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Our long-term relationship is stale. Is this something that happens to everyone? | Australian lifestyle

I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost seven years, and our relationship has gotten stale. We both feel that we are not very happy, but we don’t want to break up, as we love and care for each other.

We’ve both been working from home throughout the pandemic, and work long hours. No doubt this has impacted our relationship, and our sex life is poor. I just feel like relationships should be more than this, that they should add something to your life. Right now we are more like flatmates.

Although I have considered splitting up with him, money is an issue. I don’t know if I could afford living alone and my parents live far away, so I couldn’t live with them. Is this something that happens to every long-term relationship, or has ours just run its course?

You asked whether it’s every relationship’s fate to turn moth-eaten, and while my strong belief is “no”, I think that isn’t actually the question. This isn’t about what everyone else’s relationships are like – it’s about what you want yours to be like. Every relationship on earth could look “like flatmates” and it would still be legitimate to decide “I don’t want that”. So don’t look too much through the lens of what’s normal. Look through the lens of what’s worth wanting.

Do you want a better relationship with this person, or a different relationship altogether?

From where you’re standing, it can be hard to answer that question. We get tangled in loops of expectations and counter-examples, every thought trailing clouds of analysis. Is this normal? What’s a good decision? How do I know?

But I think when love’s in town, you know. Do you root for each other in the real way? Are you on each other’s side? Does your dynamic feel like a high five or a wink, or something else joyful between equals? Can you imagine years of conversation with him? Do you make each other laugh?

If the answer is “yes”, and you do you want this relationship – just better – it may be helpful to think about how you can get from love back to desire.

They’re almost photonegative emotions: love is a ribcage-expanding gratitude for what we have, whereas desire is a longing for what we don’t have. Love responds to reality; desire, to imagination. They’re right on the edge of being contradictory, so it’s famously easy for one to extinguish the other: many beautiful young women know that the people who most desire them are the least equipped to love them; and conversely, many in your position find that the person they adore most is the least able to ignite their desire.

But the fun of a long-term relationship lives precisely in this almost-contradiction. You get to be at once familiar and unknown to each other; you get to play in that space, mutually changing aspects. You can be kaleidoscopic, multitudinous, contradictory.

To do that, you have to help each other shift. While many would suggest spending more time together, I think sometimes the reverse can help: try to rediscover the other in “significant other”. Lean into what makes you separate, so you have something of yourselves to bring to each other, besides the space between you.

If you want your sex life to change, too, it’s worth talking about it directly. Do not expect it will improve when everything else does; it can be the exact other way around. Sex should make you feel free, happy, celebrated. If it doesn’t, it’s worth finding out why, with specific words. From there, ask what kinds of touch do make you feel good, and try to play together in those. Trust, intimacy and the electricity of touch don’t have to aim at – or be exhausted by – sex. Indeed they’re better when they don’t.

If, after all that, it turns out you just want a different relationship, don’t feel bad. I once Googled “how to know if you should break up with your boyfriend” and the first result was “because you Googled this”. Relationships take work, but that doesn’t mean they have to be hard.


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