Wednesday 24 January 2018

Dear Mary: 'My long-distance boyfriend has a new girl and I have wasted a couple of years on him'

Illustration: Tom Halliday
Illustration: Tom Halliday

Mary O'Conor

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

Question: I was seeing a guy for about six months and he was transferred a long way away from where I live. He said that he wasn't really the sort for long-distance relationships but that he would be back and we would be together.  We exchanged occasional texts, nothing more, and I  dated some other people but nothing was like it had been with him.  

After about nine months I suggested that we give the long-distance thing a go, and he said OK. But it didn't last very long as he was unhappy with us being so far away from each other. He said he loved me to bits and told me once again that he would be back for me when the time was right. I even suggested that I would apply for a transfer also, but he didn't seem too keen on that, so I dropped it.

Then, a few days ago, I got the shock of my life. Through a really bizarre set of circumstances I have discovered that he has a girlfriend where he is now based, has had her for some time, and it seems to be serious. He has brought her to a wedding and she has met lots of his friends.

They are even going on a short holiday together. I am totally broken and feel such a fool. I have effectively wasted a couple of years on him, and also made myself far too available for him, only to have it all go wrong. Should I email him and explain that I have found out about his girlfriend, or should I just ignore the whole thing and never contact him again? I don't want to look any more pathetic than I must do already to him. I can't believe that I offered to try to move to be with him when all the time he was probably trying to figure out how to give me the elbow.

Mary replies: What you are going through now is very difficult at lots of different levels, but one of the main things you are experiencing is a feeling of being made to look stupid. Try not to be too hard on yourself. He said on two separate occasions that he would be back for you, so he was obviously keeping his options open even though this new girl was already in his life. He should have done the honourable thing and let you know, but instead you had to find out in whatever way you did.

How would you feel about emailing him, wishing himself and his new girlfriend the very best? I think it would be very freeing for you and would give you a lot of dignity.

There is nothing to be gained by accusing him of not telling you - he will know that he should have done so if he has any sense of what is right and wrong.

You can, of course, ignore the issue as you suggest, but I just feel that for you there would be far more closure if you were the one to formally end it. You can then move forward with your life and in time perhaps meet somebody else who will hopefully be more honest with you.

How do you deal with a bully in the family?

Question: Could you please give some advice on how to deal with a bullying and manipulative sibling? I am sure that this is a problem in lots of families. The old Chinese proverb of 'keeping your enemies close to you' comes to mind, but I am not sure that it works. However, for the sake of peace and not wanting to be isolated within the family, it is often the only option.

Denial is another option, where the sibling being bullied overcompensates with blind loyalty and commitment to the bully. Something that starts in childhood can last a lifetime, and of course it may not be obvious to all members of the family that there is a bully in their midst.

Seeking approval from the bully is a huge mistake, I feel, as the more you do to please them the less respect they have for you. The sibling being bullied is nearly always younger but I have seen a case where it is the older sibling who is bullied.

A bully within a family can do an awful lot of damage and your advice on how to deal with it would be greatly appreciated. I am not the one being bullied, but have suffered indirectly.

I read your column every week and find it wonderful.

Mary replies: Thank you for your very kind comments. The subject of bullying in its various forms comes up very frequently in the letters I receive. Many people have experienced bullying as a child, or have discovered that their own child is being bullied at school. We are all aware of how devastating online bullying can be. I have heard in my counselling room of quite extensive bullying in the workplace, and now you write of bullying in the home. But in all its different forms, at the heart of it is the bully, who not alone bothers the person he is bullying but also those around the victim, such as yourself. (I'm going to refer to the bully as 'he' as I don't want to constantly write 'he or she' but am very aware that there are also quite arrogant female bullies.)

You haven't given me any details of the particular circumstances of the bullying in your own household, so I will have to give some general thoughts on the subject of bullying and you can extract what is appropriate for your own and your siblings' situation.

There is nothing that can be said in defence of bullies. They are nasty people, although they can put themselves across as being genuinely caring and thoughtful. A bully looks for attention and tries to make himself feel important. When he picks on somebody it makes him feel powerful, and he likes that feeling. Sometimes bullies come from a family where there was a lot of anger, shouting and name calling and so they think this is normal behaviour. But it is the quiet, subtle bully who is the ugliest of all, as he makes his victim feel that they are somehow to blame for whatever it is they think they are doing wrong, even though in their hearts they know it is not. Bullies often have psychological issues relating to control which is at the heart of their bullying.

So what can be done? The person being bullied needs to take somebody into their confidence - either a family member, a colleague or a trusted friend. This makes the bullying much more real - and more important, believed by another person. It is somewhat simplistic to advise the victim to confront the bully, but it is the only thing that works, and if the victim can have somebody with them to witness the confrontation, so much the better.

If confronted in the right way, the bully will move on to try to control somebody else, but the confrontation has to be handled with care. It has to be rehearsed and different replies by the bully envisaged in order to be successful. For instance he may say that the victim is imagining it, or that they are talking rubbish. So answers to these accusations have to be prepared in order to feel secure. During the confrontation it is important to avoid displays of emotion. The bully knows how to get a reaction from people and how to evoke a desired response, and although he will have no sympathy if his victim becomes emotional, he will be happy to have caused that emotion. So being quite factual with him is much better.

In dealing with problems in a relationship, I usually advise people to begin sentences with 'I feel' but in the case of a bully it is much better to use 'I believe' and then go on to explain why his behaviour is so wrong. Suggest ways that his behaviour can be changed and then try to get an undertaking that this will happen. The bully is at his happiest when he is getting an emotional reaction from people - not calm, problem-solving responses that show that the bullied person is, in fact, taking control. Don't forget, he is the one who wants to be in control.

It is also a very good idea to look him directly in the eye, thereby once more taking control. The victim should try to envision the bullying as a thing that they are now handing back to the bully, and that can be very empowering for them.

If, in future, he tries once again to bully, the victim can hold his hands up as if physically stopping the behaviour and refer to the previous conversation. In effect, the victim is saying he won't take any more bullying and it is time for him to move on.

I hope all of this will be of some help in dealing with the problem in your family.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at 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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