The marriage break-up: 'Doubt, panic and loneliness'

 

THE PROBLEM:James (45) was married for 15 years but his relationship “ground to a halt” last year. He has three children with his wife, and over the past few years, the strain of debt, unemployment, illness, depression, loss of intimacy “and probably hope” caused friction, and ultimately the break-up.

He believes he “may or may not be” addicted to the “first rush of love” and admits that he “seeks solutions in the arms and beds of strangers”. He says he “loves women, needs intimacy, needs to make love”. He wonders whether he is afraid of being completely alone.

“People lose themselves in alcohol, work or hobbies . . . I like sex. I regard it as healthy and normal. Other men my age like golf, GAA, the company of other men, football trips. I don’t. I am a loner who prefers the company of intelligent women. However I seem to attract damaged goods, women who have been abused or beaten by parents . . . I wonder why this is?”

James is currently living with a “very supportive” relative and chasing work all over the country while he waits to find permanent accommodation. “The day we moved from the family home I started crying and I have found it very hard to stop,” he says. He is lonely and misses being part of a family. On a positive note, the couple has managed to salvage a friendship from the relationship which feels “genuine, if fragile”. He says the children are happy although his eldest child is confused slightly by the new living arrangements.

He would appreciate advice on how to deal with the “doubt, panic and loneliness” caused by his situation and on how to handle his desire to rush straight into other relationships. “I am a very good father and my ex is a very good mother. I guess we are trying to figure out how to be friends after all these years, but I think we will manage. We are both selfless, and we love our kids too much to make a mess of it,” he says.

James is a daily meditator which he says helps. He has also been in “talk therapy” most of his life, or at least when he could afford it. He comes from a family of therapists and mental-health professionals, a background that has made him “somewhat cynical” when it comes to professionals who offer counsel. He is healthy, fit and says he has retained his sense of humour despite his personal circumstances.

THE ADVICE

The marriage and family therapist

Owen Connolly

I have met men like James many times in my counselling centre. I always ask the questions “As a young boy, were you a sensitive, cautious child. Did you have a close relationship with your mother? Was your father an important person in your life?”

The influence of a mother is to make the perfect prince, but the fther’s role can often be to prepare him for being a king.

If that has not been part of James’s experience, he might be stuck in the prince state, expecting to give himself over to the woman, expecting her to be responsible for his happiness. James comes across to me as an adult child, physically and intellectually grown-up but emotionally still a child.

James, you may present yourself as confident, good-humoured and charming, but underneath you may still be the sensitive cautious young boy wanting to be minded. You are likely to be attracted to strong women with that in mind, but when she shows her needs, thinking that this confident man will empathise and understand, the prince does not know how to cope and considers that it is a sign of weakness on her part. Hence your commentary on women being “damaged goods”. Often, women who have been hurt in childhood will present themselves as strong and confident just as you appear to do. Trauma of any kind can or may be responsible for this condition. You’ll find that a small number of sessions with a good trauma specialist would do a lot more for you than a year of talk therapy and meditation. I can understand your cynicism towards counsellors given your family background. Those who are close to you and well meaning are not always the best people to go to for advice.

I would have confidence in your fathering role as you are likely to give to your children what may have been missing in your own childhood. Make the most of being able to jointly parent the children. As a sensitive man under the outward confident one, you are aware of the significance of having their intimacy needs met. You know the importance of the unconditional love that can only come from a parent. They need to be comforted and encouraged so their confidence can be built on a foundation of truth.

They need to know that they are priceless, special and loved, just as you are, but may not believe it.

* Owen Connolly is a consultant psychologist and marriage and family therapist in private practice in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. See counsellor.ie

The Career Coach

Jane Downes

James, I need to say straight out that perhaps the single most important part of my job as a career coach is to know the difference between coaching and counselling. It would be unprofessional – and presumptuous – of me to offer you advice on your issues around sex, intimacy and relationships. Not that I don’t sympathise hugely with you on account of your struggles in these areas, just that I need to be careful not to overstep the ethical mark here.

That said, the career coach in me cannot help but notice the key role played in your story by work- and finance-related difficulties.

Debt and unemployment are no joke at the best of times. To have struggled with both at a time of relationship breakdown must have been positively hellish. And now, to be chasing scraps of work up and down the country while trying to get your head around a personal landscape that has altered almost beyond recognition – well, I wouldn’t wish that kind of pressure on my worst enemy. You must feel like your head is going to explode.

Now I cannot speak directly to your heartbreaking family situation, nor to your feelings of isolation and inadequacy. But I can urge you not to allow these problems to block your problem-solving ability in the career and financial area. You need to split up “I’m lonely and broke”, into two sentences: “I’m lonely. I’m broke.” Otherwise you risk being overwhelmed by a generalised feeling of helplessness. And my hunch is that you’re not going to be in a safe enough place to really face up to the “lonely” bit until you’ve addressed the “broke” bit. When we’re living hand-to-mouth, as so many people in Ireland currently are, the world feels like a horribly Darwinian place. It’s very hard to let go into gentleness, intimacy, trust and love when you can hear the wolf scratching at the door.

So all this energy you’ve been so understandably investing in feelings of sorrow and anxiety – you need to re-channel it into the task of designing a compelling future for yourself on the career front. Like a lot of 45-year-olds, you probably feel ancient in career terms. But you’re not. It’s still all to play for, believe me.

As a first step towards moving from crisis management to vocational renewal, I would like you to make an appointment with me at your earliest convenience for a free career coaching session. Let’s see if we can’t turn this thing around.

* Jane Downes is the owner of Clearview Coaching Group and author of The Career Book- Help for the Restless Realist. See clearviewcoachgroup.com

The psychologist

Allison Keating

You have had a very difficult time, James. Life has taken it toll with debt, unemployment and your break-up. These life events cause a lot of stress, strain, and have a major impact on our reserves of hope, which unfortunately often leads to a sense of helplessness and isolation.

Perhaps this is why you crave the initial passionate intimacy but real whole-hearted living means that to truly connect with someone you need to share your vulnerabilities. This is real intimacy – to allow the other person to see the real you.

It is interesting and yet somewhat unfortunate that it seems that you are looking for the passion and yet vulnerability in the women you are seeking comfort from. If you are not sharing about your own vulnerability then it still leaves you disconnected. You may feel in control, but ultimately it must feel lonely.

You say that you crave intimacy, and yet I wonder do you really understand what intimacy is? One part of intimacy is the sexual and passionate aspect, but another side is the ability to form an attachment whereby you feel connected and cared for by the other person.

The delicate balance to feel securely attached is to be able to maintain interdependence, feel connected and that you belong to the relationship.

You say that you have been in talk therapy most of your life. Perhaps you need to find a more solutions-focused approach that allows you to look at the psycho dynamics of your relationships past and present.

Psychological insight through therapy allows you to see into your patterns that are not working for you. To allow you to have a perceivable gap between it happening again and to have the foresight to recognise your reaction to certain life events before it is too late.

The core of this is what is going on for you? There is a lot of personal conflict. You say that you love women, but can you really connect emotionally in a dual-functioning and emotionally satisfying manner? Even though it sounds like you are in great pain, rather than rush into the next “fix”, ask yourself the questions “what do you need?” and “what do you want?”.

If you experience some sexual impulsiveness it might be worth engaging in the process of examining what emotions you are trying to recapture in sexual experiences?

Best of luck, and I hope that you venture on this inner journey of self-discovery and perhaps this could be done in a supportive, empathic and effective therapeutic setting.

* Allison Keating is a registered psychologist and the director of the BWell Clinic in Malahide, Co Dublin. See bwell.ie

The relationship counsellor

Lisa O’Hara

There are many reasons why people have affairs but usually at the root of them is fear, hurt and/or anger: fear that if you let yourself get too close to someone, you will become too vulnerable; hurt because you somehow feel rejected or unloved; and anger because your partner cannot or will not meet your needs. Sex does provide an element of comfort and relief when we are distressed. It can help us to feel connected to another and not entirely alone. It is also the most intense expression of physical intimacy between a couple and an important form of communication because when they feel physically close, they are often at their most open with each other.

When a person hasn’t learned to handle their more difficult feelings, they are more likely to engage in destructive behaviours such as drinking, drugs or infidelity in order to numb those feelings.

Unfortunately, this can affect relationships adversely as anxiety becomes their constant companion. It removes the trust that is the bedrock of a relationship and crucial to the survival of that relationship through difficult times.

James is now left with some of the feelings that may have driven him to have an affair in the first place, and it is important that he addresses these as honestly as he can; otherwise he will be led by these feelings to seek a new relationship, rather than a desire to be with someone because he actually likes, respects and values them.

As he is into meditation practices, a particularly helpful way to gently explore his feelings might to be to try a “focusing” meditation, which he can do on his own, or by finding a focusing therapist who can help him get started (see focusingireland.org).

He will continue to have a co-parenting relationship with his ex-wife and he recognises the importance of this for his family. Many people get caught up in their own pain not realising that the children are struggling inside, even if they seem okay. It’s important to reinforce the fact that they are still a family, even if the couple are no longer together.

* Lisa O’Hara is a therapist with counselling agency Relationships Ireland (formerly the Marriage and Relationship Counselling Services). See relationshipsireland.com

James's reaction

“Owen you have NOT met many men like me. You lost me (briefly) with that generalisation. Moreover, the ‘prince’ and ‘king’ stuff is for my four-year-old. However, kudos for perceiving that I am and will be a good father. I do not require a trauma specialist but some of the women I’ve met do. I take your point about ‘strong’ women hiding under masks. I perceive a committed practitioner, and a degree of (hippy) wisdom. Thanks.

“I like Jane’s honesty. And when I move into my own space I will call. Interesting and enormously revealing that she was the only one to offer her services free.”

“Allison was well-intended but vaguely off-putting due to her baseless presumption that I do not know how to ‘connect’. I was married for 15 years and faithful for 14, despite my ex having a debilitating illness.

“Lisa’s response highlights the pitfalls of this experiment. It really is hard without a face-to-face meeting. Again, however, there is an almost Patrician attitude to sex and f***ing. That said, I perceive an experienced practitioner; as she correctly points out, my children are, and must remain, the focus. I could talk to this (seemingly wise) woman relatively easily, but have more pressing things to spend my money on: feeding my kids. However, thanks.

Tips for all: coping with separation

This is a significant loss in your life even if you wanted it to end. The grief feelings that come up with the loss can be overwhelming, even though they are quite natural. If you feel stuck it might be time to consider getting professional help, such as counselling.

Choose your confidantes wisely. You may be upset and not know what to do next. A wise person will know that you need to be heard without necessarily taking sides or having the answers, unless they are an expert in the area.

Try to find out as much information as you can about how the separation might affect you, your family and your resources. Write down a list of things you want to know more about so that if you are going to a professional, you are well prepared.

It is an upsetting time for all the family, and children are struggling to adjust to a new structure. Routines may be cast aside, but it is precisely at this time that as much structure and orderas possible are maintained for everyone’s sake. It gives you a rock to hang onto when you’re all feeling at sea.

Be realisticabout the time it takes to move on from separation. It is often much longer than you could ever imagine.

– Lisa O’Hare

When a relationship ends: Surviving the emotional rollercoaster of separation,by Lisa O’Hara will be published by Orpen Press in October


Do you have any advice for James? Send it to fixyourlife@irishtimes.com