Reader dilemma: 'My dirt phobia is getting worse and my wife wants a divorce unless we have a break - what should I do?'

'The only person who would have me is my sister, who lives miles away in the country, away from everything familiar'

Virginia Ironside
Sunday 29 November 2015 16:56 GMT

Dear Virginia,

I suffer from a phobia about dirt, and although I have tried to keep it under control, and my wife has done all she can to help me, it’s getting worse. Now my wife says she’s come to the end of her tether and unless I leave for a few months to give her a break, she’ll divorce me. I have very few friends and I couldn’t afford to go to a hotel. The only person who would have me is my sister, who lives miles away in the country, away from everything familiar. And her house is very messy and dirty. What shall I do?

Yours sincerely, Paul

Virginia says

Sorry as I feel for you, I’m afraid my heart does also go out to your poor wife, who must find it incredibly stressful living with someone who is phobic about dirt. Presumably this involves a lot of hand-washing and carpet-cleaning and constant worrying about germs and obsessing about food and so on. It’s difficult enough living with anyone “normal”, without coping with someone’s phobia as well. And it’s not as if your phobia is something entirely private, which wouldn’t have any impact on her. Because you live in the same house, your wife must be tremendously affected by this and it’s no wonder she’s come to the end of her tether, however much she loves you.

However, it isn’t she who’s writing to me, it’s you, and my advice to you is not to dream of leaving your home. Stay put, whatever you do! You have what amounts to a serious illness and, as you say, you’ll find it virtually impossible to find anywhere to live except a flat on your own, which you could keep as clean as you liked. And presumably, since you can’t afford a hotel, you’d find buying property a financial difficulty, too.

No. If your wife can’t stand your phobia, then it’s she who should leave for her three months of respite. Not having an illness, her options are far wider – she could stay anywhere, however scruffy – and anyway, it is she who is fed up with the marriage, not you. Don’t go anywhere.

Consider, after all, the worst scenario: I’m not saying this would happen, but it could be that the moment you leave, your wife will change all the locks, pack up all your belongings and deliver them to your new address.

If you feel you absolutely have to move out, then at the very least consult a solicitor before you set foot on the front path, and perhaps get a letter drawn up saying that you are only leaving to save your marriage. Get your wife to countersign this – so you can’t be accused of desertion, which might affect the outcome were it all to come to a divorce in the end.

I would first of all consult a lawyer anyway, to find out exactly what your rights are, and be sure to have a doctor’s letter available, which will describe your illness in detail. Having a phobia like this, if it’s really severe, is completely disabling, after all. It presumably makes going out to work difficult if not impossible, and it may be that you find difficulty even in getting to the shops.

I would then suggest marriage counselling of some kind – again, if you initiate it, you will be the one seen to be making an attempt to save this marriage, which, of course, is what you want. If your wife hasn’t got some hidden agenda in persuading you to leave, then you never know: this might really help both of you.

Readers say...

Getting help could change your life

I can relate to your phobia, having lived with this for most of my adult life. I have had a lot of help, though, and there appears to be two schools of thought. The traditional view is that this can be helped with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The other view, I think, is that the phobia is a person’s mind’s way of distracting itself from the thing that is really troubling one – a sort of self-defence mechanism, perhaps.

I was diagnosed with OCD when I was 20 – terrified of dirt, among other things. I would advise you not to move out, but to commit to getting some help. In this way, you will be able to move forward together with your wife. If you leave, you may become very low, which might make things harder in relation to your phobia. Perhaps your wife would be willing to give this a try also, and may feel some hope based on your comittment. For my part, a combination of acknowledging the real problem in my mind (which may not be easy to comprehend, and may not be neccessary, depending on how you feel) coupled with some CBT, has worked miracles. My wife has read my letter, and agrees, being able to relate to your wife. Paul, I promise, the brain is elastic, and you can learn new ways to think. But you need some help. Good luck, mate.


by email

Let your fears go

Your wife is a saint. And your sister very forbearing. But however much your family tries to help you, this is a problem you have to face and now is the time to face it. An irrational fear of dirt and contamination is a well-known obsessive-compulsive disorder, as I’m sure you know, but it can be treated. Phobias may require only a few sessions with a qualified mental health professional.

Cognitive behavioural therapy may help you to reframe intrusive and phobic thoughts and can be extremely beneficial. Desensitisation is also effective. Your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help you cope with any fears during treatment or to enable you to function in public. Hypnotherapy also works for many people.

So pick up the phone and book an appointment to see your GP in the first instance. Make an inward resolution to do all that it takes. Your wife will be hugely relieved, and I would bet that all talk of divorce will be lifted. No need to hug your fears. Let them go.

Rosemary Pettit

London W6

Next week's dilemma

For the last 18 months I’ve supported my mother – a widow – through very unpleasant operations and chemotherapy. She has had to go back and forth to the hospital and has felt very rough for a lot of the time throughout her treatment. She has braved it all with remarkable stoicism and made friends with the nurses – even giving comfort to other sufferers who haven’t coped nearly as well. But a month ago, she was given the all-clear, and since then she has been in a deep depression, crying all the time. Is it a delayed reaction? I don’t know what to do.

Yours sincerely,


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