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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.