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My partner of 30 years wants to leave. How can I get her to stay?

The dilemma After a happy relationship lasting 30 years and bringing up two beautiful children, my partner says she hasn’t felt supported or been able to talk to me for the past three years. During this time, we’ve suffered several tragedies – the death of my stepdad, the death of my partner’s mother and the sexual assault of our daughter at a party last year – which led to me taking time off from my highly stressful work environment as I struggled to cope.

I’ve discovered texts to her old male college friends where she talked about not loving me any more and not finding me sexually attractive – and I’m heartbroken. The woman I love more than anything in the world wants to leave me. We’ve had several counselling sessions and now live day by day in the “grey zone”, at least until our daughter goes to university next September.

My partner wants to be “friends” and play happy families to protect our daughter, but I’m really struggling with this emotionally. She talks about building our friendship up again and seeing how it develops, but I feel abandoned and don’t know what to do.

Mariella replies How sad. I’m genuinely sorry to hear your story, and even more so in the knowledge that it’s a common state of affairs. So many relationships wash up on that same shoreline, leaving individuals abandoned and alone at just the point when a lifetime’s emotional investment should be paying off. The companionship of a friend through less frenetic years is worth sacrificing a lot for. Sadly, too often, just as the road ahead levels out, the build-up of years of miscommunication collapses like a tidal wave.

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You’ve suffered just such a cataclysm and it will take patience, confidence and resolve to get your relationship to a better place. Flailing around expressing your sense of outrage, injustice and abandonment won’t serve you well. Nobody wants to stay together out of pity, so it’s really important that you identify your goal and diligently work towards it. Your partner has said you need to build your friendship again, and on this she’s absolutely right. Both of you need to be more sympathetic to the effects of what you’ve been through and how that might have impacted on your capacity to love each other.

There’s a particular poignancy in having negotiated three decades of family life, only to find yourselves, after three years of considerable difficulty, feeling further apart than ever. You’ve been through a lot. Your daughter’s experience must have been especially hard to bear.

Although adversity supposedly makes us stronger, often continuing pressure creates destabilising fissures. Your relationship has been undermined and recovery is only possible if you are prepared to put the past firmly where it belongs and contemplate the future without looking over your shoulder in acrimony.

I can see why you’re focused on these texts that you’ve stumbled upon. It must have been painful to have your partner’s feelings revealed like that. It’s important to remember that they aren’t fully representative of what she is feeling. We choose the recipients of our indiscretions carefully, casting around for those whose response will be the one we are seeking, not necessarily what we need. Your partner is not on intimate terms with these old friends, I’m sure. What she’s looking for is affirmation, of the person she once was, before the sheer effort of living ground her down and diminished feelings between you.

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Contacting old friends is a symptom of your estrangement rather than the cause. There’s a reason all those websites that reconnect you with your past are an addiction among the over-50s. When you’re young it’s the future that looks bright and appealing; in later life it’s all too often the past. When the going gets harder we make the mistake of looking backwards, rather than remembering that in life it’s always what still lies ahead that is to be treasured.

Negativity is easy to conjure and toxic to live in, so keep to the forefront of your mind how much you’ve navigated together already. I’ll always remember a girlfriend whose husband was trying to woo her back after an infidelity had rocked their relationship. When I asked why he was sitting in their once shared kitchen with his head in his hands, she said that “he’s trying to bore me back to him”. It was obvious, in that moment, that they were past the point of no return.

Your wife is disillusioned and drifting away, and you are anxious and desperate. That’s not a winning basis for reunion. Turning things around will depend on how much you can both forgive and how convincingly you can imagine your future together. Making plans instead of mourning past mistakes is a good start. Most importantly, be assured that none of your efforts, whether successful or not, will be in vain. Increasing your resilience is an essential life skill at any age.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1


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