Tell Me About It: It is unlikely that a couple in a situation such as yours will resolve it without some outside intervention
I have been with my partner for 10 years and we have a very young family. We get along fine and work well as co-parents. However, the romance and intimacy in our relationship has died. We have spoken honestly about this and agreed that were it not for the kids, we would both prefer to go our separate ways quite amicably.
However, he was recently away for three weeks, and I know I could not manage the children without him. I work full-time and he does most of the childcare. He is not from Ireland and I know if I ended the relationship he would most likely move home as he has found it hard to settle here. He is staying here because he enjoys our family unit, although maybe not the relationship. We have plans to buy a house together this year which we need, but will tie us together even more. I am very unsure how to proceed.
Is it sometimes best to put the kids first and just muddle along in an unsatisfactory relationship?
Strangely, it might be more difficult to come to a decision if things were either better or worse, as there would be more clarity in the situation – but you are in-between. This is known as the “saucer effect” in a relationship. A couple are neither in a relationship nor out of it, but circle each other in a kind of non-world at the edge of the saucer. They get stuck in a place where they cannot trust/care/lust after each other enough to go right to the centre, but they do not dislike each other enough to break out of the saucer and leave. They can develop an endurance for this over the years and it can become more and more difficult to challenge the habit, but at all times one or both will feel dissatisfied, unhappy and unfulfilled.
Very often a crisis will break the stalemate – an affair, illness, trauma with a child – but it is not unusual for the couple to address the crisis and return to the familiarity of the edge of the saucer and continue the situation. Usually, one person tries to rescue the situation, but it ends in frustration, as the effort is not sustained for long enough, or their partner is oblivious to their efforts.
This couple often have a lot in common and started out with similar goals. Their shared ideals are strong and perhaps this is what makes it very difficult to give up on the situation. These values might be ambition in terms of work or raising a family, or they have a joint community that holds them together. They may still have remnants of the connection that was so strong in the early relationship; they want to protect their children from the pain of separation; they fear making a mistake and regretting it in the future, or they simply do not have the economic freedom to risk break-up.
The time to invest in an intervention is now, before more decisions are made
Whatever the reason, the ongoing pattern is set, and it continues unless there is a crisis, and sometimes this crisis can reverberate outwards and cause harm to lots of people. Children can end up mediating between parents and living in houses where martyrdom and silence are normalised. Sometimes, the partners seek their emotional connections elsewhere, and all the intimacy happens outside the relationship. A partner can feel very isolated and shut down to the extent that they are unable to express their fear of loss, and therefore go unheard. All this can be exacerbated and maintained by habit, lack of awareness and inability to broach the reality because of fear of consequences.
Of course, the earlier this situation is acknowledged and tackled, the better. It is unlikely that a couple in a situation such as yours will resolve it without some outside intervention, and any external person asking questions will outline the reality very quickly. If this situation of stalemate is to be broken, it will require habit-breaking skills as well as the tackling of avoidance and facing into possible conflict. For you, the crisis may come with the question of buying a house together and the financial entanglement that comes with this.
The time to invest in an intervention is now, before more decisions are made, so you should engage with a family therapist or a family mediator to assist you with the difficult conversations (see familytherapyireland.com for a countrywide list of family therapists, and legalaidboard.ie for free family mediation services).