Caroline West-Meads: His anxiety nearly ruined our marriage

Caroline West-Meads
Chris O’Donovan

Q. My husband and I are in our early 60s and it is a second marriage for us both. He suffers from chronic anxiety and has done so for most of his life. For a long time, he refused to get help or to recognise that it was a problem for me as well as him and it put a terrible strain on our marriage. It is very draining living with someone who is constantly anxious. It has sometimes made it difficult to see friends. Any changes to our routine were often met with panic. More than once, I was on the point of leaving him. Eventually, he agreed to get help, but after a lengthy period of working through personal traumas with a psychologist, he still struggled with anxious feelings. Recently, though, it appeared that there is a strong likelihood he is on the autism spectrum. He is now awaiting formal diagnosis, which could take up to 18 months. Of course, this condition was much less recognised when he was young. We were told that anxiety often masks autism, which in my husband’s case has proved difficult to uncover even with professional help. Since learning of this we have made several changes to the way we live and things are constantly improving. It is difficult when someone is unwilling to help themselves and I am writing because I hope that our story will encourage other readers to get professional help rather than struggling on and perhaps risking a marriage.

A. Thank you so much for your letter and your desire to help others. This cannot have been easy for either of you over the years and it says a lot that you have managed to stay together. Autism can indeed go hand in hand with extreme anxiety. It is a wide and often misunderstood spectrum. The stereotype that people with autism or Asperger’s are without empathy simply isn’t the case. Often they can feel overwhelmed by other people’s problems and social injustices and internalise these, which makes the anxiety worse. One aspect can be rather rigid thinking, which can be hard. They can struggle to ‘read’ other people and think they are being blamed or criticised when they are not and then get defensive or upset. Sometimes, people on the spectrum can find it difficult to express love or might not recognise when their partner is upset and needs comforting. Sadly, because of this, it can be difficult to make friends or maintain relationships though when they do they are often extremely kind and loyal. Social anxiety is often a huge problem and large social gatherings may be something they dread. But, as you say, help is available. He may be able to get a quicker diagnosis if you are able to go privately. In the meantime, try reading The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood or Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults by Dr Luke Beardon. You can also contact autism.org.uk for advice and support.

Why has sex become such an issue?

Q. I’m a man in my early 40s and, though I’ve had a couple of long-term relationships, I’d been single for three years after my last one ended badly. She often used to compare me to her former boyfriend and told me he had been better in bed. This rankled and sex became unsatisfactory as either I couldn’t get an erection or I ejaculated too quickly. I now realise how nasty she was, but I’ve had a couple of one-night stands since and the same happened (though the women were nicer about it). Recently, however, I met someone online who I really like and we’ve been chatting a lot. She wants to meet but I worry that eventually she will want to have sex. I’d like that too, but I fear that the same will happen and I will lose her.

A. It is not you who was bad in bed, but your ex who lacked the tenderness and sensitivity to make it the loving, exciting experience it should be. Her unkindness has left you with performance anxiety. However, do not despair: many men go through periods of not being able to get an erection or premature ejaculation; this is normal and can usually be resolved. As this woman sounds so lovely, when you have met her a few times and feel as though you can trust her, confide in her your fears. It may well be that with her love and support, sex becomes joyful again. If not, you could try ‘sensate focus’ together, which is a series of touching exercises aimed at increasing sensual pleasure in each other and gradually build up intimacy and trust until sex becomes natural, relaxed and fun. Sex therapy could also help (try contacting relate.org.uk or cosrt.org.uk).