Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine offers her perspective on family dramas, emotional issues and dysfunctional relationships. This week: a controlling mother, a bitter past and being single in your 40s.
QUESTION: My sister is visiting from Australia next month and I am really looking forward to it. The last time I saw her was five years ago when she left to be with her new Aussie husband.
The problem is, I have had a crappy three-month period during which time my job has gone part-time, my best friend died, I have had surgery to remove my gall bladder, and now I am just getting over a stinking rotten bout of flu.
All in all, I feel really run down and certainly not in the mood for the 24/7 party my sister will be expecting. To make matters worse, we have planned a big family get-together and my mother is coming to stay with us for the first few days as well. She is not an easy person and, in the past, has always taken every opportunity to criticise whatever I do.
She will also try to take control of everything. In the past, it’s been easier to just let this slide but now, feeling as I do, I just know that I will lose my rag.
How can I make her understand that she needs to back off?
FIONA SAYS: You have certainly had a rough few months, but it would be a shame to let this spoil what should be a happy reunion with your sister.
If you’re worried about keeping up with her during her visit, perhaps have a quiet word before she arrives and tell her what’s been happening.
Explain that you really want to spend as much time with her as possible, but that you’ll have to pace yourself and can’t do everything. Make sure you stress how much you’re looking forward to seeing her and I’m sure she’ll understand.
Your mother, though, is an altogether trickier problem as she has established a pattern of behaviour towards you that goes back over many years, and this may not easily be changed. It will require you to be both firm and tactful if it’s not to get overly confrontational.
Given this, and the fact you’re feeling so under the weather, you might want to consider putting off dealing with it until another time. I can understand you want to resolve it, but now might not be the best time.
In fact, why not tell her you’re feeling very run down and say you would actually welcome her taking the lead while she’s with you? It would be a lot less stressful for you, give you more time to recuperate and let you spend as much time as possible with your sister.
Whether you feel you absolutely must tackle it now or if you decide to defer this until later, you need to be thoroughly prepared.
Your mother probably won’t even recognise there is a problem, so make a note of recent situations where she has undermined or criticised you.
Let her know that you value her support, but stress that you don’t want things to continue in this way. Try not to lose your temper, your words will carry more weight if they are delivered calmly and firmly.
Finally, let her know that you still love her and want a positive relationship with her.
QUESTION: I feel like I’m heading for a breakdown as I’m being plagued by memories of an incident in my past. I have tried to forget it and move on, but I can’t shake it loose.
People around me are noticing that something is wrong and I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.
I know you’re going to suggest a counsellor but I really can’t face telling anyone about it – I can’t even use my normal email address so I set up a second one.
Can you suggest a good self-help book to get me through this?
FIONA SAYS: Self-help therapy is great and there are numerous books out there covering every imaginable issue or problem.
The only problem with this approach is that it requires a person to make a completely objective and honest assessment of their own problem.
That’s not impossible but, in my experience, not many people have what it takes to be that self-analytical, and getting to grips with some issues can be emotionally traumatic.
I applaud anyone who takes that first step, but I’d still argue they’d get greater benefit from talking to someone.
This needn’t be a counsellor, although they’d probably help most). It could be a trusted friend or family member. In your case though, I’d suggest you call and speak to Samaritans where you can be completely anonymous.
There is nothing you can say that will shock them and they can help you identify the right source of help which – without knowing what your problem is – is hard for me to do.
Many of the voluntary organisations that deal with complex problems have anonymous phone helplines or have online chat services, so it really is a case of identifying the right one.
It’s an old cliche but a problem shared really is a problem halved and, however awful the incident is, someone, somewhere will be able to help you.
QUESTION: I am 44, a single mum and my twin sons are about to go university. I have raised them on my own since my husband left me nine years ago and in all that time I have never had a proper relationship.
I’ve been dragged into a few embarrassing blind dates by well-meaning couples, but that’s it. With my sons about to leave home, it’s hit me that I’ll be on my own for the first time and, to be honest, that scares me a lot.
I’d love to meet someone and try again for a special relationship. None of the men I know through work and volunteering at a local hospice are available, so how do I go about finding a new partner?
In this modern age, this probably sounds daft but I have no idea what to do.
FIONA SAYS: This is more common than you might think. The pace of modern life means that there is often too little time away from work and family commitments to meet new people.
It’s one reason why there has been an explosion of online dating, social media services and phone apps in recent years. These services are certainly worth exploring and, if you feel you can, talk to your sons because they’ll probably know the latest and greatest of these.
Some are dedicated to finding love, others to making friends and meeting new people. One of my personal favourites is Meetup – there’s no dating agenda here, it’s just a chance for like-minded people to get together.
Don’t be put off by the Londoncentric look of the first page, just type in your home town, the area you’re willing to travel and see what comes up. If there isn’t anything, it will show you how to get things started.
If you do decide to meet anyone through an online service, the usual caveats apply – always meet in public and tell someone where you are going.
Don’t limit yourself to these services though – try other activities like a new sport or join a walking group, start an evening class or join a social club.
It doesn’t matter what you do, as long it allows you to meet new people, so take every opportunity presented to you - even the ones that don’t sound that promising.
QUESTION: Although I love my husband, I have not had a physical relationship with him for over three years. We never discussed stopping, it just seemed to happen.
At the time, he was very stressed at work and I was wrapped up in sorting out my mother’s affairs after she died. We’re now in our 50s and very happy together – he’s hardworking, caring and provides a good home for me and our daughter.
Should I just accept that sex between us is over? Is this usual in people of our age?
FIONA SAYS: It’s neither usual nor unusual – sex-free relationships are fine providing both people are happy with the arrangement. Your letter suggests though, that while you are generally content with your marriage, you’re not.
What your husband thinks about this is impossible to guess, which is why you need to find a way to talk about it. I know it’s been a long time but, if you genuinely want to rescue this aspect of your relationship, you need to find a way to talk.
You could perhaps start the process by talking to him about the issues that might have triggered the change in your sex life – your mother’s death and the stress he was under at the time.
This might help him to open up but, if it doesn’t, a Relate counsellor could help and encourage you both to talk more freely.
Write to Fiona Caine c/o Elise Brewerton, 1000 Lakeside, North Harbour, Portsmouth PO6 3EN or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fiona regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence, nor pass letters on to other readers.