all, it's up to your husband. You can, however, show them how a man should be, both as a husband and a father, by clearly distancing yourself from his bad behaviour. If he calls you nasty names, you tell him his behaviour is unacceptable, and leave the table, the room, the car, the restaurant, your parents' house - wherever you are. That's not having a row. That's a refusal to take abuse, or be bullied. Children are not damaged by seeing someone behave badly. They are damaged by learning to accept that bad behaviour. Peace at any price is a bad motto. It teaches acceptance of the unacceptable.

You've helped your husband be the way he is. No, of course you didn't mean to. You saw it as being supportive, understanding, compassionate. When we build a theory of why someone is the way they are, two things happen: We excuse their behaviour, however inadvertently. Look at what you've told me, namely that your husband had punitive parents, which has led to depression. And he's insecure, you say, and threatened by any feed-back or comments from you. Fine. I'm sure you're right. I'm equally sure that this doesn't give him the right to be a bully. And it certainly doesn't mean that you should accept the bullying.

Secondly, when we have a theory about someone, it leads us to suggesting solutions - you think your husband should seek therapeutic help. This results in a subtle form of bossiness, you know best, he's in denial you say, won't face the truth, won't take responsibility - you get the picture. Then what happens? Yes, your husband feels threatened, lashes out at you, and becomes even more like he is, as a mechanism of resistance. And all that time, by focussing on him, you've actually been indulging him. Of course it's all about him, all about how tired he is, all about his difficulties and woes, while you soldier on. But that's not just because he's selfish - which I'm sure he is - but because of all the attention you give him.

Forget your husband. Try anything which would shift your obsession with him. Could the children organise themselves more? Could you give up the part-time work? Could you get in paid help? Could you do something outside the home which feeds you by being enjoyable? As I said to a house-bound husband recently - which didn't go down too well with some men who objected to my apparent heartlessness - could you get a life? And no, of course I don't mean it unkindly.

My Wife Doesn't Want Sex

27th September, 2009


My wife and I are the same age, 65. We have been married for forty years. For the past ten years she has refused to sleep with me. It was she who properly introduced me to sex and taught me how to make it work for her. She really enjoyed it for so many years of our married life. So did I.

Now she has lost interest. She says she can't bear being touched by me. We are both healthy. I know she loves me and I love her. My heart is broken and I have told her so. But she is not for turning. Neither of us has ever been unfaithful. Is there anything I can do? Sex is not important. I just want her company.

Well, sex is important, but I know what you mean. It's the closeness that sex brings which you miss most. When the rule of 'no sex' enters a relationship, it usually includes a withdrawal from all physical affection. That makes boundaries easier to set. No misunderstandings. Yes, it's cruel. It's also cowardly. And it makes for a very emotionally lonely life. The sad thing is, both parties miss the cuddling, closeness and comfort.

Differing levels of sexual interest between husband and wife sets a challenge which few of us seem equipped to handle with any kind of sensitivity and kindness. And maybe for people of a certain age it carries a particular kind of sadness, because it becomes part of a more general sense of loss - or at least profound change - which comes with age. It always wounds deeply when a partner no longer desires us. If we're young, perhaps we can still turn heads, pull if we want to. But when a man is older? Or a woman?

Basically, neither men nor women are good at separating affection and intimacy from actual sexual intercourse, particularly when they have a history of being lovers. It's a huge step. Yet couples who love each other can, if one of them is ill. So perhaps it's first and foremost a question of accepting the validity of a partner not wanting to have sex for reasons other than obvious illness. Think about the husband who is too stressed to think straight, let alone feel lust. Or the menopausal woman who is crucified with hot flushes and a dry vagina. Or a general drop in libido, in either sex, which may have no apparent cause.

No, I'm not talking about giving up all hope of having sex again. I'm talking about handling the gaping hole which emerges when one partner pulls away. And I'm convinced two concepts hold the key, namely open acknowledgment of our vulnerability, and kindness, the kindness which makes sure that a partner is not left alone.

I hate it when people natter on about the importance of communication. So I won't go there. Engaging with someone enough to read their reality - their need, pain, anxiety, hope, is what matters. I suppose what I'm saying is that you have to try and lay yourself open to your wife - not about sex as such, but about the reality of your loneliness. She's blinded herself to you, because that is easier. The task is to kindle her kindness by letting her really see you.

Abusive Father

27th September, 2009


There's a man who seems to hate me more than anything else in the world. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but in this case that man happens to be my father. I have absolutely no idea how to deal with this situation.

I realized how serious this hatred was from an early age. He would constantly insult me, often for no logical reason, accused me of being unable to 'love', and told other people, right in front of me, that he loved my siblings more than me. I think you get the picture.

As a teenager, I responded with complete indifference. Conversations between us were utterly banal. In my eyes, our strained relationship had little chance of redemption. On the other hand, I realized that my siblings enjoyed a normal relationship with him. So maybe our relationship suffered because I'm a little introverted. Or maybe it was because I'm a homosexual. I don't know. In my mid-teens, my drunken father hit me on a few occasions - he's a chronic alcoholic and often threatened violence. I felt very forlorn on these occasions, even blaming my mother for marrying the man.

Looking back, perhaps I could have done more to make things work. But seeing the person my father is now, I don't think he is someone I would want to have anything to do with - for the sake of my own sanity if nothing else. Yet I get on great with my family which is why I feel such conflict. I respect that my siblings have a working relationship with my father and don't want to interfere with that. I used to be depressed but since I went away to college I've cheered up immensely. Now, however, I've been back for the summer and basically thought every day about moving out, just to get away from him. But I'm also annoyed that I may have to sacrifice my entire family just to please his majesty.

How should I approach him when he challenges me? Responding with my fists doesn't seem to be very effective.

No, fists aren't very effective. They are also decidedly beneath your dignity. Not an option.

There's a lot of pain in the situation you face. And you are handling it magnificently. Basically you have a father who rejected you, who still rejects you, using you as a scapegoat for his own serious shortcomings. Of course when you were young you were angry at your mother for marrying this man. You wanted her to defend you. More, you wanted her to take a principled stand - to make it clear that your father's behaviour was unacceptable. Undoubtedly, deep down, you wanted her to throw him out. Why not? He was an abusive alcoholic who picked on you, a defenceless child. Your wish to be rid of him was entirely justified.

On top of that, the various members of your family effectively accommodated your father's behaviour. Families do that. They keep the family glued together, even if it entails one member being picked on - sacrificed, if you like, to a greater or lesser degree. Perhaps they all did make a stand. Perhaps they restrained your father when he became really nasty. Perhaps your mother had endless rows with him about it. Undoubtedly they tried their very best. As you point out, however, a man who continues his nastiness to you is still in the bosom of the family. Yes, I hear you. I understand that you respect the fact that your siblings have a working relationship with him - your mother too. What I'm saying back to you is that it took real heroism on your part to reach that position. I suspect a lot of angry heartbreak may still lurk beneath your generosity and maturity.

Just make sure that anger is never turned against yourself. Because no, you could not have done it any better. Your father's viciousness towards you is a scar on his own soul. It is neither your fault nor your responsibility. Take care that you make choices which are in your own best interest. I'm talking in particular about how you continue your contact with your family. You've said it yourself. For the sake of your sanity, you should stay far away from this destructive man. So maybe at some stage in the future the family home will no longer be the sole focal point for family togetherness. And you will choose other settings for seeing your family.

Don't misunderstand. I applaud the fact that you're still battling. And of course the question is valid as to why it should be you who shifts. The point is, it may be the most intelligent, creative, brave and mature decision to make. Some situations in life are toxic. And sometimes we're powerless to change that. Continuing the battle under those circumstances can be self-destructive. A tactical withdrawal is a positive statement of self-love. It's not defeat. It's the road to winning.

You are still very young. And it's important you stay emotionally safe - which means only taking on what you feel you can handle. When I talk about you beginning to find new ways and alternative locations for family interaction, I'm not trying to set you a challenge. I'm just painting a future way forward for a good, kind, generous and loving young man, who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

Sad About My Past

20th September, 2009


I was married to a physically abusive man for 17 years and finally, at the age of 42, I found the courage to leave with my three children after a particularly bad assault. This is something I'm very proud of. I got counselling for a year and finally started to feel good about myself. That was ten years ago. What's bothering me is the way I behaved during those ten years.

I started drinking and going out with girlfriends on the town. I also became very promiscuous. I went on a couple of foreign holidays and had some weekends away. The sexual flings mostly happened on these occasions and I had about 15 sexual partners. Now I feel consumed with guilt and shame. I've been celibate for the past year, and only have one glass of wine when out for dinner.

I know it would be easy to blame my husband for my behaviour, but that would entail deceiving myself. Did I behave badly because of low self-worth? Or was it a new-found confidence in myself? Or was I trying to control and be powerful in these relationships? I feel so bad about it all. I was faithful to my husband during our marriage, although I wonder now was that just out of fear.

I don't want to go on beating myself up. I am a good mother and my children are in good jobs and good relationships. I don't want to be with anyone anymore and feel I will never have another sexual relationship. When I look back now I feel I was somebody else. I'm trying very hard to put the past behind me, and to friends and family I seem happy and optimistic. But when I close my door and am on my own again, the past comes back.

What hurts most about being abused is not the pain, social embarrassment or fear. It's the fact that we take it. It's the shame we feel when we look in the mirror. We deeply disgust ourselves. It doesn't matter whether the abuse is physical, emotional, intellectual, social or psychological, hidden or obvious, coming from family, husband, teacher, work colleague or alleged friend. We are gutted by our lack of dignity.

In that scenario we have two choices. We either agree that we are worthy of disgust, and at some level accept the abuse. Or we manage to see beyond our immediate situation, and argue to ourselves that we don't deserve this treatment. For most people that's not quite such a clear-cut choice. Most of us have our self-doubt. At the very least, most of us scan our conscience, examine our behaviour, generally check ourselves out to see if punishment is deserved - even if we fundamentally disagree with the form such punishment takes. You can, in other words, clearly see that your husband should not hit you, while still thinking that perhaps he has a point.

You got out, which is wonderful. Not easy when you're trapped with the responsibility of children. That doesn't mean your sense of self was totally intact. It just means you were not prepared to live with the violence. And it certainly doesn't mean that you've forgiven yourself for taking the punishment in the first place. I'd say, at a guess, that you went a bit wild because you were both giddy about your bravery at getting out, and still not terribly proud of yourself. The scars of accepting abuse run deep.

I'm glad you've got the booze in hand. I'm not so sure about the celibacy. Why wouldn't you find someone to love, and who loves you? The time has come to stop beating yourself up and look back, instead, with the gentle eye of compassion, forgiveness if you like, perhaps even an understanding pity, at the woman who took abuse, for whatever reasons, some of them practical, and finally fought back. You've won the badge of dignity. Wear it with pride.

House-Husband Blues

20th September, 2009


When my wife and I got married, I had a house with no mortgage, a very successful business, and we loved each other. She loved me, respected me, treated me well and I likewise her. She didn't work initially, which didn't bother me in the slightest. I knew she wanted to work, felt sure she'd find her niche, and never ever saw her as a 'kept' woman. Twelve years and four children later, and my life is upside-down. My business went bust and I'm jobless. My wife has a very well-paid job with reasonably short hours. We are not poor by any means.

The problem is how my wife treats me now. She constantly reminds me that she's the one earning the money, while I am not. She regularly gives me the silent treatment, and runs me down in front of the kids. As a result, they have no respect for me either and copy their mother's behaviour towards me. They also take her side in arguments and make me feel even more of a failure.

I have done my best to get a job. I've also taken additional training courses. I drop the kids off to school, collect them, cook all the meals, mow the lawn, do all the shopping, and keep the house tidy. In fact my wife has nothing to do anymore except her job. But she seems to hate me and to be ashamed of me. We used to be best friends. We used to go everywhere together. Now we never go out. She has a wide circle of women friends, and heads off with them to girlie movies or out for a meal. She even leaves me out when visiting her parents with the kids. She seems to resent me being in the same house. It's as if she could only ever tolerate me in very small doses and can't stand me now, making me feel in the way all the time.

This makes me feel very low. The constant degradation, the constant attempts to control me and every minute of my day, the refusal to talk to me - all on top of having no job - weigh heavily on my heart. And it doesn't help that I haven't really got any friends of my own. I constantly dream of escape - just running away and living in a cottage - or sometimes doing away with myself. Who would care? I'm not necessary anymore. I'm no use to anyone. They'd be better off without me, would hardly miss me at all. And she could meet a successful man.

These are the thoughts that go through my mind frequently. My self-esteem is at an all-time low. Of course I won't act on any of these thoughts, but I can see how some people do. And I know that if my wife was describing our situation she'd talk about my being 'grumpy' all the time. But I'm only grumpy because of the frustration of being constantly put down.

I'm all at sea and grabbing at passing straws. I've no idea where I'll be in one, five or ten years' time. How can I show my wife that she's tearing me apart, bit by bit, breaking me into pieces?

The problem with being grumpy is that it's a victim's response. And like all victims, you're blaming someone else for the way you feel. So let's set the record straight. You are grumpy because you choose to be. Yes, your wife is being disrespectful, unloving and profoundly unkind. She most certainly is not being a nice person right now. The point is, you could handle it differently. You can handle it differently. It's up to you.

At the moment your wife is firmly in the driving seat. And you have put her there. That's because you share her discomfort, dislike, disdain, for the current status quo. Why does it matter to you that she's the one who's earning? As things stand, that seems like the best solution. You're the house husband, she's the bread-winner. You do the valuable, necessary and life-enhancing work of running your domestic lives, and most particularly caring for the kids. Your wife always wanted to work outside the home, she now has a great job which she enjoys, and has the back-up of a loving and efficient husband who keeps the home humming. How bad can that be - for either of you?

Yes, I know she disrespects you. But that's just plain stupid. What lends her stupidity any weight is the fact that you share her disrespect for you. You don't really think much of yourself. And that, my friend, is your responsibility. Yes of course I know that being a business man, the provider, the financial success is the official way to go. It's not the reality for lots of men, and their numbers are increasing. Instead of being grumpy at your wife's bad behaviour, you should be saying 'welcome to post-Celtic Tiger Ireland darling'.

You're not doing the domestic bit as some kind of menial mopping up job. You are actively engaging in the new reality you both find yourselves in. Nor is your wife working because she was forced to. She, too, has made an active choice, given the circumstances. She has absolutely no reason to complain. Neither have you. On the contrary, you should both be proud of yourselves. You are a great team, both choosing to be winners, not losers. Start acting like a winner. And tell your wife to do the same.

And get a life. You don't have to make instant friends. You can take up some physical exercise, go for a pint, watch a football game, anything. Just create a world outside your family. It may not be fun at first, but it will grow on you.
Irish based professional therapist and journalist. Website By : Deise Design