My relationship with my partner has been faltering for years but I can’t afford to leave. Things turned particularly sour after the pandemic started, with us both being at home all of the time. I think we have both come to realise that we share very few interests compared to when we first got together a decade ago.
The vast majority of the time we interact more like housemates than romantic partners, and I desperately miss having that emotional connection with someone. I know neither of us are satisfied, but I can’t see any alternative to our current situation. On my salary alone I couldn’t afford to take on our (heavily mortgaged) house, and moving away from the city to somewhere cheaper would probably mean leaving a job I love.
I feel a relentless, nagging anxiety about my future because there’s this constant uncertainty. Should I just be grateful that for now things aren’t so awful that I have to leave? Staying in an emotionally sterile relationship for pragmatic reasons is very lonely, but maybe that’s the best I can hope for.
Eleanor says: It sounds to me that you feel like your only choice is between two kinds of unhappiness – whether to stay in this partnership, which feels moth-eaten and crumpled, or to split up, and face relocation and expensive change. I think more people than we’d like to admit feel trapped like this in their relationships – as though life is holding out two clenched fists, saying “right or left?”, when we already know each choice will leave us sour.
It’s a bad feeling, to think we’re just choosing between different kinds of bad. It’s hard to muster the resolve to make a decision when you’re not choosing what you want so much as what you’ll least regret – even if we do ultimately stay, or leave, the fact that we couldn’t find a secret third option to be unambiguously excited about can make us bitter about what we have chosen, shuffling through the resulting life like a begrudging teenager at a family function – I’ll go, but you can’t make me enjoy it.
This trap is responsible for a lot of unhappiness.
I think the only thing to do when we’re caught between two painful futures is to shift the way of making the decision; to stop looking for the path that will hurt the least, and start looking for the one that will hurt in a way we can understand – to choose the pain we at least feel like we have authored.
There is suffering in all directions for you – if you stay, you write that you desperately miss emotional connection; that you feel relentless anxiety. If you leave, there’s no way around the fact that separations can force us into worse apartments, jobs, cities or debts – into tremendous loneliness and upheaval.
But listen, you can survive pain. You can survive big pain. You may be surprised at how the embers of pride and self reliance can light even terrible suffering with a kind of glow; you may find yourself looking around at a “worse” house, an unfamiliar place, a new set of colleagues, even an unforgiving Excel budget sheet, and feel “it isn’t much, but it’s mine”. You may find that the pain of turning to face the wave and allowing it to break on top of you can be more inhabitable, formative, in some strange way, more bearable, than the alternative kind of pain before you.
Do you know the Isak Dinesen line that anything can be borne as long as we can put it into a story? I sometimes think the reason upheaval-pain can feel more like ours than disappointment-pain is that it restores the sense that our story isn’t over yet. The pain of leaving something in order to begin anew can be searing – but we know it’s interstitial. We can look over the horizon and imagine a time when it has passed. Our willingness to bear that pain in the present can be a great gift to a future self.
Each path involves suffering, there’s no way around that – the question is which kind of suffering you’d be more proud to choose.
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