When Breaking up is Hard to Do

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Reader’s Question

I have been in a relationship for 12 years with a woman I think might not be right for me. I never felt really happy in the relationship and, although I loved her as a person, I was never really crazy in love with her. The main reason was that she always had weight issues, and a lot of the time I didn’t really feel much attracted to her. My lack of sexual satisfaction led me to stray and cheat several times, and my fear is that I will always do so, as I don’t think she will ever change. We have had many conversations in which I’ve expressed how I would like her to lose weight, and she might make a half-hearted effort for a while, but she is just not the type of person who can maintain a steady weight, exercise, etc. Note that I have always been and still am athletic.

Five years ago she revealed to me that she was an alcoholic, which she had managed to hide from me all those years. I supported her for years in her efforts to sober up, and that was a very difficult and painful experience. The reason I didn’t leave her during those years was largely that I was worried that her drinking would get even worse if I left. The last year or so, she has been sober and things have been better.

As soon as she sobered up, she decided she wanted a baby. I didn’t really want one, but agreed to it, as I thought it would help motivate her to stay sober. We have been having trouble conceiving and now she is thinking of treatments, but part of me wants to break up with her. My gut feeling is that I will never be truly happy in this relationship, and it’s going to be even more complicated with a baby. I can imagine that she is going to be a very good mother, but I think she will gain weight again, which is something I just can’t tolerate, though I have tried to. I also don’t feel ready for a baby, especially after all the years of suffering in this relationship. If I leave her, though, I am worried she will start drinking again. Also, she is not financially independent and relies on me.

I am in a terrible dilemma and I think it’s a ‘make or break’ time. I don’t want to end up being a bitter old man one day, who will always wonder how it could have been. Don’t get me wrong, she is a very kind and nice person, but I think everything we have been through has put a lot of strain on the relationship. I don’t really feel happy, and the idea of a baby when I don’t feel happy and secure in the relationship really scares me.

Psychologist’s Reply

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A lot of people incorrectly believe that having a child will improve a romantic relationship, when the opposite is true. While they are often a joy, babies are also an awful lot of work and can bring with them sleep deprivation, exhaustion and a divided focus. In fact, having a baby is a big reason why there are so many breakups and divorces shortly after the birth of a new child. Consequently, I strongly recommend that couples on shaky relational ground honestly evaluate how much more stress their relationship can tolerate and then proceed accordingly. This is particularly the case if fertility treatments are involved because that process can also put a lot of extra strain on a relationship.

It sounds as though you are staying with your partner largely because you are afraid of what will happen to her if you leave. You are not alone in this belief. Many people fear that leaving a romantic partner will devastate them. While this might be a compassionate viewpoint, it is not a fair one. People are complicated and oftentimes will find the strength to move forward with their lives when forced to do so. Even if they struggle and have to endure a dark period following the breakup, everyone deserves to be able to make decisions for themselves and have opportunities to grow. Whether they make the most of these opportunities is up to them, not their partners. While I do think it is caring and fair to do everything possible to ease the transition (especially financially), the emotional burden of a break up is one we all must work through ourselves.

Moreover, I always wonder how considerate it is for people to stay in relationship with someone for whom their only feeling is friendship or pity, especially if the other person has no idea that this is what is occurring. People who say they are doing this generally have their own reasons for staying, but just haven’t been willing to own them. Consequently, it will be important to ask yourself what else you get out of the relationship besides not hurting her. The answers may surprise you.

The way to fix all this is through communication. If you have told your partner how you feel about the relationship and she still wants to stay with you, then that is her choice. If you too decide to stay, then doing some couples counseling may be helpful for you to figure out how to make the relationship better. However, if you haven’t told her, then you need to because, by withholding important information, you are taking away her decision-making power. What if, instead of staying in a loveless relationship, she would prefer the ability to find a new partner who truly wants to be with her, who is attracted to her the way she is, and who likes the thought of becoming parenting partners with her? Thus, if you haven’t already done so, you should at least tell her how you feel so she can decide what she wants to do. If she decides to stay, then you can still decide to leave but you will be doing so for reasons of your own.

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