Caroline West-Meads: ‘How can I ever forgive myself?’

ask caroline

Q. I am a 55-year-old man and have been married to my beautiful wife for nearly 35 years. We’ve been together even longer – since we were 16 – and I absolutely adore her, our children and grandchildren. But I am ashamed of a terrible mistake I made not long after my mother died: I had a short affair. I now can’t stand the woman with whom I had the fling. It was a decision that was totally out of character for me, because I am, by inclination, a quiet person. I feel embarrassed and know that I’ve caused my wife and children a lot of hurt. I am so lucky to still have them, but even though years have passed, we are all still suffering. I have been to counselling but I still can’t understand why I did it and I feel so guilty.

A. I am so sorry to hear that you are still suffering so much over this. Yes, it sounds as though you made a very unfortunate mistake, but you need to forgive yourself now and I think understanding why the affair happened is the key. Grief can do very strange things to us, and I suspect this is why you acted out of character. The death of a parent can be overwhelming. Not only do we desperately miss that very important person in our life, but it can also put us in touch with our own mortality and make us horribly aware that our time is limited. This can lead to questions such as, ‘What have I done with my life? Is this all there is?’ which are the type of midlife crisis feelings that sometimes make men buy sports cars, or inappropriate cycling gear, or, indeed, have affairs. In your case, I think these feelings were coupled with the fact that you had so little relationship experience which, sadly, might have made you feel trapped – even though you adore your wife. While the idea of being with only one person for life is lovely in theory, in practice, it doesn’t often work – and we tend to need to experience other relationships before we choose a permanent partner. As to why you had an affair with a woman you now can’t stand, I expect that she was simply the opposite of your wife and, because your thoughts were distorted by grief, this seemed briefly and erroneously attractive. At least your dislike of her now means that you are never likely to be tempted by her again. I hope understanding this will help you to start to forgive yourself – and maybe allow your wife to do so too. Of course, it must have been incredibly painful and distressing for her, but you are clearly genuinely remorseful. I hope that perhaps if you show her my reply, it will help her to understand that your affair happened because of things being wrong in your head, not because there was anything wrong with her, or that you no longer loved or fancied her (which is usually how people feel when their partner strays). Hopefully this will also help her to heal and move on.

‘I don’t want my son to move so far away’

Q. My son met a lovely Canadian woman on his gap year. She moved to England to study so they were able to carry on their relationship through university, and they married a couple of years after they finished. However, she now wants to live near her family, so they are planning to return to Canada. I am a single mother, with no other relatives. I was very close to my parents, who passed away recently and I don’t think I can face another loss. I know he’s only moving, but he and I have always been very close, and he’s been my biggest support after the death of my parents. I understand why they want to move back, but I’m devastated. How do I cope with this?

A. This is absolutely agonising for you. As parents, perhaps one of the things we want most
for our children is for them to have a loving, caring partner, but it is so hard when that relationship takes them far away. I get the feeling that you have perhaps been quite lonely for a while – it sounds as though you didn’t have particularly close friends to turn to when your parents died and you don’t have a partner. I wonder if you have spent so much energy raising your son that you have neglected yourself. So you need to start living more for you. It must be quite an agonising decision for your son too and I’m sure he is worried about you. So ask your son and his wife to help you find ways to take up new hobbies and build friendships – and to start dating again. You could perhaps even take the brave step of making this new life in Canada with them. Visit to investigate this.