Friday 23 March 2018

Dear Mary: My marriage is on shifting sand

Illsutraton: Tom Halliday
Illsutraton: Tom Halliday

Mary O'Connor

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

Question: I have been married for almost 20 years - happily, I thought - but like all couples we had ups and downs.   We had a couple of redundancies, three miscarriages in a year, my husband's parents died within months of each other - and all this happened within about five years.    I always felt he had never properly grieved for his parents but he said he'd deal with it in his own way - which as far as I could see was to ignore it. When our second child was born, we remortgaged so that I could job share (I'm the main earner) and this we did for some time. I then returned to work full-time and my husband was adamant he was going to do the majority of the work with house and kids. He is a bit OCD over the house, and rants about cleaning up and doing things properly. I just wish he could relax more.

I go to work very early - I'm gone by 7.15 each morning - so the school runs etc all fell to him. I thought things were going fine until last year when we were doing some housework at the weekend. A fight broke out and he went mental, saying he was fed up with doing it all and that we were driving each other mad and perhaps we should just call it a day and each find someone else who would make us happy.

I had no idea that these thoughts had been in his head, and it was obvious that he had been thinking long and hard about all of this. I was so shocked I can't really remember what followed, but I knew we kind of smoothed things over though I was left feeling very unsettled. My mum, who was elderly, hadn't been in great health and I brought her to the doctor. It turned out she had terminal cancer and sadly a few months later she died. Everything went from bad to worse and my whole world just fell apart.

I had been abused as a child, and though it wasn't by a relative, it became an issue again during my mother's illness and it ended up that nobody in the family was talking to me. I told my husband about it only five years ago and I thought he handled it well. Anyway, we got through all the family problems somehow but I felt things had changed between my husband and myself yet couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. If I cried he left the room, and when I told him how I felt he said 'you're looking at the wrong man' and walked away. Not once did he ask how I was.

In many ways, he was very dependent on Mum, because he would ring her and she would only love to come over and mind the children and it gave him a chance to go to the gym. He doesn't have any friends as such, and his only hobby was the gym. It was as if he could do all the practical things but don't ask about the emotional side. I could cry only with friends in their houses or in the shower.

Then, over Christmas, things just went barmy. He hadn't been to a gym in five months. He couldn't even look me in the eye. He avoided all contact, no touching or hugging, it was like he was allergic to me, but strangely, sex was never an issue. He started going into the playroom, not interacting with anybody just watching Netflix all the time. No talking or communicating, he was just like a lodger rather than a husband and father. He absolutely adores and idolises his children and is, beyond doubt, a fabulous father. But he was getting tetchy with them and very much so with me. If I asked a question he shouted at me and got aggressive - so much so that the eldest girl asked if we were getting divorced. On New Year's Day, it came to a head and he said that he couldn't take it any more. He said he was so fed up of us always fighting that he had been looking at houses to rent close by. I said he was throwing away 20 years without trying to save it and if he had made up his mind then he could spend the night elsewhere, because he wasn't sleeping with me. All of a sudden his attitude changed, and he said both of us had been to blame and we would try. I asked could we have counselling, but he absolutely refused, saying if we couldn't do it ourselves then no one could.

Since then, I have been living on a knife- edge, always checking to see what his humour is and asking how I can help to take the pressure off him. I'm doing as much shopping as I can to ease his load, but he does most of the cooking during the week.

He just won't talk to me, and I've never felt so lonely in my life. If I ask, he just says things are better and why am I picking at things, I'll just rip it apart. I feel like I'm on sand that is constantly shifting and I'm going out of my mind. I'm going mad with confusion, hurt, stress and anxiety. I can't sleep and can't eat. I went for some therapy and counselling, and that helped a little, but I feel overwhelmed. How can a man that I knew and loved so much have changed into someone I don't Mary replies: I tried to edit your letter as much as possible while still allowing readers to understand all the turmoil you have been going through. At the core of things is your husband's unhappiness, and how he is relating to you. It strikes me that there been a huge amount of loss in his life and he is foundering a bit as he tries to cope. He lost his job, his parents, his unborn children, and more recently, his mother-in-law to whom he seems to have been quite close. That is an awful lot of loss, and if his coping mechanism is to internalise everything then there is a lot of it going on, with an occasional overload which results in him letting fly at you or the children. So this is what has to be addressed before there is any hope of your relationship improving. He also may be somewhat depressed, so I think that the best place for you to start would be to encourage him to visit his GP. If he refuses ,you will have to insist that with something as serious as this you need outside intervention.

The result of his behaviour means that you are left feeling not only lonely, but unloved. I'm sure you found writing to me therapeutic, and I suggest that you also write to your husband letting him know how you feel. Don't blame him, but tell him, like you told me, how much you miss him and how much you value what you used to have together. He doesn't seem to want to communicate with you, but he will read your letter and hopefully understand the knock-on effect that his unhappiness has on you.

Something needs to happen to help you get back to the stage of liking your husband again, because, right now, I get no feeling of a couple pulling together as a unit. As he doesn't seem to want to make any changes, or discuss things, it is up to you to be proactive. I realise that as you are out of the home much more than he is, you are probably very happy to stay in at night, and I'm also aware that baby-sitting could be an issue, but it may well benefit you both if you were to get out together - even to go to the cinema.

Think back to what you used to do together that was fun and you may come up with some other ideas. Friends sometimes babysit for each other so there is no money involved, and you might be able to work this out with your girlfriends.

You went to a centre for some counselling and I'm sure it was a great help to speak with somebody. However, if in time you go for relationship counselling, when your husband is feeling more able to cope, then be sure to go to seek professional help. All accredited counsellors are registered with the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy at 01-2303536 or The abuse that you suffered at a young age will also be covered in counselling and I do hope that things improve for you.

My ex and I are both marrying and I feel jealous

I got with my ex-boyfriend many years ago - I was 19, things were absolutely fantastic for both of us and we were in love. I made a mistake and cheated, because  by that time I already had a wandering eye and mind. He found out what happened and left me a few years ago. Now I'm engaged to be married, and I feel gutted and very much regret my mistakes.  I just can't forgive myself. He also is getting married and I feel jealous and scared.  Please advise me what I should do.

Mary replies: I understand that English is not your mother tongue, so I hope I fully understood your email. You are worried about the 'what-ifs' - what if you had continued with your ex, what if you had been faithful, what if your marriage doesn't work out, what if your ex loves his fiancee more than he loved you.

All of this worry is pointless, so instead look into your heart. Do you love your fiance enough to marry him and make him happy? Do you look forward to spending, hopefully, the rest of your life with him?

You were very young when you were with your ex, and very often as people mature, their tastes change, and what they found attractive is no longer the case.

So perhaps even if you had not cheated on him you may not have remained together. When you are satisfied that at this moment in time you are very happy to marry your fiance then only look ahead and stop looking back. There is nothing to be gained and you will make yourself miserable.

If, however, you feel that your fiance is not really the one for you, then call off the wedding. It would be fairer to both of you no matter how unhappy it will make him and indeed yourself.

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.

Sunday Indo Living

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life