I want to leave my partner but fear he might harm himself

He is a good, kind man but more and more I realise our relationship is not good

PROBLEM: I am 27 and have been in a relationship with A for the past six years. Both of us came separately to Ireland 15 and 16 years ago respectively. I am in third-level education and value the opportunity to advance my life.

A is 38, unemployed and receiving the dole. At first he worked in building sites; it was tough for him as he has a degree from our own country. I remind him a lot of the need to do something to better himself and to get some work, but he has lost hope. He is not really ambitious, and I am. In many ways we are very different people. He speaks English but not very fluently and his fluency is getting less and less, as he doesn’t go out and mix much any more.

My parents know him and believe he is not good enough for me. A is a good, kind man; he is there for me when I come home from long days of studying. He is in the flat all the time nowadays. He doesn’t get on too well with my family, especially my father, and sometimes the problems between them escalate.

More and more I realise that our relationship is not good; we have very little in common any more, but I feel sorry for him and worry that my leaving him will make his depression even worse. I know he is depressed, although he won’t admit it. I am all he has; he lives for me. He says this all the time. I have a bigger life. I have hopes for the future when I finish my studies and look forward to being a wife and mother one day, but not with A.

I am gaining some clarity and can now allow myself to say for the first time that I want to leave A but don’t know how to do this. I will feel guilty all my life if he does anything foolish such as killing himself.

ADVICE: It is not uncommon for people in their 20s to linger in relationships that are not going to be life-long, only to discover some time later that they are stuck. Your situation is particularly difficult as your partner seems to be very dependent on you and devoid of social and family support in this country. He is also 11 years older than you, suffering from what sounds like depression and seems to be creating an ever-deepening black hole for himself.

The difficulty is that you have become his carer and his saviour. This does not bode well for the making of a strong and equal partnership. It seems as though you have made the decision to leave but pity is keeping you from this, along with a sense of duty to A and fear that he will harm himself if you leave. These are not things that you want to form the basis of a life-long relationship. It is true that you have a duty to A but you also have a duty to yourself, and both of these need attention.

A crisis is often needed to instigate change, and it is possible to create a safe crisis in this situation. Could you plan to bring up the separation when a member of his family is visiting? Can you involve his friends or members of his community in putting a plan of support in place for him?

This will involve accommodation, counselling, medical support and family involvement. It sounds as though A is in need of all these things, regardless of the state of your relationship.

While you have a role in helping A to access what he needs, it is very important that you are clear in your speech and actions that you are no longer his partner – this will involve informing everyone that it is over, and one of you moving out.

You will need a plan for yourself, too. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to conduct this separation; for example, plan to be living separately and free to go out with other people over a period of three to four months. You will find it difficult to let go the role of caring for A, but you know that this situation is good for neither of you. The danger is that you have become so accustomed to this role that you might repeat it in the future. You will need to be very aware of your pattern of enduring a difficult situation; practise speaking honestly to any future partner and taking action quickly when the situation requires it.

You are not responsible for A’s life or for his happiness, but you need to take responsibility for your own existence. This begins with a willingness to assert your own wellbeing along with concern for others.