agony aunt

How can I help my cheating brother?

Cheating brother

2 minute read

Q. My brother was engaged to someone we thought he was happy with, but then he cheated on her. Now, he meets women on dating apps, rushes into it, then something happens like he cheats on them, they find messages on his phone and they stop talking.

I love my brother but his apparent lack of respect for women is frustrating. I’ve tried speaking to him and it feels like he listens but then history repeats itself. How can I get through to him? Name supplied

A. I see elements of both the other two letters here – it sounds as if the boundaries are a bit blurred between what’s ‘my problem’ and ‘his problem’. I also suspect that some form of anxiety underlies your brother’s behaviour, maybe a fear of intimacy, and you talking at him is not going to help.

If you want to support his change in any way, he will need to feel that you are alongside him and respect him. We’re all made up of many different parts, and it can be frightening to be ambushed by our own feelings. I remember a psychologist friend saying about a challenging case: ‘I talk to the part of the man that does not want to beat up his wife.’

The pattern you describe sounds very much like the pull-and-push behaviour of someone who wants emotional closeness, then panics, can’t find the words and acts without thinking. The underlying fear could be that someone else will take over his life. If you approach him head-on, he’d do anything to make you go away. Keep creating opportunities for him to talk. If he feels safe to open up with you, it’s possible he will start talking about his feelings with other women in his life – but please remember that it’s his choice, not yours.

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Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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relationships

by Psychologies

I hate my home

I hate my home

2 minute read

Q. I don’t like the home I share with my husband and toddler. Mostly, it is the location and aesthetics. I try to avoid comparing on social media, but I feel like our house is not matching up to the life I want to lead. I feel as though I can’t identify with it, and the location offers convenience but none of the values I hold dear, such as the opportunity to go on rural walks.

Everything feels oppressive. My husband thinks I’m overreacting. We talk about moving in a few years but I’m feeling trapped. How can I cope with this? Name supplied

A. I wonder if this is a more general anxiety, which is attaching itself to your home because that’s where you spend a lot of time. The other factors I hear within your letter are that you are at home with a toddler, a lot of your social connection is online, and your husband may be the only person who knows how you are truly feeling. There is research to show that social media is more useful if it’s used as a ‘way station’ – for example, as a way to make arrangements and meet up with people – rather than a destination.

I return again and again to a quote by songwriter Joan Baez: ‘Action is the antidote to despair.’ What is the smallest action you can take towards the life you want to lead? It might be a part-time job (60 per cent of mothers of two-year-olds also work), it may be learning a new skill, or joining a community group to create green spaces near you. If taking the smallest step still feels too hard, then please talk to your GP to rule out depression.

You’re not imagining it is tough – we’re not designed to be isolated at home all day with a small child. You’re just a tiny human connection away from feeling a lot better. 

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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Better You

by Psychologies

It’s hard to keep the peace with my rude teenager

Teenager

2 minute read

Q. My son is 14, being a full-on ‘typical teenager’ and I am struggling. He can be viciously obnoxious and unpleasant to me, which is upsetting. I have managed to keep some rules in place (I take his phone at night and limit his gaming time) but he refuses to come on family outings and gets furious if I try to monitor his schoolwork. I know other parents judge me when they want to meet up and he won’t come, and part of me feels like I should make him, but how? Do you have any tips to manage this better? I don’t know when to enforce rules and when to let things go. Name supplied

A. After four trips to this circus, my main tip is to remember the end goal: both of you want him to become a successful adult.

Your main advantages are the ability to plan and greater experience in managing your emotions. In neuroscience terms, he’s actually dependent on your more stable adult brain – he still needs the love you’ve always given him, perhaps most of all when he can’t explain his own behaviour. You don’t have to get it right all the time, and mistakes are an opportunity to be graceful and a role model for respect.

I wonder how you might give him more responsibility for his phone use. My concern is that taking it away builds conflict into every bedtime, has the potential to become a physical wrestling match and denies him the opportunity to learn how to manage screen time himself. Next time he’s open for discussion, ask him how he thinks it could work, and you might be surprised. Research says young people and adults are equally concerned about the addictive nature of phone use.

Teenagers respond particularly negatively to the idea of being manipulated by ‘the system’ – it’s better if you are working out a joint approach, rather than him seeing you as part of the problem.

With regards schoolwork, could you speak to teachers, provide what they advise, but remember it’s his name on exam papers, not yours? It might be that he needs to feel some pain, even failure, to find motivation. If you read about the science of brain development, it will become easier to see the limits of what to expect. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop; it helps us plan and control our impulses.

He’s also watching how you handle peer pressure – if you want him to resist it, then you need to ignore other parents’ judgements.

The cure for being 14 is turning 15. Your job is to keep calm, let him experience consequences, and love him even more when he messes up.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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relationships

by Psychologies

My new life is lonely and I’m not forming relationships

Lonely

3 minute read

Q. Six months ago, after completing a counselling MA, I relocated to a vibrant new city. I was depressed living at home with my parents but, since I’ve been here, I’ve made only one friend.

Also, I’m single and find it hard to meet men. I’m starting to feel low again. My work can make me feel lonely but, since I have invested a lot of time and money in my MA, I think I should continue on this path. Can you help? Name supplied

A. It sounds as if a lot of change in a short time has left you feeling rudderless. The question is whether you are experiencing normal unhappiness and uncertainty, or whether depression is a more accurate description. The dividing lines are three Ps – personal, permanent and pervasive. Depression says it’s your fault, things will always be this way, and it affects everything in your life.

If this is you and, especially if you have had depression, please check in with a GP. It’s likely that counselling will be recommended. You know how valuable that is and it’s no reflection of your professional skills that you can’t apply them to yourself (I can’t write my own website copy).

The unspoken quest for you, I believe, is for meaning and a connection to something bigger, which is a basic human desire. A good place to start is to consciously think about activities, people and times when you feel passion and purpose. At the moment, you will be vulnerable to seeing a romantic relationship as the answer. My sense is that your spiritual exploration comes first. This doesn’t have to mean religion, it could be getting into nature, meditation or developing your creativity. As you find that overall direction, the light will fall differently on your other questions. 

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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relationships

by Psychologies

The man I'm in love with has a girlfriend

Girldfriend

3 minute read

Q. I volunteer at a youth group and I’ve fallen in love with one of the guys who works there. We get on well and I feel we have a connection. His face lights up when I arrive, we talk for hours and laugh so much, but can be serious, too.

The problem is that he has a girlfriend who lives abroad. I think that, if it wasn’t for her, things between us would have moved to another level a long time ago. I think about him all the time. What should I do? Name supplied

A. If this was a film, I’d be shouting a slow-motion, ‘Nooo!’ I’m going to say a few things you won’t like: Nobody wants to be the bad guy, and that probably applies to this man – he is trying to be loyal to his girlfriend. On the other hand, part of him is not being straight with you, not being honest with himself, or not noticing your feelings, which is also not great.

The maths is not in your favour – there is one of you and two of them; or, there’s one of him, with two women interested in him. Marriage counsellors talk about a ‘three-legged stool’, where having an affair makes it possible to stay in the relationship because you are getting some of your needs met elsewhere. You don’t want to be the ‘some needs’ person.

The brave option is to take his lack of action as a message that he’s not interested enough. It’s up to him to make a move, and that powerlessness is not what I want for you. You want a balanced relationship with someone who knows their own mind. Take this as a reminder that there’s no such thing as ‘the one’, read the wisdom of Esther Perel and volunteer at another youth group.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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relationships

by Psychologies

I'm still trying to figure out who the real me is

Identity

2 minute read

Q. I’m 18 and, during the past six months, I have noticed myself thinking more about my sexuality. At first, I considered myself to be going through a phase, but now I’m not convinced. My problem is that pronouncing the words ‘bisexual’ or ‘lesbian’ or even the phrase ‘still trying to figure it out’ seems impossible. I think the things I fear most are the opinions and reactions of others.

How can I expect my parents, family and friends to accept me for who I am if I lack so much confidence myself? Name supplied

A. There’s a concept in Maori culture, ‘turangawaewae’, which means ‘a place to stand’. It’s a reminder that being grounded gives us more authority to speak. A way to connect with your feelings is to write in a journal, with the aim of describing, not judging. You need protection from your own critical voice as much as from the criticism of others.

In case you get judgemental messages, remember you don’t have to pick a label, and the words you choose might change over time. One way in which labels can help though, is by connecting you with like-minded people. I like the approach of Australian website Reach Out – they see sexual identity as part of wellbeing and only a portion of who you are as a person. There’s a forum to post anonymously, and get a sense of how others have dealt with similar questions. I’ll also give you a link to a Planned Parenthood page which makes a distinction between sexual attraction (the feelings), identity (the label) and behaviour. These three might not line up neatly: what people feel or do is not always the same as how they identify themselves. Once you reach a clearer space in your own head, choose when and how to speak. Relax, don’t rush it.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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Better You

by Psychologies

I get depressed about what we’re doing to our planet

Our planet

2 minute read

Q. I’m very sensitive, especially when it comes to anything to do with animals. The knowledge of what we are doing to the environment and other species overwhelms me with sadness and, sometimes, I find myself miserable for days thinking about it. I’m a mother, and I know I need to be more resilient to set an example for my kids. What can I do? Name supplied

A. No one answers this more pithily than Joan Baez: ‘Action is the antidote to despair.’ Here’s a story: My youngest went to Borneo on a school trip. As they drove from the airport, the guide explained, ‘The jungle used to start here…’ Three hours later, they arrived where the rainforest begins now. Since then, my daughter made her life palm oil-free, with help from app Buycott, which uses information from products’ barcodes to inform consumer choices.

Another key is social support – where you find people in your local area who feel the same as you, but are one step closer to doing something about it. I’d start deliberately small, where you can definitely see an impact. For example, the Bee Friendly Trust in the UK asks you to nominate a railway station platform that could have a bee-friendly planter. Could you set up an ecology club at school, or join a litter pick-up drive on a local beach or waterway?

There is a Japanese school of therapy, based on Buddhism, which says that it’s not useful to get to the bottom of our feelings before we act. We acknowledge them and then we act – and the feelings fade naturally with time when our attention is engaged by activity. I’ll give you the link to read more about Morita therapy, but don’t let that get in the way of doing something, however small, right now. 

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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Better You

by Psychologies

I underachieve to avoid stress but I feel unfulfilled

Unfulfilled

3 minute read

Q. Looking back on my career, I am conscious that I have not done as well as I could have – because I hate conflict. I know I am highly thought of at work, but I have always settled for smaller roles, where I don’t have to deal with ‘jocks’ and the rough and tumble of management. I am frustrated. I know I am capable of more but I don’t want to spend my life stressed. I want to be one of those people who lets it all wash over them, but how do I do that? Name supplied

A. Your letter intrigues me and I am slightly frustrated that I can’t ask questions about the story that you are telling yourself at the moment. By ‘story’, I don’t mean that it isn’t true, but there might be other perspectives which open up more options for you. This approach is known as narrative coaching and I’m currently studying it with David Drake who pioneered it.

This is a peer exercise that we did in training, and you could try, perhaps with a friend who seems to be ‘one of those people who lets it all wash over them’. Invite your friend to identify something that perplexes them (in your case, you could read out the letter you’ve written to me). Instead of focusing on how to solve the problem, explore ways to see the situation with more compassion and candour. Example questions are: Is that true? What else is true? What would it mean if it (current narrative) is not true? What am I avoiding? Imagine all along that the resolution, or at least the next step, is already present. Then swap roles.

One level of awareness is to listen out for words that have a lot of emotion attached to them. I am guessing that ‘jocks’ and ‘I hate conflict’ would feature, and it would be useful to pay attention to what you associate with these words. What does positive or constructive conflict look like? Who are the role models you see standing up for what they believe in, politely and fi rmly, or with humour and grace? Harmony and consensus are overrated if they only mean that no one steps out of line. I have a friend who says, ‘There’s always conflict at work, so you might as well sit in the boss’s comfy chair to deal with it.’

Your bedtime reading could become the business writing on ‘transformational leaders’, or the ‘servant leader’, both of which are ideas about sharing power, and ensuring that those around you grow and develop. The world needs more thoughtful people like you to step up and be part of the change. 

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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Better You

by Psychologies

Could my weight be the reason I am still single?

Single

3 minute read

Q. I am 25 and have never had a boyfriend. My friends tell me I am attractive and that they don’t know why I am single – but they don’t know that I have never had a relationship. I am confident, and am doing well in my career. If I like someone, I flirt with them and they often seem interested but it comes to nothing, and I feel hurt, as though they have been stringing me along. Do you think it could be because I am a bit overweight? Name supplied

A. In a loving way, I want to say to you: no, your weight does not determine either your lovability or your love ability. I am going to suggest a rather counterintuitive idea – go on a social-media diet designed to make you feel better. It starts with Jameela Jamil’s @i_weigh campaign on Instagram. It is a rallying cry to step away from conversations about our bodies, and reclaim integrity, contribution to society and kindness among the values that we worship. Also look for @bodyposipanda.

Regarding the boyfriend question, I invite you to look at the idea of friendships in general. It sounds as if you are part of group activities, but lack intimacy in the sense of being real, connected and vulnerable (the word intimacy is often misused, as if it’s just sex; see here).

If being known and accepted are part of the relationship you want, try the baby step of letting one carefully chosen friend know how you feel. It is hard to accept love from another person if there’s an unkind voice in your head getting in the way. Remember that if anyone makes you feel that you need to be ‘less than’ to win their love, then they’ve already lost.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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relationships

by Psychologies

My partner has a drinking problem

Drinking problem

3 minute read

Q. When we go to events, my wife often drinks too much and (I think) makes a fool of herself. I understand why she does it – she’s shy and alcohol gives her a feeling of confidence, but I’m embarrassed by her and, when she’s drunk, she can be unpleasant to me.

We’ve talked about it and sometimes she improves, but not for long. She says I’m controlling but I don’t want her to be like this. I love her wholeheartedly – when she’s sober. What can I do? Name supplied

A. We’re not quite at the nub of this problem, I feel. My instinct is to put more effort into naming what is going on, aiming to be both accurate and kind. The underlying principle is to separate the person (the human being) from what they do (the human doing). It may sound mechanical but, if we insert the word ‘behaviour’, we have more room to manoeuvre. An example: ‘I’m embarrassed by her behaviour’ is less hurtful than ‘I’m embarrassed by her’.

Considering your letter, I have an image of watching a play, and I wonder about backstage – the stories, memories and fears in both of your heads as you get ready to go out. How much do you talk about those, or is it like stepping on a wordless conveyor belt? When drinking at home, are there similar issues? I raise this because your use of the word ‘unpleasant’ could mean a number of things, up to and including an abusive relationship, or one where you don’t feel safe to speak your mind. I’m not suggesting that’s the case, but if you were a woman writing this about a man, my antennae would be on alert.

Perhaps the key is hiding in plain sight and you are both right – it’s about alcohol and control. My gran identified as an alcoholic, although her drinking was only at a low level, but she didn’t want to feel alcohol was about need rather than desire. It’s not for me (or you) to say if this applies to your wife, but this is something that is clearly bothering you enough to write to me.

One route to support is Al-Anon, for people affected by someone else’s drinking. There are a number of stories on their website involving men talking about their wives and alcohol; see if any of them resonate for you. There is also free live chat on the Relate website, which may help. The famous prayer linked to alcohol asks for ‘the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’. I hope you apply courage and wisdom to honour your feelings, too.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

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relationships

Some relationships are toxic to our bodies as well as our minds. Why do we let them get this way? By learning to recognise them and root them out, we can put our energies into more nurturing bonds

by Psychologies

by Psychologies