Thursday 22 June 2017

Dear Mary: I'm a widow for two years and I haven't had sex for over 30 years

Illustration: Tom Halliday
Illustration: Tom Halliday

Mary O'Connor

Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.

Question: I am a widow for two years, am in my 70s, and I haven't had sex since I was 40. My husband's sex drive wasn't great anyway, and then he stopped altogether and he refused to talk about it or go anywhere for help. I found it easier in the end to be quiet  and just get on with things.   We got on well otherwise and did everything together.   Now I find myself so lonely  and unhappy, and wonder did he love me at all. I am making myself miserable thinking about this now, did I do something to turn him off, was it my fault, is this it? As the song says, "is that all there is, my friend"

I can't discuss this with any of my children or friends. Outwardly I am an upbeat, cheerful and outgoing person - I have had to be. But nothing could be further from the truth. I feel it's too late now and I should have done more to fix it. I would love to be and feel loved, to have arms around me and make me feel special. Is that selfish of me? How do I get all this out of my mind and move on to a peaceful state of mind . I would love if you would advise me please.

Mary replies: I feel pretty sure that your husband loved you, and that the main reason you are feeling so bad is that you miss him and his companionship - after all, you had a very long time together. It is a separate issue that you didn't have sex for such a long time, even though you were willing to. We will never know what his problem was, whether he actually had a sexual dysfunction or if he just had a very low sex drive - and it is sad that he wouldn't talk about it with you or seek help. If a partner is not willing to seek help then there is very little the other person can do, apart from leaving the marriage altogether, and this is not what you wanted

Your husband probably showed you in lots of ways that he loved you, but you are regretting that you didn't enjoy the physical aspect of loving, together. It is not at all selfish to regret what might have been, but there is nothing to be gained in dwelling on the negatives of your marriage. Instead, concentrate on the good times, your children and possibly grandchildren, all of whom have hopefully enriched your life. Then start living in the now and try to look forward. You have started into a new chapter of your life and perhaps this would be a good time to take up a new pursuit or join a group of some sort. Enquire If there is an Active Retirement group in your area, join a choir if you sing, a book club if you are interested in reading, or volunteer with an organisation such as Meals on Wheels if you drive. Or plan to take a holiday that caters for single people. There is always a chance that you might meet a man around your age who might love to go dancing with you and hold you in his arms!

Things are not the same without your husband, I appreciate that, but it is up to you to make the most of your life and to feel inwardly what you have been showing on the outside up until now. Instead of asking yourself 'is that all there is' tell yourself, a la Gloria Gaynor, 'I will Survive'

I am finding it hard to trust my feelings

Question: I am a 40-year-old woman who has ongoing issues around intimacy and commitment. My parents separated when I was a young girl. My family environment was one that was fraught with anxiety, chaos, and distrust.

I know where my problems have stemmed from and have spent years working with a great therapist in getting to grips with how to navigate and be in relationships.

Throughout my entire adult life, after the initial flirting stage, if someone I like is emotionally available and interested in me I experience physical reactions that range from anxiety to revulsion, states of panic and an internal voice that tells me all the ways in which whoever it is that I am trying to connect with is wrong for me. I've been single most of my life.

I know that I have learnt a great deal from the therapeutic process but I feel at a loss because my reactions are still occurring.

I recently met a lovely man and after all my years of learning and reflecting in therapy, there I was feeling anxious/ unsure/reactive etc all over again. What was different for me in this instance was that I decided to be honest with him and shared a little bit about my childhood and that being in relationship isn't an easy thing. It felt good to have done that.

This is a new development for me and yes it's great, but I find it hard to trust my feelings about someone.

My question is this, Mary - how can adults manage to have an intimate relationship when feelings of fear/revulsion/anxiety/shutting down get triggered each time I try?

Mary replies: Well done on all the work you have done on yourself over the years after a very difficult start in life. As you probably are aware, there are three stages in the therapeutic process. First comes the exploration where you delve back into your family history and look at the story of your life so far. With this exploration comes the next stage, which is understanding. You begin to understand why things are as they are with you right now because of what went on in your past. When this understanding is reached, it is time to move onto the action stage, where you try to change things so that you will be different in the future.

You have reached a very good understanding about your life, so two thirds of the work is done. Clients always find the action stage in therapy to be the the most difficult one, so you are not alone. People tend to keep things as they are, even though they are unhappy, rather than effect change. However, you took the very scary step of telling the man you recently met that you find relationships difficult and that was a huge step forward for you. If this relationship continues, you will find that little by little you will be able to share more of your story with him, as your confidence and trust grows. If the relationship doesn't continue, you will find that the next time you meet somebody it will be less frightening for you to do so, and gradually you will be taking action to ensure change. Please hang in there and continue to take small steps on your journey to a different self. You may also find it helpful to have one or two more sessions with your therapist so you can look at your progress - he or she will know you very well after all the time you had together, and so will be able to catch up very quickly. You are doing so well and I wish you much happiness - you deserve it.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting www.dearmary.ie or email her at dearmary@independent.ie or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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