Family

My ex is with a new man but I still love her, and have even proposed | Relationships

I’m not sure how to describe the current state of my “relationship” with the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.

We are the same age (early 50s) and met a couple of years ago; we lived close to each other and, while it was a wonderful relationship, we maintained a healthy distance that helped prevent an intense flame from burning out quickly.

We talked about spending the rest of our lives together – but never made that formal commitment (we are both divorced with children).

At one point, I had to leave my local job and took some work out of town, something I regret not discussing with her. I was able to travel back frequently to spend time together but it took its toll, especially with the stress of my job.

Predictably, when I was at a low point and our relationship began to struggle, she found someone else; he is much younger and ticks a lot of boxes. I could not blame her. He was there; I was not. I have now left that remote job but I have not been able to return to the same city, though I am more than willing to move back for her. However, she is in this other relationship.

This sounds like so many other relationships that run a natural course – except that not only do I still love her but I think she loves me too: at least she tells me so. I have even proposed.

She says this other man is good and kind, and she can’t find a reason (besides me) to break up with him. He knows about us and is very jealous. I think we are all waiting for someone else to give up first.

If they broke up tomorrow, would I drop everything and go running back? Yes, though such things are always easier in the movies than in real life. I would try, anyway. As she and I have discussed, we have to have faith and hope the universe has a plan – if it is meant to be, it will be …

I think you’re spot-on in not knowing how to describe it. This sounds messy. I understand emotional situations can present us with great indecision, but it’s as if neither you nor your girlfriend know how you got into this. The reality is that you took a job away from home without really discussing it with her, and she started dating someone else. What’s more, there’s an innocent person involved – and children.

There was a push-pull narrative to your letter: the relationship was “wonderful” but you kept a “distance”; you talked about spending your lives together but never actually committed. And then the best line of all: would you drop everything and go running back if they broke up? Probably.

My first question is: had you split up when this happened? The situation you’ve both found yourself in seems more about fantasy than reality, something the UKCP-registered psychotherapist John-Paul Davies immediately picked up on. Davies wanted you to have a bit of empathy for yourself: “If what you want is a long-term, committed relationship with someone, you’re not getting it here. Perhaps this is why you put ‘relationship’ in inverted commas. What does it mean for you, on a day-to-day basis, that this woman is effectively living her day to day with someone else?” Davies also noticed you had an expectancy of things not going well: “It’s not predictable that loving partners find someone else when one person is struggling and at a low point.”

We wondered where that expectation came from. Sometimes, when we have old wounds, we’re used to being hurt in a certain way. We don’t recognise how rubbish our situation really is because it feels familiar, and we equate that with desirable. Sometimes when relationships get too real, we sabotage them (you going away, her introducing a new boyfriend), because then we can elevate them to an unattainable fantasy state, where they can become anything we want. This is why people often keep going back to exes or fall for unavailable partners. But long-lasting relationships are about the everyday, the ordinary, the joys and the pettiness, the navigating of life after that “intense flame” burns out.

You’ve told her how you really feel (if indeed you know that) so it may be wise to leave her to it. I know this will be difficult and painful in the shorter term, but the situation you’re in has the potential to cause great hurt further down the line. “Leaving things to the universe” is great printed on a tea towel, but real life requires a more active input.

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.

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