Dealing with loneliness

By Katharine Whitehorn, Friday 7 December 2012

Katharine Whitehorn dispenses words of wisdom to a wife with a flirtatious husband, a correspondent left exhausted by family visits at Christmas time and a dinner party hostess having trouble finding enough male guests.

Katharine WhitehornKatharine Whitehorn
True friendship

A few months ago I wrote about the common problem of older people who feel very lonely, perhaps because they’ve moved, they miss the friendliness of a workplace, or their grown-up children live at a distance. I quoted some solutions that readers had sent me, such as having coffee in the same café on the same day every week (meeting others who did the same); signing up for a course with the University of the Third Age; starting a pressure group or working for a charity and so on.

But one or two readers wrote to say that such activities indeed bring you acquaintances – but not necessarily friends. One person who regretted moving to a new village found that, though she had lots of new people to meet and talk to, she badly missed the people she’d regarded as real friends.

It’s one of the reasons I’m always doubtful about people – especially those on their own – moving to some idyllic-sounding new place, leaving behind the people of whom they are really fond. So what does make for real friendship? Common interests help, but I suspect the real basis of friendship is a willingness to share your own feelings and concerns, and – even more important – be really interested in the other person’s; and maybe that doesn’t often happen in a minute.

One man wrote to say he’d persuaded his pub to hold a weekly coffee morning: ‘Only my wife and I turned up at first, but once we put it about the village grapevine (no need for Twitter here!) we have a dozen regulars and it’s led to several closer friendships.’ Real friendships take time to develop, but they have to start somewhere, and casual social groups are as good a place as any; we can’t all live among the people we grew up or worked with. Who was it who said, ‘God gave us our relations, thank heaven we can choose our own friends’?

Dealing with a flirtatious husband

I have been married to my second husband for more than 30 years now, after my first husband left me for a younger woman, and on the whole we are happy. We have occasional spats, but I suppose that’s common enough. He is semi-retired and we go on trips together more than once a year. I do enjoy them, but the trouble is that he has such an eye for pretty girls; he’ll leave me sitting reading a book while he goes and chats up some stranger. I find it humiliating and don’t really know how to cope.

Katharine writes: It’s understandable that this upsets you, considering how your first marriage ended, but I suspect there are half a dozen men who enjoy flirting with pretty girls for every one that’s actually making a move. For quite a few, it’s a fairly harmless part of the way they stop themselves feeling old; to make too much of it might be a mistake. Even wives of real womanisers, such as Alan Clark, manage to avoid looking sad and put-upon by dismissing it all as a foible. Unless he has really been inconsiderate in leaving you on your own, it might be better to tease him about it than make a serious fuss; apart from anything else, if he were seriously considering making a move, your being cross and irritated might seem to provide him with an excuse.

Coping with tiring family visits

My cousin, who lives in Spain, likes to spend Christmas in Britain and often stays with me. This is fine except that she comes with her husband, who is OK, and two small children. I like to think I’m up for anything and it’s only fair to have them because I often stay with them in the summer, but last year I felt absolutely exhausted by the time they went. Can you think of any way I can avoid needing a prolonged rest cure after their visit?

Katharine writes: I suspect a lot of us feel wiped out by these family reunions, even when they’re very welcome. There are a few things we can do in advance, such as stocking the freezer so that we’re not frantically cooking all the time. But I suspect our chief trouble is that we want to show we’re still up for anything, making the house perfect before they get there, searching for just the right presents, preparing every meal and so on.

We can plan ahead to a certain extent, but most important is to abandon the idea that we’re as tough as we were at 30 and can still put up with or do just about anything; we’d do better to cash in on our age when it suits us.

This year you could try asking them to do more. You might suggest, preferably in advance, that they could entirely take over coping with Boxing Day – and explain that nowadays you need a rest after lunch. And make sure you take it. You could also ask the growing children to undertake at least some of the Christmas work. One of the easiest Christmases I ever had was when I’d just come out of hospital, and the juniors had decorated the entire house for me – and they had obviously enjoyed doing it.

Evening up the numbers

It is a decade since I retired and seven years since my husband died and I know I am lucky to live in a neighbourly suburb with a good many friends. I go shopping in town with my women friends and to a show or something with them sometimes.

But I still like to invite people for dinner or a Sunday lunch and the problem is that, both from work and in the neighbourhood, I know many more women than men; getting an even balance of the sexes is a real problem. I feel I can’t go on asking the same two or three single men I know – one is a widower and two others are (how shall I put it?) confirmed bachelors, and it’s hard to get a proper balance of guests. At times I’ve almost wished there were a Rentaman firm for such occasions.

Katharine writes: You aren’t alone; as women live longer than men I suspect that there are plenty of readers who have exactly the same problem – and it’s not new. I remember in the Sixties a friend of mine writing an article testily advising people to realise that they weren’t dealing with Noah’s ark and people didn’t have to go in two by two. I would say it probably is a mistake to have just one man among a bevy of women (though I’ve had a reader say that her husband loves it), but that doesn’t mean to say you have to insist on exactly equal numbers. If the people find each other good company, any mixture can be perfectly all right. And just once in a while you might have an all-woman dinner to make sure you entertain all your female friends – I’ve done that a couple of times on my birthday, and it worked a treat.

Families of disabled children

The Paralympics must have made all of us more aware of what disabled people can do and what rewarding lives they can lead, but it is none the less shattering for a family to realise that a loved child is disabled in some way, and even doting grandparents may not always know how best to relate to a child who is different from others. But there is more help and advice available than I realised for the families of disabled children. I have received an excellent booklet on relationships and caring for a disabled child. It is full of helpful information about the networks of support that are available; there is a website and a freephone helpline: 0808 808 3555. It is not just the parents of such children who may welcome help; brothers, sisters and grandparents may also benefit.

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Dealing with loneliness

Katharine Whitehorn dispenses words of wisdom to a wife with a flirtatious husband, a correspondent left exhausted by family visits at Christmas time and a dinner party hostess having trouble finding enough male guests.

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Dealing with loneliness

Katharine Whitehorn dispenses words of wisdom to a wife with a flirtatious husband, a correspondent left exhausted by family visits at Christmas time and a dinner party hostess having trouble finding enough male guests.