Sunday 22 April 2018

Dear Mary: 'My husband's in care and my old flame wants to meet up with me'

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: When I married my husband, it was a second marriage for both of us, and we each had grown-up children. Even though my friends were happy for me to have found somebody new, after a fairly divisive divorce, I got the feeling that they thought it was all a bit rushed.   I was also dating somebody else at the time I met the man who was to become my husband, but the guy I was dating was in the middle of a break-up (nothing to do with me) so even though I really liked him,  I stopped seeing him once it became serious with my now husband.  I am a good deal younger than my husband - I don't want to give too many details in case this is published. Anyway we had a number of happy years together before I began to notice that things were not as they should be. To cut a long story short, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's which gradually became so bad that it got to the point where I had to have him taken into care, as I felt like I was heading for a nervous breakdown. I had to watch him every minute of the day as he would go walkabout without knowing where he was going, or indeed who he was. Everybody thought it would have been very difficult for me when he went into care, but in fact I only felt relief and had a feeling that I was getting my life back.

I had kept in touch with the other man through Facebook, as we message occasionally, and he is currently single. Although he knows what the story is regarding my husband, he has been suggesting that we meet up. I am really tempted, but at the same time I realise that I'm married and shouldn't be going out on a date with somebody else. But my husband doesn't even recognise me when I visit him, which I do every couple of days. So part of me says that it's OK to date and another part of me says that it's not. What do you think I should do?

I haven't said anything to any of my girlfriends or my family about this. I live alone and have a fairly full life with various activities like swimming, but of course I get lonely, particularly at night and at weekends. My children are good to me but I don't see them very often, and I don't expect to because they have their own lives to lead.

Mary replies: This is a side of Alzheimer's that we rarely hear about. The person that you knew and loved is no longer there, although physically he is. As a result, life is changed utterly and will never return to the way it was. You became his carer before it became too much for you, and it is totally understandable that you didn't feel able to cope. So even though you are still married to him you don't have a husband who is a partner and able to care for you.

So what happens to the partner of an Alzheimer's patient, particularly when there is a large age gap, such as yours? Are you entitled to another chance of happiness? People are living far longer, and certainly those with Alzheimer's often live long lives. But you have to protect yourself and part of this protection is ensuring that you are able to continue to function well and not feel overwhelmed by loneliness.

Everybody has to make their own choices in life, and then stand by them. As your 'old flame' knows the situation regarding your husband, he is obviously quite happy for you to rekindle your relationship. If you do start seeing him you will have to be prepared to have some support and some condemnation, because that's how people are. Some people will think you are perfectly entitled to have somebody in your life while others will insist that while you are married you have no right to another relationship.

You obviously have concerns, otherwise you wouldn't be writing to me. Are those concerns to do with what other people will think, or are they moral or religious ones? If they are about other people's judgement of you, for instance your children, then consider what it would be like for you if they do not approve and you risk losing their friendship. If it is a moral or religious issue, then you should seek the advice of somebody whose views you respect, or your pastor/priest if it is a religious problem. Also you should ask yourself what your husband would say if he were able to think for himself and understood the situation. He probably would have your best interests at heart and give you his blessing. So go with what feels right for you and that should make you happy.

You would certainly benefit from reading The Long Goodbye by Barry Petersen, in which he tells of his struggle when his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in her mid 50s. It might help you feel not quite so alone in the situation in which you find yourself. You are no doubt aware of the wonderful work done by the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, which you could also contact for support.

I keep hoping we will be together again

Question: I'm writing because I can't get over a girl I was in a relationship with for many years. She is a very strong personality and I'm not, and so she made all the decisions, and I have to say I was happy to go along with them.  During our time together, she finished the relationship a number of times and then always wanted me back after a few months, and I willingly agreed. When college finished, we had to face the real world and she was successful in getting a job in another city, even though it was not very well paid.  After a few months we agreed that I would follow her there and try to get a job as well, and that is what I did.

But then the bombshell came. When I got there she said that she just wanted us to be friends and there would be nothing romantic between us. I should say that sexually there had been nothing between us for the last two years but I was prepared to go along with this in order to stay with her.

I got a job that doesn't pay very well either, and am trying to build up my contacts so that I might be able to get a better one. I go out with her to the pub and for coffee and to music gigs that we both enjoy, but I go home alone to my pretty crappy bedsit.

I know you will probably say that I should cut loose totally, but I can't imagine a life without her. We have been through a lot of difficult times together, including the death of my mother and my friend couldn't have been more supportive, and it made me love her all the more.

I'm tall and I've been told I'm good-looking, although I can't really see that, and this was, or is, my first serious relationship.

Mary replies: My mother, who was a rock of sense, used to say that there was nothing as dead as a dead love, and I think this is very applicable in your situation. Your friend obviously likes having you around and is happy to have you as company to go out with but it's all on her terms. She is never going to go back to you two being lovers, and as soon as she meets somebody else you will not even be invited to join her, so you had better get to work on making your own friends and making your own life. She is using you, and that is not good. She is also stopping you from meeting other girls, because no girl is going to step in and chat you up when she sees that you are with somebody else, no matter how good-looking you are.

It's all very well to be friends, but as long as you are around her you are going to keep hoping that things will change. So it is imperative that you wean yourself away from her and stop being in her company altogether. You sound like a pair of comfortable shoes that she wears - reliable and unexciting - and if what I say makes you mad then I'm happy. It might push you to get on with your life - a life that doesn't include her. And if you are not successful in getting a better job in a couple of months then give very serious consideration to moving to a different city. It would be much better for you where there is no chance of you running into her.

If it were your best friend you were writing to me about you would be seeing things differently, so try to see your situation as I do and be totally unbiased. You will quickly see the futility of your situation and realise that you deserve better. Move on and you will have a better quality of life.  

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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