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Should I break up with my boyfriend?

My boyfriend and I are in our mid-twenties and have been together for 7 years. I do love him but I've always had a sense that he's not 'the one' and recently that feeling has grown stronger. He's a kind, loving and respectful partner, so I find it difficult to explain exactly why I feel this way.

Of course, like anybody, he isn't perfect. He can lack assertiveness and ambition which I find frustrating. He can also be quite clingy and easily offended. However, I feel I've undermined his confidence over the years by more than once saying that I plan to leave — only for him to persuade me to stay. 

We've moved several times for work and study and as a result, have ended up quite isolated from friends and my family. We both feel lonely at times and I often find myself retreating into unlikely fantasies of a life where he doesn't feature. He feels I wrongly attribute my discontentment and loneliness to problems in our relationship and that the changes I feel are part of many long-term relationships.

I think I sound selfish, as I know he loves me very much and is a good guy. But another part of me feels it is selfish to stay with someone I'm not in love with. I find it difficult to know whether I should stay or go, and don't want to hurt him (and myself) only to find that life isn't greener.

It sounds like you’re asking yourself some really serious questions about your relationship. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that you’re at the famous ‘seven-year itch’ stage which seems be a time when some people start to think “is this it for the rest of my life or do I need something different?”. People can change a lot in their early 20’s. What felt exciting in your early twenties can seems dull in your mid-twenties even when there are a lot of good things about the relationship.

It certainly sounds like you’ve been trying to get your boyfriend to focus on your relationship. You’ve clearly been talking but it seems as though maybe the conversations have got into a rut. You tell him you’re not very happy. He feels he’s happy enough and finds any attempt to drill down into what’s wrong difficult to hear. The end result is that both of you end up feeling stuck.

I know he says there isn’t a problem with the relationship, but you’ve left on several occasions and although you always go back, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t really concerned about this or expecting a permanent ending. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to discuss what we most fear and this might account for him attributing your feelings to things other than your relationship. In one way though he is right. Relationship counsellors see lots of couples where one or both are really questioning what’s in it for them, distractions like work, family and sometimes other potential romantic opportunities often cause stress and anxiety and it’s difficult to feel connected to someone when everything crowds on top of you. Couples in these situations can often work through difficult feelings and find new ways of reconnecting.

But let’s look at the ‘facts’. You say that he is not the assertive person you would like, and is easily offended and clingy. You don’t find him sexually attractive and have said you’ll leave only to be talked back into the relationship. You’ve moved around a lot as a couple and that can feel isolating as you say. But perhaps underneath all this is the central problem that you can only actually leave this relationship if you believed him to be a ‘bad’ person.

As it is, maybe you question why you should be dissatisfied with his many good qualities (he’s loving, respectful and very committed). So, you end up justifying why you shouldn’t leave him when in fact, weighing up why you should may be the better option. Of course, the qualities you describe are very important in a relationship and many people would I think feel envious that you have a partner who is offering these things to you. Some would advise you to hang on to this relationship at all costs; certainly, he sounds like a good man. You’ve probably had many happy times together. He’s a part of your life that will always feel valuable and has contributed to the person you are now, but that isn’t necessarily a reason to stay.

Of course, you could get some couple counselling and maybe sort out new ways forward and perhaps hear each other better.  As I’ve said, counselling is really helpful when people have lost touch with each other and want to find out if the relationship is viable. But your letter suggests to me that you’ve known the answer to your dilemma for quite a while. What’s worrying you most is the pain you will cause him if you actually leave and stay left.

It’s natural to feel like this. We don’t usually want to hurt people but making it the reason not to go is a mistake. I think you have to level with him. Be clear that the conversation can’t go in the usual direction. It might be helpful to actually say that the reason you so often want to leave is because he finds it so difficult to acknowledge any problems in the relationship. Perhaps admitting that there might be makes him feel like a failure when in fact, if you could discuss things differently, there may be away forward together.

He may be very angry and distressed that you really mean business, but ultimately the feelings you describe can eat away at a relationship with both partners ending up resentful and unsatisfied with the lives they have together.

I wonder if he lives on a knife edge too – perhaps waiting for the next time you say you’re going. Ultimately it may be a relief to him that he won’t have to live with that worry so he and you can pursue new relationships and opportunities.

I don’t think you’re being selfish. I think you’ve reached a point where it’s getting more and more difficult to justify staying but understandably you worry that as you say, the grass may not be greener. Who knows the answer to this and you certainly won’t if you stay in a relationship that may have run its course. It may have been a really wonderful experience some of the time but now you want to see what life has in store for you. It’s a gamble but from what you say, whatever may come next, you don’t feel you can necessarily enjoy it with him.

Do you have a question to ask Ammanda?

Ammanda Major is a sex and relationship therapist and our Head of Service Quality and Clinical Practice

If you have a relationship worry you would like some help with send a message to Ammanda.

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