Is the notion that we need to stay madly in love a collective delusion? Is splitting up always the best decision? Asking yourself ‘Should i leave my partner?’ Sarah Lang looks into it.
About 18 months ago, an acquaintance of mine, Rose* (49), left her husband. Their two kids had left home. Rose and her husband still got on well, but sexual intimacy had dropped off and there wasn’t much of a romantic spark anymore. She felt bored in the marriage. “At times, it felt as though we were more like flatmates,” Rose says. When she told him she wanted out, he wanted to work on the relationship, but she didn’t.
Since then, Rose has found the (largely online) dating pool something of a disappointment. “Before I met my husband, internet dating wasn’t a thing. I had no idea how to navigate any of it. I still don’t really!” She’s been on about seven or eight dates, and was only interested in one of the men, but he wasn’t keen on her. “Some of the men were total dicks.”
Rose began regretting her decision to divorce. But by then her husband had met someone else, and no time machine was available. She wishes she’d done everything to see if the marriage could have been saved. “I thought the grass was greener,” she says. “But, so far, it isn’t.”
Maybe you relate to Rose’s situation.
Maybe you’ve been with your partner for a long time – perhaps 15 or 20 years.
Maybe you still get on fine, but can feel bored around them.
Maybe your partner and you don’t have shared interests.
Maybe you still love them but you’re not ‘in love’ (whatever that means).
Maybe you don’t have sex much anymore, or it’s just the basics.
Maybe you still hanker after ‘the one that got away’, imagining what your life might have been with that person (when usually there’s a good reason why they got away).
You could argue that in the modern-day Western world we have this grand romantic ideal of what love should be – and that we should stay as ‘in love’ as we once were. But is the idea that we’ll find the perfect man or woman if we look hard enough something of a collective delusion? Does that notion stop us appreciating what we have in an existing partnership? Are you asking ‘should I leave my partner?’
Should they split up, many women aged 40 and older will have never used online dating – and looking for love online can be a swift, sharp shock. It’s different to what happened in your 20s: going to a bar or party, and perhaps meeting someone you like, with a feeling of spontaneity and without feeling pressure to couple up. (Of course, bars and parties are for all ages.)
A friend of mine went from pretty-good relationship to pretty-good relationship in her 20s and 30s, thinking the “grass is always greener”. Ironically, she ended up in a relationship worse than any other she’d had. They’re only together for the kids.
Of course, every situation is different and there may be some or many good reasons why it’s best to split up (cheating being a very good reason). For instance, if you always annoy each, if you argue a lot, if he or she takes you for granted – and most importantly, if you just don’t like him or her anymore.
Should i leave my partner?
According to a Danish study published in the international Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, nearly half of recently-divorced respondents cited a lack of love or intimacy as the reason. But if you’re both willing, you could work on that. For example, schedule sex for a Sunday until you’re back into, er, the swing of things. Have a date night each fortnight. Put your phones down in the evening. Couples’ counselling has proved useful for people I know, as have couples’ workshops, including the Wellington weekend workshop Getting The Love You Want.
Perhaps your relationship is not just ‘salvageable’ but can actually improve significantly. And when it comes down to it, perhaps having a reliable partner who is nice to you, who you still like, and whose company you still enjoy, is a good scenario. Without wanting to sound overly pragmatic, perhaps staying together is a better option than becoming single. You might dislike online dating but find it hard to meet anyone ‘organically’. You might find yourself facing old age without a companion. You’ll need to establish different residences and that’s expensive.
In any case, your partner doesn’t have to be everything to you. You can make other deep connections through friendships and separate interests. As relationship coach Jordan Gray writes in an article called ‘Why Your Partner Can’t Be Your Everything’ “If you’re prone to thinking that your partner has to be everything to you and that all of your needs should be fulfilled by them, it’s probably time that you let them off the hook of your inflated expectations of their abilities… You have a multitude of needs (physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, etc.) and it would be impossible to expect one person to meet all of those needs for you. No one human will ever be able to fulfil all of your needs for you. Ever.”
A bullet-pointed checklist of what you want in a partner may actually exclude someone who could be good for you. When we were in our 20s, a friend of mine and I made a list called Things Not To Go For In A Guy, reaching more than 100 entries when we really got enthused about it. I stuck it on my wall. My now-husband failed the first three criteria – being skinny, balding and more than five years older than me – but turns out he was a good choice.
I was part of the generation that straddled the era of dating pre-cellphone and dating post-cellphone. I actually preferred the former, where you had to actually speak on the phone and text messages couldn’t be misinterpreted. Thankfully, online dating was just before my time. Were I single, I can’t imagine having to navigate it.
And as for that ‘love’ vs ‘in love’ idea? Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in the U.S, and author of six books including Anatomy of Love, has said that falling out of love doesn’t mean a marriage will end. It’s one of three brain systems that are associated with partnering. One is the sex drive, second is these feelings of intense romantic love, and the third is feelings of deep attachment to a partner.”
People may not be ‘in love’ in the same way they were when they met. But as Fisher explains, “they’re deeply attached, they still like the person’s sense of humour, they still like to make love to them, and there’s a comfortable relationship they’d like to keep.” And that’s gotta count for something.
No one’s suggesting people shouldn’t spilt up. But for some, it may be worth trying your best to salvage or even improve the relationship – if only to not look back with regret.