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Do I need to leave my partner for the sake of my fragile son? | Ask Annalisa Barbieri


I am 62 years old and semi-retired. I’ve worked hard all my life. In my 30s I had a son; it was just the two of us for a long time. My son had mental health issues in his teens and has autism; I am still friends with my son’s father, and they have a good relationship.

Ten years ago I met a lovely man and we moved in together. My son went to uni; the expectation was he’d move out once he’d graduated. He’s now 27 and still living with us.

My partner can be kind and self-sufficient, but the relationship can be hard work. He doesn’t believe in autism. We agree to disagree. Most of the time they rub along together, but I sometimes feel as if I’m treading on eggshells. I told my son he would have a home with me as long as he needed it. He is fragile mentally.

I’d like to live alone with my son. A few days a week I also care for my elderly dad, who lives an hour’s round trip away. My two closest friends have life-limiting diseases and also live some distance away; moving closer to my dad would also make it easier to see them more often too.

Can I justify seriously upsetting a good, loyal and honest man just to please myself? I don’t know how long I can carry on with this charade.

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What was so interesting about your letter was that the second version you sent was carefully curated to eliminate a lot of the more negative details about your partner, and thereby your justifications for wanting to leave. I could see that you had deleted certain words, making him sound better and weakening your own case. I wonder if you’ve always done this – ignoring how you feel for the sake of others? Going on your first letter, your partner doesn’t, actually, sound that easy to live with. And some of his beliefs – not believing autism exists – are fundamentally misaligned.

Family psychotherapist Dr Reenee Singh felt you needed to be given permission “to focus on what you need, that your own happiness matters. It doesn’t sound as if your partner is supporting you enough; it sounds like the relationship is very much on his terms.”

It seemed to both of us as if your life had been largely about other people’s needs, and perhaps it started earlier than that: you mentioned you had started work young. Singh wondered if, possibly, the thought of also becoming responsible for your partner into old age was a consideration for you? This may be hard to admit.

“It’s important to recognise your needs,” said Singh. “You have a right to happiness. But whether you stay with him or not, you do owe this man a conversation.” Singh felt individual counselling might benefit you.

Whenever we contemplate a big life change, it’s important to think about the reasons we are doing it and how we’d feel if those reasons were no longer there. For example, although you seem convinced he won’t, how would you feel if your son did leave home, or met someone? What happens when your father dies or if your friends move? Would you be happy then with the decisions you’ve taken?

When we want to leave a relationship, it’s tempting to think of it all from our own point of view, and guilt and confusion make us think that leaving will result in nothing but unhappiness – and it may, in the short term. But another way to look at it is you leaving could allow your partner to be with someone else or on his own, and that might result in greater happiness for both of you.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, a new podcast series, is available here.

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