Tell Me About It: One of you needs to be courageous enough to demand that the relationship goes under the microscope so all possibilities are investigated before letting it go
I’m 39, I’ve been with my partner for 17 years and we have a four-year-old daughter. Our relationship was fine until 2013 when he discovered some flirty emails I exchanged with a co-worker. I wasn’t having an affair, but there was some heavy flirting for four months and we exchanged kisses a few times. I apologised for hurt caused then but he still has resentment and trust issues with me.
The birth of our daughter and Covid lockdowns brought about an incredible amount of stress, resentment and sadness. Last year we bought a house together and live by the sea; we thought we’d have a new start, but nothing has changed – it’s actually worse.
We sleep in different rooms, haven’t had sex in four years and we bicker and fight about little and big issues. Communication has broken down completely and we are both numb.
I’m tempted to do casual dating and meet men to feel alive and happier. What should I do?
If you do casual dating without a solid agreement with your partner, you are in danger of not only breaking up the family but of also repeating the hurt that you know has decimated your relationship. Of course, you can decide to separate and then look for a more fulfilling life elsewhere, but it seems that you both have felt that there was enough in your relationship to have a child and to buy a house together.
That you are both numb points to the huge sense of loss that both of you feel, and your letter expresses loneliness and frustration at what could be – if only you could find a way to communicate. Having had 10 years of mistrust and hurt is a lot to unravel, so it is unlikely that you and your partner will be able to do this without assistance. Even understanding what allowed you to flirt so intensely with someone else needs to be part of the uncovering, and one of you needs to be courageous enough to demand that the relationship is worth putting under the microscope so that all possibilities are investigated before letting it go.
Clearly you miss physical contact and the sense of feeling attractive, and you can assume the same for your partner
Having no affection, moments of connection or humour can erode anyone’s sense of wellbeing, so it is no surprise that you both engage in bickering on a daily basis. Strangely, this is cause for optimism, as we only fight if we care and often intense bickering is a (poor) substitute for intimacy. There is probably no one other than your partner that you would have a no-holds-barred fight with, and this fighting is designed to get the other person to see how much damage they are causing. Sometimes a lack of intimacy can be measured by the level of argument, with the corollary also true – that if affection increases, then quarrelling decreases. Talking about expressing affection might seem far-fetched in the current situation, but you could try something small and see whether there is any response.
Couples cite small acts of kindness as invaluable in the maintenance of their relationship, so do not underestimate the power of saying thank you or the offer of a cup of tea.
Clearly you miss physical contact and the sense of feeling attractive, and you can assume the same for your partner, but putting this on the table can make you feel very vulnerable – and so we often mask this with “un-neediness” and disdain. From how you interact, you can see how desperately both of you want the other person to say how much they love and need the other, and how they are willing to do anything to make amends.
It is easy to give up at the first hurdle when things are not going as well as planned, so have a plan to persist and return to this conversation a number of times
It seems that you are the one who needs to get the ball rolling as your partner has been living with insecurity since your flirtation, and he is unlikely to have the self-esteem to support the risk of exposure. Start by asking for a serious conversation (outside your home and routine) and then ask him what he sees as the way forward. If you can listen without anger and ask for further clarifications, you might just hear something worth focusing on. Then you might talk about how lonely and sad you are and how you want to see whether there is something worth salvaging, and that you are willing to engage in couples therapy to see what is possible. Reminding both of you of your child and your home will help the conversation from sliding into the usual format of bickering.
Offer him the choice of what therapist to engage with, as this may bolster his sense of participation. As with most things, it is easy to give up at the first hurdle when things are not going as well as planned, so have a plan to persist and return to this conversation a number of times. Even if you eventually separate, these conversations will allow you to do it with less rancour and your child will be grateful for this as they won’t have to mediate your positions of resentment.