Breaking Point

New study shows 18% of married or cohabiting couples are in distressed relationships

girl sitting on kitchen floor picking up pieces of a broken plate.

A distressed relationship is defined as a relationship where issues and disagreements are severe leading to clinically significant negative impact on wellbeing. Couples in distressed relationships said they regularly considered separation or divorce, quarrelled, regretted being in their relationship and felt unhappy together. This level of relationship distress also increases the risk of health problems as research shows clear links between relationship distress and depression, anxiety**, increased blood pressure and heightened risk of heart attacks***.

The research also highlighted families with children under-16 as the group most likely to be affected by relationship distress with 22% of parents of under-16s reporting a severe level of relationship distress, that’s 1.4 million UK families****.

We’re concerned that these poor quality relationships are pushing couples, especially families, to breaking point. Many families are struggling to access the support they need. While counselling can help people find a way out of relationship crisis the cost is stopping families from getting the help they need. As Relate counsellor, Arabella Russell, explains:

“Through my work I see countless couples in distressed relationships. The distress comes in the disconnection and it’s a very painful place to be. Often the couples I see are arguing constantly with pressures such as jobs, finances and childcare putting their relationships under real strain. The impact this can have on the family is huge. Counselling can help couples to reconnect but the cost can be a deterrent to some.”

We believe families shouldn’t be prevented from getting the help they need because they can’t afford it. If you would like to make a donation to help subsidise vital services to support families whose relationships and finances are under intense pressure please contact Relate MK on 01908 310010 or email appointment@relatemk.org

Watch our video about families at Breaking Point

*Levels of relationship distress were estimated by analysing data from the Understanding Society survey. The most recent data were released November 2015, and the data were analysed over March-April 2016. The sample of people in relationships (married or cohabiting) was 20,980. Relationships were characterised as ‘distressed’ or ‘non-distressed’ by calculating respondents’ answers to questions from a scientifically validated scale to measure relationship quality and the severity of relationship problems. For further information on the methodology, please see the research report.

**Whisman M. (2001) The association between depression and marital distress. In Beach, S. ‘Marital and Family Processes in Depression: A Scientific Foundation for Clinical Practice‘. Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 3-24 8

Conger, R. D., & Elder Jr, G. H. (1994) Families in troubled times: The Iowa youth and families project. Families in troubled times: Adapting to change in rural America, 3-19

***3 Holt-Lunstad J., Birmingham, W., and Jones, B. (2008) Is there something unique about marriage? The relative impact of marital status, relationship quality, and network social support on ambulatory blood pressure and mental health. Ann Behav Med., 35(2), 239-44; Grewen, K., Girdler, S., and Light, K. (2005) Relationship quality: effects on ambulatory blood pressure and negative affect in a biracial sample of men and women. Clinical Methods and Pathophysiology 10(3), 117- 124; Orth-Gomer, L., Wamala, S., Horsten, M., Schenck-Gustafsson, K., Schneiderman, N. and Mittelman, M. (2000) Marital stress worsens prognosis in women with coronary heart disease: The Stockholm Female Coronary Risk Study. Journal of the American Medical Association, 284, 3008-3014 4 Coyne, J., Rohrbaugh, M., Shoham, V., Sonnega, J.

****We follow the ONS definition of ‘families’ in the Families and Households statistical bulletins: ‘A family is a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent with at least one child.’

Fostering a teenager

Fostering a teenager is one of the most rewarding and challenging roles you may ever take on.

As with looking after teenagers under any other circumstance, it can come with its own challenges, but these are usually more than outweighed by the benefits—both to the teenager and to the foster carer.

Who can become a foster carer?

It can help if you’ve got some prior experience working with young people, perhaps as a teacher, nurse or through working within the youth support system. This is one of the things that your local fostering agency will want to know about when you apply—but a lack of experience shouldn’t stop you from thinking about applying.

Otherwise, there are a variety of skills and qualities that would be useful. These include being able to listen, having a good sense of humour, an ability to work well with other professionals (you’ll be supported by a range of people, from social services to the teenager’s teachers), patience and being a caring, empathic person.

You may also want to consider things like your general health, your financial security (you don’t have to be well off to foster and, depending on your circumstances, you may be eligible for benefits, but as a rule of thumb, you will need to be able to support yourself and the teenager in your care). It’s also helpful to think about whether your home is safe for a young person and what kind of support your friends and family might be able to provide.

What can I expect from fostering?

A foster parent has to fulfil most of the roles a parent usually would. You’ll provide for your teen’s general needs such as making sure they’ve got enough clothes and are healthy and well fed, help them with their education, and listen to them when they need support. As well as this you will need to provide them with a consistent, loving family environment and, of course, most fostered teenagers will have had a difficult start to life so may require extra support and stability.

You’ll also be doing things like liaising with support services and their teachers and helping to facilitate contact with their family, which (depending on the situation) might be once or twice a week.

What kinds of challenges can it involve?

Specific to fostering, you may have to negotiate differences in expectations in behaviour between your home and your teenagers’ family home or their previous foster home. They may not be used to the way you do things, so you’ll need to be clear about what the rules of your house are and the kinds of behaviours that are and aren’t ok. You may need to be flexible about some of the rules that you would usually have in place (or phase them in as the young person settles into your home) and you may need to talk about issues like access to mobile phones, alcohol, drugs and sex.

If you already have children, it’s important that they’re prepared for the fostered teenager’s arrival and that they feel they can voice any concerns or issues before or during their stay. You may want to check in on them from time to time to make sure they’re getting on ok.

Otherwise, fostered teenagers are mostly like any other teenagers. They can be a handful and may be prone to the occasional bouts of moodiness, but what they really need is the love, stability and support of a good caregiver.

How can I make things easier?

Children in foster care have often come from very difficult situations, often involving parents with problems related to drugs or alcohol, physical or emotional abuse, or issues surrounding mental health. Living with you may be their first positive experience of living in a family environment.

As such, the best thing you can do is be supportive and welcoming. The first 24 hours of any fostering placement can feel a little strange—for everyone involved. You may need to ‘clear the decks’, so to speak, so you can devote time to helping your teen settle in. It’s usually a good idea to give them a little space, but to let them know you’re there to help if they need it. You can break the ice by finding out their favourite food and putting it on the menu.

Be aware that it may be a little while before things feel more normal. Some teenagers will be happy to open up quickly, whereas others may need some time. If a teenager has come from a situation where they’ve had to look after themselves, they may seem quite self-sufficient—but it’s also likely they’ll need your support and care.

And don’t forget—there’s no shame in needing a little help yourself. Both you and your teenager will have social workers assigned to you. Your local fostering agency will be able to provide advice, and The Fostering Network has a helpline you can call if you’re finding things difficult.

What should I do next?

This article was written with The Fostering Network. You can find out more about fostering and find local fostering services on their website.

They need just over 9,000 foster carers this year to come forward. Teenagers are one of the groups that particularly require support, so if you think you’d be a suitable carer, please do consider it.

Addiction treatment taught me to be open – but my wife doesn’t want to talk

Ask Ammanda Gambling Addiction

Me and my wife are stranger’s in a marriage at the moment. We have been together almost two decades and have several children. I am a recovering gambling addict and have been regularly attending Gamblers’ Anonymous for the past four years.

My addiction meant I was not honest and open in our relationship. Trust is non-existent, but I accept responsibility for the pain and suffering I have caused my wife and family. We have grown apart over the last few months, lost in work routine and looking after the children. Things have come to a head now with me sleeping on the sofa as I’m not allowed in bed anymore.

My wife says I’m not making an effort but she won’t acknowledge me. I try talking to her but she’s either reading a book and won’t look at me. My addiction treatment helped me understand I need to open up and express how I feel. But when I ask if we can work things out, my wife just shrugs her shoulders and says ‘what’s the point?’ I don’t want to walk away from our marriage, especially with our children involved, but I don’t feel like she’s giving me much choice.

Ammanda says…

As you will clearly know by now, any addiction affects not only the person going through it, but their family and friends too. You don’t mention how long you were gambling, but I’m assuming it was quite a while. While you’ve sought help and are making progress by accessing ongoing support via GA, the legacy for your wife (and quite possibly your boys) may be that she’s struggling to believe the change you’ve made will last. Coupled with this, the damage that any addiction causes within a family is usually huge. Family members often have to distance themselves from the person who is addicted to keep themselves emotionally (and sometimes physically) safe. Of course, I don’t know if this has been your wife’s experience, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an element of this in how she’s feeling now.

I’m curious about the fact that you highlight the last few months as being especially tricky. I’m wondering what the first three years of your recovery were like for both of you – whether it was better or worse than what’s happening now. Whatever’s the case, I’m sure you’ve all faced a very hard journey.

I understand you’ve been encouraged to open up and share your feelings with your wife. However (and I’ve seen this many times in couple counselling), it may be that your wife’s asking herself why she should be listening. She may feel her concerns and anxieties about your behaviours went unheard by you for many years. It’s not uncommon for partners of addicts to feel a real sense of rage when, after having been neglected for a long time, they’re asked to ‘come on board’ and be cooperative in terms of rebuilding a relationship.

You say your wife says you’re not making an effort. I can imagine this must feel particularly difficult to bear, given the effort you must surely feel you’re making by taking charge of your recovery and trying to move on. It may be she feels you don’t really understand how hard her life was when she was on the receiving end of your addiction.

The effort of maintaining sobriety of usually exhausting – so much so that many support groups encourage the addict in question to take things as slow as possible – using the ‘one step at a time’ method in order to moving away from compulsive behaviours. But this often means that, emotionally and practically, there’s only space to take into account the needs of the addict – and family and friends take a backseat.

While we often feel we have an idea of what it’s like for other people in this kind of situation – indeed, we may feel real empathy and concern – but because we’re also separate from one another as unique human beings, there are limits to how far we can really understand one another’s experiences. It may be that your wife still feels resentful for what she went through.

I’m sure you have apologised to her and other family members. And, of course, none of us can change the past. But it’s possible she feels she’s being expected to just put the past behind her and focus on the future, regardless of whether she’s ready to do this. I also think it’s also likely that, following years of distance, she feels she can’t trust you with her feelings – and, as you’re finding out, losing trust in a marriage is very hard to overcome.

Right now, she’s clearly saying the time is not right for her to consider an emotionally positive future with you. And, although it may be hard to accept, I do have to say that the truth is she may never want to. I know that sounds harsh, but you must recognize that the damage that your behaviours may have caused may not be undoable. It may be difficult to accept, but it could be that, in this new phase of your life, a fresh start is what’s best. In order for everyone in the family to begin to recover from the effects of addiction, they need to be happy – and sometimes that does mean ending a relationship.

However, I know this might not seem like an ideal outcome. And if you think you can make your relationship work, then you should do everything you can to make this happen. You don’t mention if your wife has had any professional support. The first think I would say is I would always encourage accessing this, because the partner of an addict will always need the space to untangle themselves emotionally and mentally from what has happened – and this can be difficult to do alone.

Beyond this, I would recommend that you seek couple counselling to help you both really understand where you want the relationship to go. One of the most important things to realise is that if you do decide to stay, it’s likely to be a very long road before you both feel ready to begin talking realistically and honestly about the future. Be prepared for it to take time and focus.

I know the above may sound very stark and I imagine you might be disappointed that I can’t offer you tips on how to get your wife to talk openly with you. Perhaps in time she may want to discuss things. I don’t know. What I do know is that maintaining your recovery is of paramount importance for all of you. To do that you need to have some level of emotional wellbeing and your current situation is not providing that. This is not your wife’s fault, but a consequence of the effect of an addiction on a family – a family that continues to live with the aftermath. Your recovery is commendable and I really hope that you make the decisions that will support it, whether that’s alongside your wife or apart.

My wife’s medical condition has been pushing us apart for years

Ask Ammanda Misophonia

I have been with my wife for close to 30 years. She has misophonia (a disorder where negative emotions like anger or disgust are triggered by specific sounds). After our latest child was born, it got worse. She cannot stand my breathing, the change of rhythm of my breathing, or me touching my face. If I am near her in bed, driving, eating etc then she focuses in and gets grumpy. For years, I have slept on the sofa.

My wife takes anti-depressants. She gets two or three hours sleep a night and even less when her job is stressful. Sex is sporadic and when we do it, I feel she is going through the motions, although we have a good connection afterwards.

The other day she told me not to look at her and this has been the last straw. I cannot stop thinking about leaving but also the damage it would do to our kids. When the subject of how we live comes up, I am accused of having a dig and making her feel bad. I love my wife, but it is hard work. I would love to know what a tactile loving relationship is like. My kids think the way we live is normal. I have been waiting for years for things to get better and I believe now they are now only going to get worse. This is affecting my kids, my work and my mental health.

Ammada says…

This must be unimaginably difficult for both of you. All the usual things we do as couples, including taking care of the kids and holding down jobs, can be stressful enough at the best of times. This must be seriously exascerbated by what you’re both experiencing with misophonia. You say that your kids believe the life you and your wife live together is normal. It sounds like – both for them and for you – that is what it’s become. But clearly, you feel trapped and in a downward spiral.

Misophonia has only been a formally diagnosed condition since about 2001 and is not yet well understood in terms of overcoming the problems it creates, although certain forms of therapy are thought to help. I think you’re in the classic bind that many people find themselves in when their partner has long-term physical, mental or psychological problems. Often, the focus is on the person with the condition – with very little support and guidance for their partner. Invariably, this leads to the partner feeling isolated and unheard, but also as if they have an enormous responsibility to keep the family show on the road. And meanwhile, the thought about getting out is constantly gaining momentum.

It’s a real credit to you that you’re able to say you work well as a family and that you’ve explained the nature of the condition to your children. But I do find myself wondering how they see you and your wife’s relationship when clearly your partner finds it so difficult to be anywhere near you as a result of this condition. Perhaps you’ve been able to help your children to separate out what’s ‘mum’ and what’s the ‘condition’, although I can only imagine how determined and well-motivated you’d have to be to maintain this position all the time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any easy answers here. I’m not sure if you’re waiting for someone to give you ‘permission’ to leave – or even if you’ve already got this from somewhere – but, evidently, the pain you feel this would cause your family is something that you gives you a lot of anxiety. The fact that you would be able to manage financially must make the thought of leaving even more tantalizing, but it seems you can’t get past the guilt you’d experience if you actually went through with it.

But if I might say something that will sound a bit challenging here. Very often, the person who is experiencing the condition first-hand finds it tricky to understand that their partner is suffering too. This is because they are (understandably) so focused on just getting through the day that finding the energy to take on board someone else’s distress feels impossible. But, in the absence of any information to the contrary, I’m wondering if you’ve ever really helped her to understand your side of things.

I don’t mean responding to the latest issue – for example, her allegation that you were staring at her, but rather taking an overview and trying to have a conversation that is about giving everyone an opportunity to explain how they feel, rather than just pointing fingers. I can see you’ve slowly adapted your lifestyle to accommodate her needs, but I’m wondering if this has been something that just happened over time – perhaps without either of you really noticing – or if you both actually sat down and thought about the implications of, for example, you sleeping on the sofa.

I really would strongly encourage you to see a counsellor, perhaps in the first place on your own. I think the situation at home may be so difficult that talking with someone else will give you the space to think about your own needs with much greater clarity. The other option would be for you and your wife to attend together. I have a hypothesis that she doesn’t understand how you feel and may be upset and horrified in equal measure that you can now only think of leaving. You say you love your wife – and the care and consideration you are showing her and the children is commendable. So, although attending will not change her condition, it may help you both to hear each other in a way that means you can go on together.

Ultimately though, you have a responsibility for your own happiness too. When all’s said and done, it may be that a conversation about ending the relationship is the best way forward. But a full and honest talk about what’s been happening and how it’s made both of you feel would allow you to know whether this is the case with much more certainty – and, if you do separate, would put you, your wife and children in a much better position to adapt to a new kind of life together. Whatever the case, you don’t have to keep things as they are. It’s clearly no good for you, your wife – and most likely not great for your children either.

Caring for our mothers 24/7 is wearing away at our marriage

Ask Ammanda Caring

This week’s problem comes (with the writer’s permission) from the Carers UK online forum.

Mum has been housebound for around six years, falls a lot and short-term memory loss is beginning to kick in. She lives 35 miles away from me, and I’ve been managing it by staying with her at weekends and a couple of nights in the week. I feel that I’m mentally on call 24 hours a day because I’m worrying what’s happening if I’m not there. On top of this, my husband has practically been living at his mum’s recently, caring for her because she is 92 and struggling to cope on her own.

Over the years it has taken a huge toll on me and my husband. We’re both exhausted and sometimes get pushed to snapping at each other – something we both try to avoid. We used to go on holiday a couple of times a year but we haven’t been for years. Now, on the rare occasions we’re in the house together, all we do is talk about ‘the mothers’. We’re both so tied up with our own responsibilities that we can’t be much support to each other.

Ammanda says…

I’m sure this very difficult and exhausting situation must be familiar to lots of people. We’re all living longer and the strain this can put on families and in particular the adult children who end up doing the caring is often enormous.

It sounds like your lives are now an endless round of looking after others and as a result (and not at all surprisingly) your relationship has ended up at the bottom of the priority list. It sounds like this has been going on for a long time and has got to a point now where both you and your husband now feel isolated and lonely.

You don’t say if there are other people lending a hand, whether that might be friends, family or perhaps professional help. Some people find it very difficult to accept that they cannot do everything for an aged relative and often, feelings of love, duty, responsibility and occasionally, guilt, can mean that even when additional help is available, it’s not always taken up. Of course, with resources so often being stretched to the limit in cases like this, I acknowledge it can be very difficult to get the level of cover that might be required. But if there is help available and it’s not being taken – I urge you: take it.

With so much of your time spent caring, it must seem almost impossible to think about being a couple again. It makes sense that if we spend our lives mainly doing one thing, and in this case that’s travelling and taking care of someone else, that’s all we’re going to have to talk about. If this goes on long enough, we might eventually end up being grateful we’ve even got mothers to discuss – because we’ve forgotten what it feel like to share anything else with a partner.

I’m not going to pretend there are any easy solutions here. Even when you no longer have your mums around, it’s possible you may get left with nagging doubts that you could have done more – even though its blindingly obvious to everyone that you did everything that was humanly possible. But if you can reclaim something of your relationship, this will hopefully outlive all the current problems, so making some small changes now means you’re more likely to have each other to turn to when it’s all over.

So, what to do? Firstly, create a space in the week for each other. People often think this means going out all evening or getting stuck into some lengthy conversations that inevitably mean you’re both left feeling anxious about all the things you could be doing. You say you’re rarely in the house together, but I’m wondering if this could be differently co-ordinated so that you can, as far as possible, rely on having even half an hour to sit down together. This doesn’t have to mean talking: it could just mean sitting in silence. This might sound like an odd suggestion coming from a relationship therapist, but sometimes, when we’re out of the habit of talking, just being with each with no pressure to make conversation can be the start of laying down new couple habits. One note: often, when there’s an overarching issue (in this case mothers), that fills all possible space, you do need to make a conscious effort not to revert to old way of doing things. This means coming to an agreement that neither of you will mention anything to do with mothers in that bit of couple space you’ve created. Also, do you ever eat together? Again, just sitting and sharing a meal can be worth its weight in gold.

Secondly I would ask: do you go to bed at the same time – and, more to the point, do you feel like you’re strangers in the bedroom? I’m not necessarily talking about sex (although I am wondering what sex means now for you in your relationship). Just touching a partners arm can mean so much when energy levels are right down and you can’t see a way out.

And thirdly, please keep talking to other carers on the Carers UK online forum. What you’re going through is terribly lonely. Getting the support of people who know what it’s really like and have experience helping with this kind of situation can be bigger than the sum of its parts. For expert advice on getting help with caring, contact their Adviceline on 0808 808 7777.

I’d like to say one more thing, which may sound challenging. Eventually each of you will lose your mum. Amongst all the feelings you may have when this happens, if one of them is relief, don’t push it away. You will have done your bit. I hope if you can make some of the small changes I’ve suggested, you’ll then have each other when everything else is done – and it won’t feel like you’re looking at a stranger.

My son’s abusive behaviour is affecting my mental health

Ask Ammanda violent teenage son

My son from the age of about 16 has been verbally abusing and shouting at me. He gets so angry, he smashes things up in the house, ripping the doors from their hinges, throwing things at me.

He has always been a sensitive child and I believe he still is but he appears to have such a hatred towards me. It’s heartbreaking and I’m on verge of a breakdown. It’s making me ill. I had to give up my job last year due to anxiety.

I have brought him up alone since he was ten. His father was always working or in the pub and had a short fuse and was physically abusive towards my son. He’s been through a lot: his parents splitting up, both grandparents who he was very close to dying when he was aged 8 and 15. He dropped out of school when his 16 year old cousin was stabbed to death.

I have always tried to persuade my son to seek help but he’s not accepting of it. He rants about the past and says things are my fault. We had such a good relationship till he was about 16, when I told him he needed to get a job. Now I am too anxious to speak to him because if I say something he doesn’t like he starts an argument.

Ammanda says…

This is really concerning on so many levels. I’m sure the desperation you feel about his behaviour must be overwhelming. I’m not surprised about your work either. Having this kind of problem at home and holding down a job at the same time is almost impossible. Here you are, trying to do your best by him but finding yourself consistently thwarted – and indeed, abused – when you try to intervene to help him.

From your description, I think your son needs significant professional help. You talk a lot about his behaviour as a teenager (and I believe we should always be careful not to demonise young people for their actions growing up), but he’s an adult now, so this is in a different league. It sounds like a frightening descent into potentially very serious actions on his part – and it has to stop.

I can see from your much longer original letter that you’ve shared these problems with other professionals, but that what they’re telling you – to call the police when he gets violent – doesn’t sit well with your efforts to be a loving mum. But although the advice you’re getting from them sounds hard, they’re correct. I know this is terribly difficult to hear, let alone to bear, but until this cycle of abuse is broken, nothing is going to change.

By involving the police, you will be doing two important things. Firstly, you’ll be prioritizing your own safety. When faced with this kind of behaviour in families, many people feel they want to keep things ‘in house’ and somehow get their partner or family member to change. Unfortunately, this rarely ever works because the person who needs to address their behaviour has not yet taken full responsibility for it. As I say, he is an adult. He needs to be treated like one. This means him being expected to address his actions, rather than his mum bearing all the responsibility for trying to make things better. Given the level of anger you’re experiencing, telling him this on your own would be likely to put you at significant risk of serious harm – and I don’t recommend it – so involving the police would mean he’d be getting the right message without you risking your own safety.

Secondly, you will be showing him a boundary. You’ve told me that he always respected these when he was younger, but I want to quote back to you something else you wrote in your longer letter: ‘Obviously there is a reason I have done something at some point to make him act this way towards me’. I want you to understand that you have not made him behave like this. It’s really apparent that you’ve tried so many ways of supporting him, even when things were really difficult for you with other issues going on. Sometimes, what happens is that in our efforts to be really supportive, we stop making it clear that, beyond a certain point, we cannot tolerate any more. Involving the police will probably make him accuse you of all sorts (although that’s already happening), but it will also show him that you mean business. Again, in your longer letter you say there have been similar problems in his behaviour towards girlfriends. This is really worrying. He must start to recognize how he’s acting – both towards you and them – now falls completely under the banner of domestic violence and abuse.

I completely appreciate how difficult some of his experiences must have been growing up. But none of them excuse what is happening now. The fact is: only he can stop his actions.

In your longer letter you also mention he smokes cannabis. Obviously, there are different views out there about the effects of long term use and I’m definitely no expert on this topic, but I do wonder to what extent his smoking may be fuelling some of the behaviours. The severity of his actions also makes me wonder whether there may be mental health issues involved in all of this too – which the cannabis could be making worse.

I understand how you’re hoping that if you can get to Family Counselling, you might get the chance to understand what has happened and reclaim the son you love so much. But, although I can’t say this would definitely not be the outcome, on the balance of probabilities, I think it’s really unlikely. This is because Family Counselling requires that everyone present is able to at least listen to what the others are saying, even if they don’t agree with them, and I see no evidence of this happening in the situation you describe.

I can imagine you feel that my answer is very negative. However, I’m trying to help you see that the change needed here is a fundamental one. Because he is no longer a child, you both need to shift perspective and re- evaluate your mother/son relationship. Again, he’s adult, not a teen. You need to accept that he must address his issues himself, because, although he is hurting, he is also being highly abusive. The best thing you can do, hard though it may be, is to make connections with agencies who deal with domestic abuse. They will help you to address your own safety and give you space to process the terrible emotional pain that you understandably experience. 0808 200 247 is the Freephone number for the National Domestic Violence Helpline. Please, call them. They’ll listen and they’ll do their best to help you.

I’d like to end on a really challenging note. You may need to recognise that the continued support you keep trying to offer may well be maintaining the current status quo. Let’s be quite clear: I’m not saying you’re in any way responsible for his actions. As I’ve said, you’re not. But, sometimes the dynamic of a relationship needs to change before people realise that the way they’re behaving isn’t ok. Taking the actions that I and others have suggested may turn out to be the catalyst for you son’s shift in perspective. This is really tough love, but it’s necessary – because you cannot go on as you are.

My boyfriend’s mum made him break up with me because she thinks I’m too shy

Ask Ammanda boyfriend mum

I have recently split up from my boyfriend who I know is the one! We were perfect! We were together for 2 years. We had problems but always seemed to sort them and carry on. After two years his mother suddenly decided that she doesn’t like me and forced us to split up. She doesn’t like me just because I’m a little shy. I want the opportunity to explain why I’m shy which is because of bullying. I’ve now gained confidence but I’m not being allowed the opportunity. I feel like I’m dying inside because he’s the one but he doesn’t want to upset his mother so has ended it. I’m struggling to cope and don’t know what to do! Please help!

Ammanda says…

This is really tough. You feel like you’ve found ‘The One’, but things have gone wrong and now you’re left with the certain knowledge that if only you could explain yourself, it would all come right and you and your ex would be together again. Of course, it’s not for me to say whether getting this chance would bring you what you most want, but I’d like to invite you to step back and have a ‘bigger picture’ look at what might be going on here.

I don’t how old you are, but to a degree this might have a bearing on what’s happened. Let’s take his mum. You say she’s keeping you two apart and not listening to your explanations. You mention you’ve been bullied in the past, and I can imagine that her – and perhaps your ex-boyfriend’s – behaviour might feel similar to this. It may be reminding you of other painful experiences where it may have felt like other people were in charge of your happiness.

But if you are a very young couple (although what’s ‘young’ these days? Who knows really?) it could be that she believes she’s helping him to see this relationship isn’t right for him. As his mum, it may be her belief is that this is what mums ‘do’. Rightly or wrongly, she may think she has a wider experience of life generally and that there’s something about your relationship with her son that may not be to his advantage. I’m not saying that’s right in any way, but if we think about mums and their efforts to protect us (which they don’t always get right), this kind of thing can often be the case. Even so, it is curious that it seems she’s picked on ‘shyness’ as the reason for her concern, as I can’t see why having a partner in who is shy, for whatever reason, is necessarily something to avoided.

It all gets much more complicated if you’re of an age where he can be reasonably expected to have sufficient ‘clout’ to make up his own mind and be clear about what he wants.

I’m curious about the problems you say you’ve had as a couple. I wonder if these have been around similar issues – where you’ve felt you’ve been in competition with his mum or any other family members and you’ve argued together about who’s side he’s going to take. In some families, there are very strict ‘rules’ about who is top of the pecking order when it comes to decisions about how things should be done. Sometimes, these rules are very clear and discussed amongst family members openly, so everyone know the ropes, even if they don’t agree with them. And sometimes, they’re just lurking in the background.

Therapists often see relationships where, for example, a partner from outside the family and mum are essentially fighting over the affections of a son or daughter. This is often because of ‘unfinished’ business from way back in the past, where certain members of the family felt, for whatever reason, they weren’t properly affirmed or even loved by others. As a result, they may end up feeling like affection is in short supply – and therefore as if they’re in competition for who is getting the most. But of course, I can’t say for sure whether that’s what’s happening here.

What I do want to say is that I’m struck by the language you use in your letter, which is all about being ‘allowed’ and being ‘forced’. These are words that we might sometimes use when we feel we have no chance to decide what’s going to happen. And while it’s true that sometimes, our choices in this kind of situation are very limited (and, on occasions, not present at all), I’m not sure this is the case here.

This might be a little challenging, but I think the choice may actually be yours to let your partner know you expect more from him than this. It’s commendable you’ve gained confidence and now feel able to explain why you might have appeared shy. But, as I say, there’s nothing wrong with this and I don’t think you should feel you have to justify it. Instead, you might want to consider using your newfound confidence to make clear to your ex that you expected support from him when his mother decided you didn’t meet her requirements – not just to go along with what she had to say. You can tell him you deserve better than him simply giving up on things because she told him to.

And if he doesn’t understand, that may tell you all you need to know. I know you say he’s the ‘one’, but trust me: if he can’t see that you deserved better treatment than this, he really isn’t. You’re better off knowing this now rather than further down the line when you’ve had many more years of being treated as second best.

I think my boyfriend wants to leave but he won’t tell me why

Woman looking angry and worried

My boyfriend and I have been together for over a decade and have two children. I think he wants to leave, but I don’t know why. He has been off for a while and is often out, but whenever I talk to him he acts like he’s ok. He talks to me like normal, but he never asks how I am. He said he wants to try with our relationship, but I think he’s just waiting for the time to go and doesn’t want to try at all. Is counselling something that would help? I love him with all my heart and I don’t know what to do.

Ammanda says…

It sounds as if you’re feeling very confused right now about what’s what in your relationship. You say that in some respects things seem normal, but that he’s also going out a lot and I guess leaving you feeling alone with the kids and your worries. You say too that he’s been ‘off’ for a while and I’m assuming you mean you haven’t felt like you’re as close to one another recently. But the big question is whether or not he wants to leave. You say you don’t know why he might want to go, but that even when he tells you he wants to try to make things work, it’s clear you have big doubts about whether he means this.

So let’s step back a few paces and have a better look at what might be happening. It sounds like one of the biggest issues is that you feel he never asks how you’re feeling. Has that changed? With lots of relationships we often take it for granted that our other half is OK unless they actually tell us that something is wrong. I’m wondering if maybe you’ve stopped asking him how he’s feeling too. When we don’t communicate, feelings that could be expressed about all sorts of things can get stuck. That can lead to resentment and often anxiety because you feel like something is wrong, but no-one’s talking about it in a way that helps.

If you haven’t been clear with him about how concerned you are, now’s probably the time to start. But getting this conversation going right can be tricky. Sometimes when we’re worried about something, our anxieties get the better of us and we end up asking, accusing or even telling our partner how they feel and forget to concentrate on helping them to understand what we’re experiencing.

Perhaps you’ve always found it difficult to share thoughts and feelings with each other. Some couples just assume that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, everything’s OK. This often is fine until someone changes and needs more. Lots of things can make any of us feel vulnerable or that we need more support and affection than usual. For example, losing a parent, the kids getting to an age where it feels as if they’re a little more independent or maybe a job feeling like it’s not going well. And looking after kids, while lovely lots of the time, can also be exhausting and mean that we end up too tired to concentrate on being a couple. I don’t know if any of this sounds familiar to you, but to me it does feel as if you’re like ‘ships in the night’, just missing each other but close enough to realise that if things aren’t resolved, your relationship may be on a collision course.

I think counselling could help you both. For a start, you’d get the chance to talk openly about how you’re feeling. It strikes me that perhaps neither of you is really asking each other the right questions. Perhaps you’re worried that, if you do, the answers will be painful – it certainly sounds like you’re lonely and scared about what his behaviour towards you might mean. But even if this is the case, your counsellor will help each of you to look at what you each bring to the relationship and figure out together what might need to change.

But here’s the other advantage to counselling. Often when we’re really worried about something we start assuming that we ‘know’ what things mean. You say you think he’s just waiting for a time to go. But there may be lots of other reasons why he may have changed towards you. As I’ve said – perhaps it’s you who has changed and now needs something different from him. Counselling could help banish all those assumptions and missed opportunities to talk.

Get your courage in both hands and book an appointment. Whether he joins you or not, at least you may get some clarity about a way forward for yourself, and that’s rarely a bad thing in my experience.