BEL MOONEY: Do I HAVE to be my family’s shoulder to cry on?

 Dear Bel,

I seem to be an emotional crutch for my family who contact me only with tales of woe and leave me feeling drained and unhappy.

I was told my parents kept trying until they had a baby girl, as they wanted someone to look after them when they were older.

We grew up in a household where ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ was the mantra. The discipline and beatings were all handled by my mother. I think even my father was scared of her.

Yet I was also over-protected. I was not allowed on school trips, as they were ‘too risky’.

My brothers had fun on holidays while I had to sit and watch, as most activities were ‘too dangerous’ for me. Yet the boys felt I was the ‘princess’ who received special attention — which caused resentment.

To cut a long story short, I played my part in the family — until my own children grew and I couldn’t just drop everything and rush to granny. (My father had died.)

This caused major fallout — I realised I was scared of disobeying my mother.

One day I said I couldn’t visit and my mother phoned my brothers and the Samaritans threatening suicide. I now receive hour-long phone calls where she cries, tells me how lonely she is, how she’d rather be dead.

A few years ago my husband was offered a job at the other end of the country and we relocated.

We’ve made many friends and have a wonderful social life. My son stayed in our original town after university and we thought he’d be fine living on his own. But he became clinically depressed.

Now much better, he also says he is lonely — and that he is a complete failure.

I get very worried after these conversations — sometimes unable to eat. But once, after worrying for hours because I couldn’t contact him, he told me he’d felt much better after our chat and gone out.

I’m at the stage where if my phone rings or beeps with a message, I go straight to panic.

If it’s my mother or son, I dread what’s coming next.

We have just retired and had plans to stay in our new location, but I’m starting to feel there’s no point as I can’t cope with the fear of them harming themselves.

Do you have any advice?


This week Bel answers a question about a daughter who wonders if she should be her family’s shoulder to cry on

 Like so many women you were (almost literally) ‘bred’ to be a carer, and that role is so embedded within your DNA you feel you can never be free.

To compound the problem, you were also bullied by your mother, both physically and mentally, and (under the guise of ‘protection’) allowed no autonomy.

When you had to put your own family first, your mother continued the emotional bullying — and is still doing so.


More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…

Had you not mentioned those childhood beatings, I’d have more compassion for her right now. 

As it is, I see her as a manipulative woman who will not be happy until she has you living around the corner and ministering to her every whim once more.

You don’t mention how your husband feels, but since you two have created a wonderful life together, far from your mother, I doubt he would be very happy to uproot once again. Your son presents a different problem, so let’s just lay that to one side for a moment.

In my opinion, it would be a terrible mistake to sacrifice your own happiness and that of your husband on your mother’s altar. 

I would set in place all the local help you can for her, in the form of a carer — and maybe a befriending service? Only you can find out what is possible, especially at the moment.

I’d also like to know if your brothers can help with any of the heavy lifting here. They should.


Come let us pity those who are better off than we are

Come my friend and remember

That the rich have butlers and no friends,

And we have friends and no butlers.

Ezra Pound (U.S. poet and critic, 1885-1972)

Tell them frankly that you can’t take these phone calls, and ask whether each of them could make a set time to call her.

It is vital that you protect yourself from the mental strain of these telephone sessions. 

You can’t stop her phoning, but you can limit the time you give. Letting your phone go to voicemail now and then might seem harsh — but she is being cruel to you, just as she was years ago.

Your son is a different (and in my view, more important) worry. 

You give no information about his work or friendship groups, but I would find out just what/who he has and how important those connections are. 

If he was diagnosed as clinically depressed, did he get the right treatment.

Instead of worrying so much and feeling so helpless and overwhelmed, you need to find out all these things — and be as upbeat as you can on the phone.

My big question is, could he move to be near you? Would there be work for him?

You can be proactive here — and need to curtail your mother to save energy for your son.

 Dear Bel,

I Am 59 and my wife is 57. It’s a second marriage for both of us (20 years) and we don’t have children together.

As men, we all joke that we cannot fathom a female mind and, true to form, I’m totally flummoxed by my wife’s.

We’ve always had a problem with sex in that we are a mismatch of desire levels. She has always (apart from the very beginning of our relationship) proudly claimed that she has no sex drive/ desire.

In fact, she says she ‘never has’. She has told me frankly that her lack of interest in sex was a problem in her first marriage and she seems perfectly comfortable for it to be a problem in our marriage as well. She refuses to try to get any help/checks from her doctor.

Now here’s the twist. Recently, she admitted to me a string of ‘one-night stands’ after her first marriage collapsed, including some ‘risky’ sex situations outdoors.

Yet I know her only as an almost prudish, very ‘straight’ and (almost totally) sexually uptight woman. What’s going on, Bel? I’m very confused and don’t know what to think.


 Often I’m asked about common problems — not hard, since certain issues come up repeatedly. This is one.

Sometimes I dare to generalise that women are interested in relationships and men are interested in sex — knowing that’s far too simplistic.

Still, your letter reminds me of the uncomfortable kernel of truth. An old truth, too. This is a short Japanese poem dating back to the 6th century AD:

‘Oh yes,’ she says, ‘we’re married,

‘Very much so,’ says she

Wedging the bed-clothes under her hip

Turning her back on me.

That long-ago man in his silk robes was just as confused, sad and irritated as you feel now.

If people ask if sex is very important in a marriage I always say, ‘It depends’ — though most advice-givers and therapists tend to answer: ‘Of course it is.’

Yet if sex between a long-married couple fizzles out to be replaced by deep companionship and mutual need, then it need not matter at all — but only if both feel the same.

I find it rather limited when people make the assumption that sex is always absolutely essential to closeness. It isn’t. 

What most matters, and cannot be skipped, is communication and understanding — especially if there is a problem.

For you, your wife’s lack of interest in sex is a disappointment. You complain, ‘She refuses to try to get any help/checks from her doctor’ — but I hope you realise that, post-menopause, it is quite normal for a woman to lose her libido. 

Some don’t, but a far greater number do. She is unlikely to ‘get help’ if she is quite happy with the situation.

I can see it’s sad for you — and I’d happily suggest you (separately or together) talk to Relate. But if your wife doesn’t accept she has a physical problem, she’s hardly likely to be keen.

Now for her confession that after her first marriage ended she had a lot of sex. I guess you think she must have changed from her former ‘not bothered’ attitude and enjoyed it.

Contact Bel 

Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.

Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email

A pseudonym will be used if you wish.

Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

But perhaps she didn’t — not really. Maybe she was just going along with it all because she was afraid of ending up alone. 

Maybe she hated it and felt cheap. Have you asked her about this — with genuine curiosity?

Have you sought to explore her feelings, not as a cunning plan to get her into bed, but because you are genuinely interested? 

The last time I wrote something like that on this page I got some angry emails from guys who said they’ve tried all that talking stuff and it got them nowhere!

They seemed to think me unfeeling, but that’s wrong. I do understand — it’s just that I can do nothing about it.

You, John, are ‘confused’ — and I sympathise with you because I know it matters to you.

But the only way forward is to try to explore your wife’s feelings, and her memories, and be tenderly open about your own. Only you can try unravelling that confusion.

As you both move into your 60s you (and all of us) have to come to terms with changes in our bodies as well as the shortfall in happiness within our minds and hearts.

It’s normal to remain angrily puzzled by life until we die — but wiser to talk to your partner and work out how you can accommodate each other’s needs, probably with little sacrifices and mutual acts of generosity.


And finally…Forget texts— write a proper letter

 It was a strange coincidence to receive a helpful email from Vera on the same day my latest video appeared on Mail Plus, in the Tuesday health section. (For the link, see the bottom of this page.)

My video is about letters used as therapy — or healing. I tell a story about a letter I received many years ago and the advice I gave, which worked.

Vera writes: ‘When my partner of 45 years died last year within seven weeks of being diagnosed with cancer, I had some extremely helpful sessions with an excellent counsellor… who suggested I write a letter to him expressing all my feelings.

‘I remember thinking it sounded a bit daft and I wouldn’t be doing it!

‘However, I owed it to her to try, and once I started I was able to get it all down.

‘I cannot state strongly enough how much it helped. I have it safely tucked away… I would certainly recommend writing a letter in these or similar circumstances.’

Thanks, Vera — I’ve been saying this for years. Of course texts or email will not do; you need paper to set important words down properly. 

If the letter is full of pain, it can be destroyed as a release. If it is full of love, it can be treasured.

Currently, we are entering another difficult time — for all of us. I’d like letters to come into their own. Try writing one (or a lovely notecard) to a dear person a distance away.

Getting an envelope in the post is always cheering. But because of texts and emails people are unused to expressing themselves on paper.

Just read the beautiful letters sent in both World Wars from (often) uneducated soldiers at the front, to see what we have lost. Bring back the intimate magic of the pen!

Next week, this column won’t be here, as I’m having my first week off this year. But do keep sending your letters and emails.

When life feels hard, it really can be helpful to set feelings down in words.