Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column
Question: My siblings and I find ourselves in unknown territory with some serious concerns for the welfare of our parents. Our parents are married for 40 years. My father began to accuse my mother of infidelity over two years ago. He did have some reason to be concerned, as our mother had developed a strong emotional friendship with a mutual male friend of theirs. It all blew up a few years ago and resulted in our father punching this man. Our mother is adamant there was never any sexual relationship. Our father is adamant there was. He can offer no proof or evidence to support his claim, except for some vague comments that don't add up to much. This man still goes to places they go, but the closeness Mum had with him is gone.
Our mother has always avoided conflict in her life. She does not shout, she does not get involved in arguments, she never really gave out to us growing up, she gained our respect and co-operation as children by showing respect to us as individuals and as humans. She remains this way now. She has always put her children's needs first - she has worked outside the home as well as in the home to provide for her family, and she still does. She never complained, she always put a positive note on everything. She has held our family together and is the centre of all we do.
Our father was always quick to anger, and not very positive. He knew no better from his own upbringing, and we don't judge him for this. He may also have suffered with a mild depression while unemployed when we were young, but didn't seek treatment.
My concern is that my father now blames my mother for his heart attack a year ago, telling her "it's your fault I had this". He checks up on her phone and iPad and questions her about where she goes. She has found him hiding behind doors trying to spy on her. His jealous behaviour seems to be increasing. He firmly believes she had a sexual relationship with this man over two years ago and wants her to admit it.
She has done all she can to try to convince him she didn't, and it seems to work for a time, but in reality it keeps coming back. Our father puts this obsessional jealous behaviour to the back of his mind for days, weeks or even months at a time, but then he comes out with it again and treats my mother in a very intimidating, bullying way.
None of the children believes she had the sexual affair. It hasn't been easy living with our father and his moods and financial difficulties over the years. She says she wants to separate when things get bad, and I think she should if that's what she wants. I feel it's her decision and she can't be expected to remain in a marriage with this level of abuse directed towards her.
I think my dad has developed a mental problem and needs help. He denies this. I think my mum is too scared to break up the family so she tolerates the abuse. They are unwilling to consider counselling. As their children, how can we best support both of them? Please help.
Mary replies: I think it is wonderful that you as children care so much about what is going on between your parents. At the very centre of your family unit is your mother, and everything seems to radiate from her. So naturally, when her happiness is threatened, you feel the need to protect her and yet you feel allegiance with your father also as you ask how best to support them both.
I wonder if your father was always a jealous type, or if it all started with your mother's friendship with this man. Jealousy is a hugely difficult emotion to deal with when one is on the receiving end of it, as it can quickly become irrational and out of control. Your father may well have felt jealous of the close bond she had formed with this man, and it really doesn't matter whether or not she had a sexual relationship with him.
Sometimes emotional intimacy, which is what you say she had, can be even more threatening than sexual intimacy. After all, you can have sex with a stranger and have a good time physically but not get at all close, whereas witnessing emotional intimacy between a spouse and another person can be devastating. So whether she did or didn't have sex with this man, your father must have felt excluded and jealous. No doubt she had very good reasons for establishing this relationship - perhaps he was able to give her something that your father could not - but what we are looking at now is the results of all this. Of course, punching the man was not the solution, and I'm sure your mother was mortified as a result.
Ultimately, your mother will decide what she wants to do, and research shows that women leave a relationship simply because they cannot tolerate it anymore, whereas men usually leave for another woman.
I think that as adult children your best solution is to speak with them both separately, and voice your concerns for the well-being of the marriage. Explain to your mother that whatever she decides to do will have your full support. As she is non-confrontational, you should encourage her to stand up for herself more and to take on the bully and explain that bullies almost always retreat when challenged.
You should, however, bear in mind that there is always the possibility that there was some sort of physical activity between herself and this man - perhaps just a kiss or a hug - and she may be feeling guilty as a result.
When you speak to your father, tell him that two years is quite long enough to punish your mother for whatever she did, real or imagined, and explain to him that he is, in fact, damaging the relationship even further by continuing to bring the subject up. He should be made aware that your mother is seriously considering leaving him, and ask him to think this through, with all its ramifications both emotionally and financially. Discuss with him what it would be like living in a small apartment on his own, as that might be all that he could afford in a separation. Suggest that he calls one of you and rants on when he is unhappy, instead of always criticising your mother. Use the word 'bully' when discussing how he treats your mother and see how he responds.
He may be quite surprised to be seen as one, and it may help him reconsider. Don't forget that he feels that he is the one that has been hard done by, not your mother. After you have done all of this, there is little more that you as children can do, other than keeping a watchful eye on them both.
Question: A few months ago, my closest girlfriend told me that she and her husband are separating, and ultimately divorcing. Among other problems they had, he cheated on her with a colleague. I told her that I am always there for her, and if she needs me at any time I can take a day off work to be with her or do anything else that she needs. We live quite a distance away from each other and we both work full-time, but we used to speak almost every night on the phone or else text each other. But since she told me I've been trying to get her to give me a time when we can meet, and she keeps putting me off. I'm aware that she is quite alone - they had no children - and may be depressed as she is prone to depression at the best of times. At the same time I don't want to keep bothering her if she doesn't want to see me, but I keep worrying about her. Texts and phone messages go unanswered and I don't know what to do.
Mary replies: Your letter proves how very special girlfriends are, and how lucky we all are to have them. You are doing all the right things - keeping in touch and offering to be there for her, and when she is ready, she will call. She has a lot on her plate at the moment, and probably feels overwhelmed with it all, especially as it is so recent. She has had to cope with her husband's unfaithfulness, and also everybody knowing her business, as well as the huge change in her life that living on her own involves, and she is probably taking time to process that as well as working every day.
You should continue to send chatty texts, send her a bunch of flowers to let her know you are thinking of her, and when she is ready, she will get in touch.
You could try inviting your girlfriend to a small gathering in your home, letting her know well in advance, and offering for her to stay with you overnight if that would be possible for you. Make it at a weekend because almost everybody who becomes single says that the weekends are the hardest.
We are very much a couple-centred society, and people often tell me that when they lose a partner, for whatever reason, they find going alone to parties or social events like weddings extremely difficult. A recently separated woman said to me that it would have been almost easier if her spouse had died, because then she would have received a certain amount of sympathy. Instead, she was seen as a threat by other women when she appeared at functions on her own, and the invitations that had been very much a part of her life as a couple had suddenly dried up.
Perhaps we should all take stock of how we treat our single friends who are not single by choice.
You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting www.dearmary.ie or email her at email@example.com 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