Should we break up now? Or risk further heartache down the line?

Relate frequently responds to letters from people about their relationships – and a few are published on our national website to help others who may be going through similar experiences. We ensure letter-writers cannot be identified. Here’s one such letter from someone whose partner has asked him: ‘Should we remain in our relationship?’ He writes:

My partner and I have been together for over two years. We love and respect each other hugely. We have shared values, enjoy each other’s company, look forward to spending time together, listen to and support each other, and feel completely comfortable being ourselves around one another. Despite a 16-year age gap, and the occasional disagreement, which we usually resolve with laughter, we feel like a good fit. Our friends and family are happy we’ve found each other, and we’re often told we look great together.

Yet the fear of the future, and of potentially wanting different things in a relationship, is causing so much anxiety for both of us that we’re wondering whether it’s healthier to break up now, rather than risk further heartache down the line. Are we being sensible or over-thinking things?

My partner is 23, whilst I’m 39. We’ve always been open about our age gap and the implications around parenthood. I’ve always hoped to have children one day, although I feel the pressure of having them sooner rather than later, mainly for external reasons. Many of my friends are already on their second child, and my father, who would love grandchildren, is slowly deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease. So, we’ve previously discussed having children by my mid-forties.

However, my partner is now no longer sure she wants to have children at all, at least not for the foreseeable future. Consequently, we’re worried that if we manage to stay together for the long-term, without having children, then the loss I might feel and the guilt my partner might feel, would overwhelm our relationship. We’re also worried that if we stay together, and my partner does eventually become ready for children, then I may feel too old, or my partner will feel I’m too old. The alternative seems to be to break up now, whilst still in love, to see if we’re able to meet someone else equally as wonderful, who better fits our life stages. 

We find this terrifying. We feel so lucky to have met. Although we’ve dated many people before, we found it very difficult to find someone we clicked with and related to so well – despite our age gap. This is probably due in part to our backgrounds. We both grew up in dysfunctional families with absent and unwell parents, and experienced some emotional trauma and neglect as a consequence. We’re also both from mixed-ethnic families, which has given us a shared sense of ‘otherness’. We feel a huge pressure on making sure we’re each doing the right thing for the other. 

My partner has been torturing herself about why she no longer wants to have children, and whether it’s a permanent or temporary feeling. She wonders if it’s linked to her current emotional state in relation to her father. Three months ago, he was diagnosed with advanced terminal cancer. He’s in his mid-fifties, with two much younger children, and only recently reconnected with my partner after years of not speaking. This has made my partner (and to some extent myself) feel very depressed and emotionally flat in general. My partner has experienced clinical depression in the past, and her current mental state is reinforcing her suspicion that she’s not strong enough a person, and too much in need of attention, to have children. The situation has also highlighted the risk to her of having a family with someone, who, due to ill health or old age, might not be there for the children as they grow up.

At the same time, I wonder whether it’s my emotional response to all this that’s affecting my partner. Although I love her deeply, the more anxious and stressed I become, the less physical attraction I feel toward her, which in turn, makes me feel guilty and grumpy. My partner says this doesn’t change how much she loves me, but even so, I wonder whether it’s having an unconscious effect, and whether I’m unintentionally trying to push her away as a defence mechanism. I also wonder whether my partner was only interested in having children initially, out of excitement for our fledgling relationship.

My partner has asked me to reflect on our current situation, and decide whether I want to remain in a relationship where the future is so uncertain. She says she loves me and wants us to stay together, but at the same time is afraid she won’t be able to make me happy. So, she wants me to choose what will work for me, regardless of how it might affect her.

Our response:

Here you are, at a stage of your life when you may have thought that true love had eluded you and then all of a sudden, there she is. Right there, loving you back with dreams and wishes, that are similar to yours. But then, just when everything seemed perfect, so many worries have come crowding in that now, breaking away from someone who’s brought so much joy into your life seems like the only option to keep everyone from heartache and regrets. So, what’s happened?

The bottom line here is that actually, you’re only asking perfectly reasonable questions of each other and doing your best to make sure that come what may, you could look back and say we didn’t rush headlong into who we are as a couple. We thought about the things that are likely to arise. For example, your partner is 23. She’s questioning if she wants children, her father is dying and she has some mental health issues. Is it any wonder that things seem confusing and painful? What’s more, your dad is ill and your own anxieties are causing you to question if you find her attractive. Now, to be honest with you, I would say that none of this is out the ordinary. Getting together with someone whom you feel could be a ‘life’ partner requires a certain amount of speculation and reflection. In addition, to varying degrees, most of us worry about the future. What will happen and what will become of the people we love. Yet I sense from what you tell me that this runs a lot deeper for the two of you.

As I read your letter, I started wondering whether you might both have a sneaking suspicion that neither of you deserves to be happy. There can be lots of reasons for this; earlier disappointing adult relationships, and occasionally specific events. Sometimes, feelings like this start in childhood. Maybe, even though your parents might have done their very best, within the circumstances to which you allude, they still couldn’t give you that essential reassurance that all kids need, which is that you’re OK and a worthwhile human being. Taking doubts and sometimes shame like this into adult relationships often makes it very tricky to believe that someone actually loves us for who we really are, even though a partner might keep telling us we’re loved and cherished.

What we sometimes do, when we really can’t quite get our heads round it, is to find as many reasons as possible to make sure it can’t work. Of course, the decision to have children or not is a huge one but just taking this issue alone, even if you were both in full agreement on the way forward on this, one of you could change your mind. The point I’m trying to make here is that I think you’re looking for safe certainty that everything is done and dusted – but if you think about it, relationships are living things. They evolve, have ups and downs and hopefully mature, but at any of these stages, someone might start to feel differently about something that was previously agreed as a consequence of an issue that wasn’t even on the horizon at the outset. That’s life and in a way, one of the things that makes us most human. So even if you and she had got all this sorted – it could still evolve and change.

But let me be clear – it’s a real positive that the two of you are looking at your relationship in quite a bit of detail. There’s a lot going on and the questions you’ve been posing are both important and normal. But here’s the tricky bit. You have to learn when to stop asking the questions and take the risk that what you have is what you most want to cherish.

Relationships come in all shapes and sizes and with all sorts of problems. At the moment, it sounds like each of you is trying to figure out whether this particular relationship is going to be the guaranteed success that, perhaps, you both feel may have been missing as you were growing up. None of us knows this. Not me, not you nor anyone else. But by way of encouragement, I strongly suggest that you and your partner read and digest the first paragraph of your letter to me, because I think the answer you’re looking may well be staring you in the face.

The response is from Ammanda Major, a relationship counsellor and sex therapist, who is head of clinical practice at Relate. If you have a relationship worry you would like some help with, and prefer to write, please send your letter to If you’d prefer to talk with one of our counsellors in confidence face-to-face, why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.


Anyone for sex every day for a year?

The media frequently contact Relate for comments and advice. Sometimes the stories they impart are a touch sensational and the advice is added on as an afterthought.

So, when you’re asked to comment on a piece headed ‘Sex every day for a year’ you start to question whether you should get involved.

But when one news channel reported on US author Brittany Gibbons having sex every day for a year, it raised some pertinent points about our self-esteem.

Brittany said that, as a result of her self-afflicted task, she not only felt better about her body, but learned how to communicate better with her partner.

Clearly, body confidence is a big issue. Surveys from commercial product companies (advocating use of the type of products they produce, of course) found that only 20% of women in the UK like the way they look and 48% of UK men desperately want to lose weight.

Whether having sex every day to fix it is a solution – or just an eye-catching headline – is open to debate.

Hence, the media outlet approached a couple of ‘experts’, including Relate’s relationship counsellor, Denise Knowles, who offered some ‘balance’ to the story.

Not surprisingly… having sex every day is not for everyone, she said.

She pointed out that the US author had something that not everyone does – the option to have sex every day with a supportive husband who wanted to help her develop body confidence.

She was in a safe relationship, where she could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, state her needs, and be vulnerable. In this unique circumstance, then ‘yes’, said Denise, ‘perhaps sex could lead to body confidence.’

But we certainly could not take this experience and then state ‘sex every day builds body confidence’.

(You could sense the journalist’s hopes had been dashed.)

Pushing yourself to have sex every day for a year, regardless of what your body and mind really wants, could, in fact, have some dangerous consequences.

Sex every day with, for example, various partners and strangers, especially if you have a traumatic past involving some sort of sexual abuse, could lead to shame, feelings of worthlessness, dissociation from the body, and depression.

(No, come on now, you’re killing a good story here.)

It could mean we push ourselves to have sex just to ‘keep the record going’, instead of listening to ourselves and recognising our needs in each moment, which is so essential if we at all suffer from low self-esteem.

It all comes down to the individual. If you are with a loving partner or partners, and it’s something you’d decided to do for fun, it might lead to better connection, and improved sexual confidence, but you’d both have to be wanting sex at the same time, and prioritising each other’s needs – rather than just ‘ticking off a day on the calendar’.

Sex with random people is more likely to cause issues with confidence than increased confidence.

Any big declaration you intend to have sex every day for a year with many different people is far less likely to be about body confidence and more likely to be a sign of deep-rooted issues, such as trauma, sex addiction, or histrionic personality disorder.

Focusing on just sex is probably not the answer, said Denise. Obsessively fixating on sex as the solution to your body confidence issues isn’t going to work. Often, self-esteem runs far deeper and is more complex.

(Not quite what we had in mind.)

“People might be focusing on their body when there are other areas of life that might be problematic,” she says. “Rather than focus on the negative, think about what you do have.

“If there are parts of your body you’re not happy with, take a good look and think about the parts of your body you do like. Maybe you have nice skin or nice legs.

“If you don’t like parts of your body, don’t focus on them every day – the negative – because it’ll bring you down…

“It’s not all about your body. It’s about who you are as a person.”

(Wished we hadn’t asked her now.)

Be careful what you wish for, says Denise. If you become dependent on having sex every day to feel better, then how are you going to react if the sex starts to wane?

Instead, she recommends improving your lifestyle, diet and exercise routine.

“The issue here is making the decision to do something different – recognising that ‘I want to do something good about this problem’ and seeing it through.”

If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about self-esteem, why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.



Coping with the highs and lows of a rollercoaster relationship

When your relationship is an ‘emotional rollercoaster’, it tends to have lots of highs and lows – often in rapid succession.

One day you’re arguing intensely, the next you’re feeling really happy and close.

You may find it hard to predict what things are going to be like on any given day, or when they might swing from one state to another. People sometimes describe relationships like this as being full of ‘drama’ or characterised by lots of ‘passion’.

How does this kind of relationship develop?

The most common reason for this kind of relationship developing is one or both partners finding it difficult to manage their emotions and how they express them to their partner. They may get easily upset, or veer rapidly between different emotional states.

The reasons behind this can be complex, but sometimes have their roots in how the person learned to relate to other people when growing up.

They may, for instance, have had an unstable relationship with their parents and, as a result, find themselves attempting to recreate this environment as an adult because it’s what they’re most used to. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, familiarity is a significant principle in emotional relationships – even in situations where the familiarity isn’t necessarily productive or easy to bear. In fact, research has shown that often we are attracted to what is familiar to us, and being exposed to certain types of people can even increase our attraction to them. This is essentially subconscious and, as such, we’re unlikely to be aware it.

How will the rollercoaster affect you?

It requires significant levels of energy to maintain this type of relationship – to the extent where it can be difficult to concentrate on other areas of your life properly. Dealing with negative emotions is challenging, and switching between highs and lows in rapid succession can be exhausting. It can produce a sense of uncertainty derived from not knowing where you stand on any given day. People in this kind of relationship often describe themselves as ‘consumed’ by it – saying that it becomes the centre of their life.

Sometimes, one of the most problematic characteristics of rollercoaster relationships is that they can be habitual. While they are extremely tiring and sometimes traumatic, they can also be highly exciting, fun and engaging. The word ‘passion’ tends to crop up a lot when we work with couples in this kind of relationship. Although partners may feel there are many positives in their relationship, the sense of constant drama can also feel overwhelming and confusing.

How to deal with it

An ideal outcome for someone in a rollercoaster relationship may be for them to retain a lot of the ‘passion’ while finding a way to regulate the characteristic highs and the lows.

Better understanding is usually the first step towards meaningful change. Finding out how you fit together emotionally, what your respective needs are, and what changes you would like to make are key to ensuring that each partner can be heard within the relationship.

This often means asking yourself, and each other, really honest and occasionally challenging questions. Listening to each other, perhaps with the help of a counsellor, can often mean that each partner gets a fuller understanding of how their patterns of communication may be affecting their partner.

By becoming more aware of these relationships patterns, you can understand how the attraction between you really works. Developing more awareness about things like this will, in turn, help to develop new patterns that are helpful to both partners.

If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about all this, either individually or as a couple, give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.


‘My partner isn’t committed to our relationship’

Feeling our partner has commitment issues can be stressful and isolating – and can make us doubt the future of our relationship.

We may hope our partner will come round to the idea of a long-term relationship. We may believe, sometimes justifiably, that our partner wants to be committed to our relationship. But it never quite works out that way.

How do commitment issues develop? (more…)

When sex isn’t working out ok

Feeling like you aren’t getting what you want in bed and being unable to ask for it can be frustrating and upsetting.

Sex can be a really a tricky topic. We may feel we don’t know how to express ourselves to our partner. Or we may feel confused or embarrassed about why things aren’t ‘working’.

And, while it’s important to remember that sex won’t always be perfect – after all, we can all have ‘off days’ – being able to talk about sex is important in any relationship. Sex can be a really important way of reconnecting – of being intimate, close and just enjoying one another.

Why am I faking orgasm? (more…)

‘Feeling sad’ in a relationship may verge on ‘giving up’

When we start out in a relationship, we might have lots of ideas about what it will be like and how it will make us feel.

We might imagine it will give us a sense of fulfilment and make us feel happy and safe. We might imagine it taking an important place at the centre of our life. The promise of a relationship can be a big part of what makes it such a joyful thing. (more…)

Trust: important to any relationship

Trust is an important factor in any relationship. Trust helps us to feel secure in our relationship – that, even if there are challenges further down the line, there’s still a strong foundation to fall back on.

Of course, it’s not always easy to express trust constructively. Things can get in the way – insecurities about the relationship, fears about things that might go wrong, weak points in communication – and it can be easy to fall into common ‘trust pitfalls’.

If any of the following sound familiar, it may be worth having a think about the ways in which you approach trust in your relationship. (more…)

When it feels like a one-sided relationship…

Feeling like your relationship is one-sided can be painful and upsetting. It can make you feel like a spare part in someone else’s life – as if you aren’t as important to your partner as they are to you.

There are a variety of things that can make a relationship feel as if it’s one- sided. Perhaps you find you’re always making the plans while your partner is ambivalent or apathetic. Perhaps you feel like it’s always up to you to maintain contact when you’re apart. Or perhaps it’s just a general feeling that you’re putting the relationship first in ways your partner isn’t – as if it’s one of the most important things in your life, but just ‘something’ in theirs.

What does it mean? (more…)

Loneliness: how we feel about it

Loneliness can be a frightening prospect, and one that can cause us to act in irrational ways.

Staying in an unfulfilling relationship because you’re frightened of being alone is a relatively common situation, and one that many people come to individual counselling with for help.

It can be tricky to address because the fear of loneliness may be based in deeply entrenched patterns of behaviour or issues related to self-esteem.

Why do we feel like this? (more…)