Caroline West-Meads: ‘Self-esteem issues are holding me back’

ask caroline

Q. I have looked after my two sons by myself since my wonderful wife died suddenly six years ago. It is really taking its toll. My eldest is 24 and has autism as well as other learning difficulties and we have frequent rows. My youngest son is 21 and, although easy-going, does nothing to help around the house. I did meet someone else, and even almost got married – but she ended the relationship because her family told her that she would be ‘stuck with a handicapped child’ if anything happened to me. It rather showed her true colours and I was actually quite relieved – it was a ‘comfortable’ relationship but I didn’t love her. Should I even bother trying to find another partner, given my baggage? When I looked at an online site, the spectacle of all those faces, like a cattle market, made my heart sink. Plus, I have issues about my looks. When I was younger, I wasn’t Brad Pitt but I wasn’t Quasimodo either. Then, after I married (I was punching way above my weight with my wife, she was stunning), a few pounds crept on. While I’ve got rid of them now, all I see in the mirror is a fat-faced fool. I even enquired about cosmetic surgery, but the surgeon told me I should get counselling instead as I wasn’t bad looking at all. I have no confidence in myself though and don’t even know if I’m up for online dating. I’m very old-school and hate everything about computers and the internet.

A. I am glad that the cosmetic surgeon you consulted was clearly a responsible one and didn’t want to just take your money. He is right: you do need counselling and not surgery, as you may have some traits of body dysmorphia – a mental health condition where you imagine flaws or defects in your appearance that no one else sees. You also sound quite depressed – not surprisingly, given all that you’ve been through. If you can address this through counselling and possibly antidepressants, you will hopefully start to feel more confident. Remember that most of us can find fault with our appearance when we look in the mirror, but this is not how others see us. They see us in animation: how we laugh; how we can be funny and interesting; warm, kind and clever. There must have been plenty about you that attracted your wife, and I’m sure you still have those qualities. The problem is you can’t see them at the moment. I think you are better off out of your last relationship but this doesn’t mean you have to give up on finding someone new. It can be a huge challenge caring for an autistic adult child so I hope that you are in contact with charities such as or the National Autistic Society (, and it would also help to join support groups. I am so sorry about the death of your adored wife, and I hope that happier times are ahead for you.

‘Should I tell him to leave her for me?’

Q. I’ve become close to one of the friends of my late partner. He’s a lot older than me. Unfortunately, he’s in a relationship (albeit a reluctant and celibate one) with an overbearing woman. I want to be with this man, as I hate them going on holidays together and never get to see him at weekends or bank holidays. Should I issue an ultimatum or look elsewhere?

A. I am really sorry to hear about the death of your partner. But it doesn’t sound as if this new relationship is making you happy – and I think you may have fallen into it because of grief and needing a shoulder to cry on. I wonder if this relationship is worth the few crumbs of attention you get, while he spends his quality time with someone else. Are you familiar with the Whitney Houston song ‘Saving All My Love For You’? It captures the pain and loneliness of being the ‘other’ woman – ‘a few stolen moments is all that we share’. You say he is reluctant to be with this woman, but perhaps there is a good reason why he stays, such as not wanting to cause a rift with his children. I’m also sceptical about his claim that it is a celibate relationship and, I’m sorry to say, it may be something he has told you in order to keep you interested. Unfortunately, married men sometimes do that. Ultimatums rarely work because people don’t respond well to being pressured. If you think you have a future together, you need to ask whether he feels the same and, if so, what is holding him back. Tell him to be completely honest as you don’t need to be hurt by him too.