Caroline West-Meads: ‘I feel suffocated by my marriage’

Ask Caroline

Q. I am a man aged 70 and am thinking of leaving my wife. We have three wonderful kids – two sons who work overseas and a married daughter who lives near us. We also have many lovely friends who all enjoy socialising, but whom my wife is reluctant to see. The problem is, I want more from life. I have not had a sexual relationship with my wife for more than 20 years. Though her desire for sex has never been great, we no longer even cuddle or kiss – and there is no affection. I’ve just given up trying, and we’ve become more like bickering brother and sister. Lockdown was perfect for my wife as she has no wish to venture outside her comfortable home and close family – so didn’t need to make excuses not to meet our friends. During that time, she was totally content to look after our young granddaughter, who we both adore, as much as possible. For several years, my wife and I have not gone on holiday because she does not like travelling, whereas I love seeing new places. I crave affection, to have passionate sex, to be happy and smile again. My wife is a very caring woman but I need so much more. Because I know she needs me to be there for her, I feel so trapped and fear hurting her if I were to leave the marriage. I no longer have any romantic thoughts for her and I know that she has none for me. I have suggested counselling, but my wife refuses to go.

A. I am so sorry to hear this. I understand your fear of hurting your wife and of ending a marriage after many years. On the other hand, you have been unhappy for a long time – and while 70 is not young, it is also not ancient. So you have to ask yourself whether you really want to continue like this. You say that your wife has never had a great deal of interest in sex. When sex disappears, the affection goes with it – often because a woman (or man) fears that any physical contact will lead to sex. Your wife’s dislike of socialising could have its roots in anxiety, and she may have a degree of agoraphobia (fear of crowds or social situations). She could also have some autistic spectrum traits, which may have always been there but gone unnoticed. Social anxiety is a pointer, as is difficulty displaying or receiving affection. It’s impossible to say for sure without more knowledge of you both. It’s also important to know if you have contributed to the difficulties in the marriage. What is clear, though, is that you can’t go on like this. I strongly advise you to seek counselling to help decide whether to try to work things out or to leave. Ideally, you would have marriage counselling with your wife, but if she refuses, tell her you will go alone. Explain that by not going, she is saying that she doesn’t want to make the marriage better. Try relate.org.uk, cosrt.org.uk, bacp.co.uk or counselling-directory.org.uk.

‘I’m worried about his mental health’

Q. I recently received a happy birthday text from my ex. His message added: ‘I’m glad you are happy now and finally have the relationship you always wanted, which I clearly couldn’t give you. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.’ I thanked him and asked if he really was OK, but I haven’t heard anything from him since. I’m feeling really shaken by it. We had a very bad ending after six years together. I loved him as a person, but I had fallen out of love with him. He was distraught when I ended it and I felt terrible hurting him. A few months later, I met the man I am with now – and have never been happier. But I still feel really bad for my ex. Friends tell me that he is not doing well at all. Should I contact him?

A. Without knowing him or you, it’s difficult to say whether you should take your ex’s message at face value or dismiss it as being a little bitter. My instinct leans towards the latter – especially the ‘don’t worry about me’ which sounds passive aggressive. Break-ups are really hard. Even though you are happy now, it’s normal to still care about your ex. Unfortunately, when one person has outgrown the other and wants to move on, hurt is often unavoidable and sympathy from mutual friends seems only to focus on the one being left. Sadly, in this case you can’t be the person to help him – it might give him false hope and prolong his grieving process. He is clearly still angry and upset, so ask friends who you trust to keep an eye on him and steer him towards counselling or his GP. Maybe in a few years you can be friends – but this would be too difficult for him now.