Zelda West-Meads: The woman who healed a generation

YOU’s relationships expert Zelda West-Meads has supported readers through their toughest times for almost three decades. As she announces her retirement and hands over to her daughter, trained counsellor Caroline, they tell Anna Moore how the column has shaped their lives.

Zelda and Caroline West-Meads
Zelda and daughter Caroline today. Image: Chris O’Donovan

When Zelda West-Meads was offered an agony column with YOU, she was told it might run for three or four weeks. No one was sure how readers would respond or how many might write in for advice. That first page ran in October 1994 – and the readers’ problems were not so different to the ones we see now. There was a woman racked with guilt after a brief affair while her husband worked away. Another was juggling two men and couldn’t decide which one to marry. Then there was someone whose husband had brought friends home after a late-night drinking session and shared a ‘sex video’ he’d made of his wife.

Zelda quickly distinguished herself with her practical advice but also her insight and deeper digging. What made this woman have the affair – was she bored? Worried that her husband was also unfaithful during his frequent business trips? And why was this other woman juggling two men? She was still young; maybe a better option would be to build a more fulfilling life alone before committing to a partner. To the wife whose husband had shared the video: was this unloving behaviour evident in their day-to-day life? Are there rifts beneath the surface?

Her unwavering advice and inability to be shocked ensured Zelda’s page was a must-read week after week, and for 26 years she has remained a stalwart of this magazine. For nearly three decades the letters – and now emails – have kept coming, with the most common issues being infidelity, sexless marriages, stepchildren, ‘blended families’, the strains of looking after elderly parents and addiction to internet porn.

Zelda West-Meads
In her role as spokeswoman for Relate Zelda was called on to discuss Henry VIII’s marital problems, Hampton Court Palace, 1991. Image: The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images/Terry Smith

‘They sometimes keep me awake at night,’ Zelda tells me, talking on Zoom from her Surrey home, ‘because it’s so important to not make mistakes.’ Occasionally, readers have written in when they are suicidal. Zelda has always answered these letters immediately and personally, and made sure that the writers have been supported. ‘I’ve had letters years later which say, “Thank you. You stopped me from taking my own life and things are different now,”’ says Zelda. How does that feel? Her eyes well up. ‘It’s just wonderful,’ she says. ‘And it’s lovely of them to tell me.’

It’s an emotional day. Sitting beside Zelda is her daughter Caroline, who lives close by. They’re giving this interview to announce that Zelda is stepping down as YOU’s iconic resident therapist and handing the role to Caroline, who is also a trained counsellor. In some ways it won’t be such a change – Caroline has been in the background helping out for the past 15 years and the two are exceptionally close.

Zelda launched her counselling career when Caroline was five years old. ‘When she started school, I thought, “What career do I want?”’ says Zelda. Her own education had been patchy and difficult; her father was a naval officer so the family moved around the world with Zelda attending seven schools in ten years. She was also severely dyslexic. At 15, Zelda left school to teach English and history in Hong Kong before returning to the UK to join the Lucie Clayton School of Modelling (whose alumni include Jean Shrimpton, Celia Hammond and Joanna Lumley). At five foot eight, willowy and blessed with incredible bone structure, it was an obvious route – or, as Zelda saw it, ‘an interesting short-term career’. After marrying at 21 and having son Tim then Caroline, she began training as a therapist at 29.

Zelda and Caroline West-Meads
Zelda with four-year-old Caroline

For Zelda, who is now in her late 70s, it was the perfect career choice. ‘I like listening to people,’ she says, ‘more than I want people to listen to me! When I was growing up, a lot of friends would ask me for advice. When people tell me about a problem, I have always, quite automatically, been able to work out why it might have happened. I made those connections very easily.’

Zelda can still recall her first client, a man in his 50s who arrived with a piece of paper. ‘He said, “This is a list of all my wife’s faults, and she will be coming to see you next week so that you can sort them out,”’ Zelda recalls. ‘I smiled and said, “OK, and will she be bringing me a list of your faults?”’ After this, they talked for an hour. The next week, the couple arrived together and started to learn to communicate for the first time in years.

Her reputation grew fast and Zelda soon hosted a problem phone-in on a local radio show. Then, at 36, she was asked to become press officer and spokeswoman for Relate which, at that time, was a little-known charity called the National Marriage Guidance Council. This was the late 1970s when counselling carried a stigma, but Zelda was determined to change this. When news stories broke about a public divorce or a high-profile affair, Zelda would be approached by the press for comment and insight. She also secured Princess Diana as Relate’s patron. In many ways, she put counselling on the map in the UK.

Zelda West-Meads
Counselling a couple for Relate, 1991. Image: The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images/Terry Smith

All the qualities that made Zelda so good at her job helped to make her an exceptional mother too. ‘I’ve never seen my mother lose her temper,’ says Caroline, ‘which I think is just remarkable. I’ve always felt able to talk to her – in fact, it was impossible to hide anything. She’d say, “What’s the matter?” “I’m fine!” “No, you’re not..!”’

Zelda’s openness and straight-talking shaped every aspect of her parenting. ‘I remember very clearly being told about sex, relationships and the importance of how the two should go together – something which I think is fundamental to happiness – from the age of about four,’ says Caroline. ‘My mother knew it was important for children to know these things early so that they grew up with healthy relationship models.’

Caroline clearly took it on board because, at the age of ten, she became concerned that her classmates were largely ignorant of such matters. ‘I told them all about how babies were made and corrected some of their misapprehensions,’ says Caroline. ‘A few days later, the headmistress of my all-girls’ school rang to tell my mother that I was giving the class sex education and relationship lessons. My mother replied, “Oh, good. I don’t suppose many of their parents will talk to them about sex. Caroline is very well informed and will have told them all correctly – it will be very useful for them.” My headmistress was rather stunned and could only mutter, “Er, yes… well… thank you Mrs West-Meads…”’

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Caroline followed in her mother’s footsteps. ‘I was interested in her work from a very early age,’ she says. ‘I’d always want to know about what people were thinking and feeling. I’d often be asked for advice by my friends and sometimes I’d think, “I don’t know what to do about that,” so I’d go home to ask the expert!’ Caroline’s friends – and those of her brother – would also turn to Zelda directly. ‘Our mother always had an open house when we were growing up and our friends would talk to her because they knew they could rely on her total lack of judgment and criticism,’ continues Caroline. ‘She has always been incredibly gentle and patient, and would listen to me whenever I was upset.’

Zelda and Caroline West-Meads
On holiday in Majorca, 2009

Caroline attributes her own happy marriage and ‘lovely husband’ partly to Zelda’s parenting. ‘I can spot kindness from a thousand paces and it has always been my priority to seek it out,’ she says. Caroline’s career started in journalism, first as a local newspaper reporter, moving into magazines as a sub editor before leaving work to become a mother – her daughters are now 19 and 21. And she used these journalistic skills to help edit Zelda’s column. ‘My dyslexia meant that Caroline was checking them over,’ says Zelda. When Caroline decided to retrain as a counsellor, Zelda couldn’t have been more delighted. ‘Firstly, it’s flattering,’ she says, ‘but more importantly, I thought she’d be very good as we’ve talked about relationships so much. Caroline has always been aware of people’s problems and how to help them. She’s amazing – better than me! I thought she was destined to do this.’

Over the years both mother and daughter have run into the same challenges that are sometimes experienced by YOU readers. Zelda divorced when Caroline was 18, a difficult and painful time for all of them, though Zelda and her ex-husband have got on well for many years now. Caroline, 54, is very much part of the sandwich generation. ‘My youngest daughter has just started university and, in this pandemic, it is horrible for young people at what should be such an exciting time in their lives,’ she says. ‘I also find it upsetting not to be able to see or hug my father who has Parkinson’s disease.’

Caroline has been exceptionally worried about her mother, too. In 2013, Zelda’s second husband of more than 30 years, Roger, had an enormous stroke following heart surgery.  Roger had enjoyed a long and successful career as a journalist and home affairs correspondent. ‘He was a very intelligent man but the stroke left him brain damaged,’ says Zelda. ‘There’s virtually nothing he can do for himself and he often doesn’t know who I am. I look after him as his carer. it’s a 24-hour job.

‘The past seven years have been difficult,’ Zelda continues, ‘but I’ve had so much help from Caroline. She supports me in every way. I’m desperately sad to be relinquishing my role as YOU’s relationships counsellor but I’m delighted that Caroline is taking it on.’

Zelda and Caroline West-Meads
‘I’ve learnt a lot from my training and my clients, but I’ve learnt even more from my mother,’ says Caroline. Image: Chris O’Donovan

Caroline is confident that the column will continue much as Zelda has left it. ‘I’ve learnt a lot from my counselling training and my clients, but I’ve learnt an awful lot more from my mother,’ she says. ‘Counselling can be painful because you’re sitting with people who are sometimes traumatised, but it’s also deeply rewarding. It’s an enormous privilege because you can change lives.

‘It’s the same with the column – my mother has had so many emails over the years to say how much she has helped people. I hope I will be able to do that too,’ says Caroline. then she turns to her mother, grins and says, ‘I hope you will still read the column and that you will agree with my advice. It will still be your advice really because that’s how I’ve learnt it all. So if you don’t like it, you’ll only have yourself to blame!’

Zelda’s first ever column for YOU

Zelda West-Meads's first column for YOU Magazine
Zelda’s first column for YOU, 16 October 1994

In her debut column in October 1994, Zelda answered a reader’s problem about his blended family. It’s a subject that is as pertinent now as it was 26 years ago, and one that Zelda says comes up time and time again. Zelda explains: ‘Unfortunately, when people divorce or separate, sometimes they are so bitter and angry that they can end up using the children as weapons and trying to turn them against their ex, but it’s so selfish. My advice today would be very similar to my answer below.’

My ex is turning my family against me

Q: Eight years ago I went through a long and financially ruinous divorce, which left me with next to nothing. My ex-wife obtained most of the proceeds from our house, plus hefty maintenance and an order for me to pay private school fees for my two sons. I remarried several years ago and have two stepchildren. My ex-wife resents them and my new wife, she is always rude to them. I am now facing redundancy and won’t be able to continue to pay the school fees at their current level. When I informed my ex-wife she told my sons, ‘Your stupid father is going to throw you out of school.’ She is also making it hard for me to maintain my access visits. I am finding it impossible to cope with her vindictive behaviour.

A: Your ex-wife sounds as if she is still riddled with anger and jealousy and wants to destroy your new marriage as well as undermine your relationship with your children. Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour, where couples continue to fight out unresolved conflicts after a divorce, is all too common. Money and access are the most frequently used weapons. You need to show your ex that she cannot win by coming between you and your second wife. Always talk everything through with your second wife. You must also talk to your children and assure them that you love them. Do not run your ex-wife down to them, tempting as this might be, because that pulls them in two directions. Explain about being made redundant, and how this is going to affect them. Listen to what they feel and discuss with them what they would like and what is possible. Keep contact with your ex to the minimum. Your only discussions should be about the children.

Friendship and betrayal, 1995

Readers often confide in Zelda with their deepest secrets, as this troubled 20-something did in 1995. Affairs are one of the most common issues but this letter is particularly shocking. Zelda explains: ‘It is such a betrayal when someone finds out that they have been cheated on and the other person is close to them, such as a best friend. Though it is those people who we are likely to spend time with and so may develop feelings for.’ Caroline adds: ‘It is interesting that Zelda has realised that this lapse of judgment may have been fuelled by the unconscious motives of being desperate for a baby.’

I’m pregnant by my brother-in-law

Q: I am 26 and pregnant with my brother-in-law’s baby. It happened at a party when we were both drunk. Ireally regret having sex with him, but I just can’t bring myself to tell my husband. I don’t want an abortion, because my husband refuses to have sex with me and I want a baby. My brother-in-law does not know that I’m pregnant.

A: It sounds as though you are sitting on a timebomb. It’s going to become obvious that you are pregnant, and if your husband has been refusing to have sex with you he is going to know it’s not his baby. so, unless you have an abortion, you are going to have to tell him. An uncomfortable question: are you so desperate to have a baby that anyone’s will do? Was that perhaps your motivation when you got drunk and had sex? Many women who become pregnant by someone other than their husband never admit it, but in your situation you don’t have that choice. And as the marriage sounds as if it is in a vulnerable state, this pregnancy could be the final straw. Your husband is hardly likely to want someone else’s baby when he doesn’t appear to want his own. If you decide to go it alone you should tell your brother-in-law, for you will need financial support. and what about the baby’s future? Are you never going to tell your child who his or her father is? I don’t think you have much option but to tell your husband the truth then decide what is best for you as a couple and for the baby, if you have it. You can’t make a decision on the basis of a letter so please seek counselling.

Trauma and abuse, 2002

Occasionally, some of the letters Zelda receives involve particularly traumatic events and the writer may need immediate help. ‘This is the kind of letter that can be very hard to respond to in print because it is a complex problem and a short reply can only skim the surface,’ explains Zelda. ‘It can also be concerning because you know that they need more help, but often people are frightened of seeking it. In fact, this woman is almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and I would have also written a longer personal reply to her urging her to get therapy and ideally a referral to a psychiatrist as soon as possible.’

I can’t believe that he really wants to be with me

Q: My first husband abused me physically, mentally and sexually. At the age of 40 he died of a heart attack. For the past 14 years I have been with a lovely man who has been good to me and to the children. But when I start to relax with him I get scared and scream and shout terrible things then tell him to leave. A few months ago he started an affair. When I discovered it, he left to be with her, saying he felt I didn’t want him. He returned a week later saying he loved me and it had all been a mistake. Now I fear he only returned because she didn’t want him, but he swears that he came back because he wants to be with me. Can I believe him?

A: This man has tried to love you for 14 years, despite the way you have treated him. It is not surprising that in the end he looked for comfort elsewhere. He soon realised his mistake and came back because he loves you. Your dreadful experience with your first marriage is in danger of destroying what you have with this man. You are afraid to get too close to him in case he leaves you, so you keep testing his love by behaving badly. It is important now he is back that you don’t revert to this self-destructive behaviour. You need some professional help to change this and work on your self-esteem. Try to check yourself when you feel you are going on the attack and remember that you have a man who really loves you. For counselling, write to the British Association for Counselling (now at bacp.co.uk).

The sexless marriage, 2011

This is a problem that has remained constant in 26 years of columns – usually men writing to say that their wives have gone off sex, but sometimes also the other way round. Zelda explains that these letters can be particularly tricky to answer. ‘You have to ask the writer if their spouse has stopped fancying them, which can be painful to contemplate. Mostly it’s because the emotional connection in the relationship has broken down. If this can be fixed, often the sex life improves with it.’

She’s too tired to make love

Q: I love my wife of 25 years dearly and we have three lovely grown-up children. But for the past seven years she has lost in interest in sex and won’t discuss it. She is either too tired or just doesn’t feel like it, so I have resorted to internet porn sites. What can I do?

A: It is difficult enough if your partner loses interest in sex but harder still if they refuse to discuss it, as that takes away the chance to sort it out. If someone is just going through the motions or having sex because they are afraid their partner will leave, that is totally soul-destroying. Resorting to internet porn sites, though understandable, is not the answer. It is still a betrayal of love and trust. You could try approaching your wife with specific questions. Is she depressed? Has all desire for sex died? She could be going through the menopause, in which case she could consider hormone treatment. Is she unhappy with the relationship? Does she no longer fancy you? I suggest that she sees her GP and you both consider sex therapy with Relate (relate.org.uk) to see if this can be resolved.

Smartphones and sexting, 2011

By 2011 it’s clear to see the impact of smartphones and the internet on readers’ problems, as sexting and addiction to porn become common dilemmas. Reading it today, Caroline says, ‘The internet has given rise to lots of “emotional affairs” where no physical contact has taken place but which nevertheless are just as hurtful. I can almost hear readers screaming “leave him!” and, indeed, this may well be the best option. Most women would be pretty upset by this and might not be able to forgive – but people can sometimes change if they can learn to understand why they behave badly.’

He’s been sex texting other women

Q: My boyfriend of four years has always treated me wonderfully well and we have a phenomenal sex life. He is the love of my life. At first I felt unable to be the kind of girlfriend I knew I could be, as I was going through a tumultuous divorce. Then I discovered that he had been sending sexual texts to a colleague. The flirtation wasn’t physical and he told her he loved me. Unfortunately I found out that she was the latest in a long line of virtual sex-buddies, who all seemed keen to send him nude pictures. When I confronted him he said he had been craving the kind of adoration he had experienced in previous relationships. He promised he wouldn’t do it again, but then I found more texts and he admitted he had a problem. He has now stopped and wants us to get married. He is good-looking and women  everywhere flirt with him. I saw my mother struggling with my father’s infidelities and have no desire for history to repeat itself.

A: He sounds like a man who uses his looks, charm and seductive manner to get what he wants. Maybe he was the centre of attention for his mother and could do no wrong. Alternatively, perhaps he felt that his mother did not love him so now he has to make every woman he knows fall in love with him. The fact that women respond makes him feel desired. It sounds like an addiction, and he needs help to see if he can kick the habit before you consider marriage. Get him to contact the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (cosrt.org.uk).

Caroline’s new column will start next week. If you have a problem you would like Caroline to help with, email c.west-meads@mailonsunday.co.uk.

Additional reporting: Charlotte Vossen