For nearly two years I have been rolling around in the same low-level but wearing problems like a pig in my own muck, and it’s got to the point where I think I’m the problem – in two ways. One, I keep having the same problems over and over, and not managing to change, so it’s got to be at least partly me. Two, in the specific instances at the moment, being unhappy is making me act like an asshole. I feel like the villain in my own life – every time I read a book with an antagonist, I think ‘Yeah, I have that fault’. Basically, I feel stuck in my own head and trapped by circumstances and I simply don’t know what to do or how to make a decision about it.
I am in a relationship with a very decent, lovely man, Rob, who is the father of my 18-month-old daughter, Lila. Lila was unplanned – Rob and I had been together just 10 months, lived in different towns and he knew he didn’t want kids (I was undecided). He changed his mind immediately she was born and is a devoted dad now. He does so much: cooking, cleaning, his share of the childcare, gardening, making things for the house. He moved in with me two weeks before Lila was born. The house is mine but since we’ve been living together we’ve got a joint account and split everything. Rob is also supportive of me wanting to change career and of my pursuing my childhood ambition to write.
Rob wasn’t my usual type and some of the things that attracted me to him were (I see in hindsight) things that weren’t like my ex (e.g. not criticising the way I ate or sang). I’d recently become more healthy and fit than I’d been for a long time and felt really good. Our relationship was based a lot around food, sex and big physical challenges in those early days.
Since having Lila, a lot of that has changed. Rob always had a lower sex drive than me and I was not always as understanding of that as I should have been (instead feeling rejected). Since I got pregnant our sex life has disappeared. In the last year we’ve had sex maybe once. He has many (undoubtedly true) reasons for this – to start with, he was shocked by becoming a father and thinking his life was over; then he was exhausted from having a newborn and dealing with my depression; now he thinks we need to spend more time together so he feels a connection, and feels I would rather spend time on my phone than with him (this is sometimes true – I feel like we don’t have that much in common or interesting to talk about, and get frustrated with our conversations – if I’m 100 per cent honest, I don’t feel intellectually challenged by him). But I’ve felt very rejected and ‘I still find you attractive’ is not convincing when not backed up with any actions (even hugging is rare, and the only kissing is a peck goodbye in the morning).
We do things together as a family at weekends, but not really the same outdoorsy things we used to. But we take Lila out a lot together – to the woods, to model steam train exhibitions, to farms, camping, to see grandparents or friends. And we host games nights at our house or have friends for dinners. We only rarely do things just us though.
We argued a lot after Lila was born – not immediately, but it started after several months. It goes in phases – we can get along OK, doing the routines, but if certain topics get brought up, arguments flare into volcanic force with breathtaking speed. Some of the resentments run deep on both sides and we don’t seem able to address them. And the worst thing is, neither of us seems to have any self-control once the floodgates are down, and we argue in front of Lila (who is now 20 months).
Rob actually proposed just under a year ago. I feel awful because although I didn’t pressure him, he knew I wanted my mum (who’s terminally ill) to be at my wedding. Immediately he proposed, it felt wrong to me, in a visceral way. I said yes – we were on vacation and had been happily making our 5 year plans the night before, it was romantic and I was cowardly. But then I think subconsciously I started pushing at the pressure points of the relationship after that. We starting arguing more and I started distancing myself more.
Rob isn’t perfect and he’s said some pretty mean things to me in arguments – that I’m pathetic, useless, to just ‘take pills’ for my depression (despite my stated personal preference for counselling and two doctors’ opinions to the same effect), saying when asked why he’s with me that he loves ‘the old me’ and knows I can be kind and lovely etc. (he means emotionally/mentally, not physically – I’m the one who can’t come to terms with my post-partum look, although his lack of desire for me doesn’t help).
Where I’m unhappy, I am acting out and am often unfair. Sometimes I am so childish in my emotions and reactions (although Rob can be too, and he loses his temper easily). I’m also selfish and feel I’m using him. When I’m depressed, I get lethargic and he ends up doing more than his fair share of chores. I feel really torn. On one side, staying together would be the optimum outcome for Lila (assuming we can have a healthy relationship), and for us too, even if just in terms of sharing her growing up and not having to split time to see her. Also, Rob wouldn’t be able to buy a house on his own, finances would be tighter for us both (probably also not helping Lila down the line), I may have to go back to work full time (I’m currently part time) and we don’t want Lila in childcare 5 days a week. So if it can work, I want it to. And I don’t know if it is just my attitude getting in the way, that I need to commit more. But small things seem to take so much effort. I don’t know if that’s because I’m depressed, or if my depression has partly stemmed from the situation. I’ve also started stupidly romancing in my head about someone I barely know but who showed a flicker of interest in me. Rob is a great guy – loyal, kind, generous.
On the other side, something doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to go without sex. Sometimes I’m so frustrated that I want an affair – although I wouldn’t actually do it, I hate that the thought even pops into my head. I don’t feel we have enough intellectual common interests or ground. We don’t ever agree on even films to watch. We do have some interests in common, but I worry I’d be bored sitting on a sofa with him in 20 years’ time. But I have a history of ‘grass is always greener’-ing, and maybe I’m just jinxng the relationship all by myself? I don’t want Lila to grow up seeing an unhealthy relationship. And without him, my life will be a lot harder and any career change (I really hate my job) or creative/social time would be much less likely. There’s no guarantee I’d find a more fulfilling relationship so maybe I should try and make the best of things. But then I feel bad for using him. One of my pragmatic practical friends said we should just keep going for now until Lila is a bit older, but that has its issues too.
These counter arguments have been rolling in my head over and over for more than a year now and I’m exhausted and no nearer to knowing what’s best.
Rob says he wants to make it work, but I secretly feel maybe it’s just because he wants to see Lila all the time and because of the house situation that he’s trying. We never seem to change, however often we mean to.
Sorry this has gone on and on and waffled. But any clarity would be welcomed.
The villain in my own life
In your words:
“Something doesn’t feel right“
“Immediately he proposed, it felt wrong to me, in a visceral way….I was cowardly. But then I think subconsciously I started pushing at the pressure points of the relationship after that. We starting arguing more and I started distancing myself more.”
Going out on a limb here, but I don’t think you want to marry this Rob fella.
Not to make your mom happy and because you can’t imagine your wedding photos without her.
Not because he asked and because you like him a lot and he tries hard and is a great dad.
Not because of affordable housing for him or career stuff for you or coparenting your kid.
I…just…You don’t want to marry him. You’re not compatible. You feel awful and guilty and trapped so you’re taking it out on him and distancing yourself and pushing on the weak points of the relationship instead of trying to shore them up. You’re calling yourself names – a villain in this story – when really you just sound incredibly unhappy and lonely.
Would it be a relief to admit that you don’t want to be married to him, out loud, at least to yourself? What would it cost you to take planning a wedding and the prospect of getting married off the table for the time being?
Maybe it will cost too much, emotionally and literally. Maybe he’s all “Marriage or NOTHING” and he’ll be super hurt about how he tried to ‘do the right thing’ and you cruelly rejected him. Or maybe he’ll be relieved because it’s stressing him the hell out, too, and things would be much better if you had the “Hey, let’s do our best to make this all work, I love you and I’m not breaking up with you, but I think the idea of marriage is raising my anxiety levels, so, let’s take the pressure all the way off ourselves right now when everything else is so hard?” conversation.
It’s risky to open that can of worms, to start asking questions like “What does happiness look like to you?” and “What does ‘happy enough’ look like to you?” and “Are we close, or getting there?”
It’s also risky to stay stuck. And risky to marry someone because you think you should want to. As risky as it is for him to marry a lady who is doing the emotional equivalent of chewing her own leg off to avoid marrying him.
If you truly want to make things work with Rob, if you want to stay with him and be in love with only each other while you coparent your kid, then you both need cheesy stuff like “date nights” and the odd weekend away from kids together where you focus on each other and on making each other feel good be that climbing rocks or hiking or doing giant jigsaw puzzles by the fire or rubbing each other’s feet at night. It means that sometimes you put down your phone and give him all your attention and sometimes you zone out and read your phone and he understands that you need those little breaks and it’s not a competition. (If thinking “I love you, but shhhhhh, I’m trying to read The Internet” at one’s partner sometimes is wrong then nobody in my house is right). It means making the effort to find a movie you both want to watch or saying “Fuck it, we’re going to take turns picking the movie. I’ll be a good sport about your picks if you’ll be a good sport about mine” because doing something together is the most important thing. It means deciding to stop distancing yourself and looking for ways to connect.
Note: I don’t think you want to do any of this and I’m not saying you should do this. I don’t think you and Rob would be together at all if you didn’t have Lila. But this is what really committing to be together would look like.
I do recommend that you go to couples’ therapy and hashing out some of this stuff with a neutral party who can guide you through your “I want to start having sex again but I don’t know where to start and also I need a lot more physical affection in the day-to-day in order to feel connected to you” talk and his “Hey, I need you to talk to your doctors about treating your depression more aggressively. I’m really sorry about what I said before about medications. If you don’t want to take meds, that’s up to you, but what other therapies are there that can help you function better? I know you’re drowning but I’m drowning a little too, and I need you at full Yeah strength, or at least to know that you’re trying your hardest to get there” talk. A good couples’ counselor can help you articulate that scary stuff and help you both decide together if the relationship is worth salvaging and how to end it gently if it’s not.
Good news: Maybe there’s a version of “maybe pretty darn happy?” where y’all sell your current house and buy a duplex or a two-flat and Mommy lives upstairs and Daddy lives downstairs* and you aren’t a couple anymore but you’re great friends to each other and great parents to Lila. If you want to see your friends or go on a date or lose yourself over a weekend to write, you can do it when she’s with her dad, and he can do the same when she’s with you. You can have togetherness and stability and space and free time where you watch only the movies you like. You can make an awesome family that doesn’t necessarily look like other families, and you can write the rules yourselves. Down the road, maybe you’ll each meet someone who makes marriage sound delightful and relaxing and like an easy “Fuck yes!” decision and then Lila will have more adults who love her in her picture and she’ll hate it like all kids hate change on some level but as long as she’s loved and safe she’ll be just fine.
Also good news: If Lila spent some time in childcare while y’all figured out your career stuff and living arrangements, that would be normal, too. She’d come to love her carers and teachers, she’d be psyched to see Mama and/or Papa at the end of the day, the routine there would become an anchor while things changed at home. She wouldn’t feel deprived as long as she’s loved and safe. Great parents use day care all the time and everyone is just fine.
Even more good news: If you and Rob broke up now, 99% of what Lila remembers will be whatever happens after you broke up. She might have some more separation anxiety than usual and temporarily regress a little (with sleep, with the potty, etc.) but it will be a fog when she’s older and whatever your new arrangement ended up looking like it would become her normal. The older she is when and if you do do it, the more disruptive the disruption and the more she’ll remember.
There is so much in your letter, so many interlocking decisions here and everything seems to be on hold until you figure out the relationship. Here are some other thoughts that are coming up for me about self-care:
- Do you have a social outlet that is just yours? Old friends? Family? A group of new moms near you who get together for low-key stuff with kids? Put some love & time into your social and emotional life.
- It sounds to me like Rob is asking (badly) for you to treat your depression more aggressively. While badly (not goodly) expressed, does he have a point? You say you’re not feeling great right now, so what non-medication stuff could you do? Something like Mood Gym? Go back to therapy? Get a physical exam and check for other causes of lethargy (those old culprits iron & Vitamin D deficiency)? Your “old self” might not come back, but if you’re consistently feeling low there might be a way to mitigate that.
- You want to change careers and maybe become a writer. Are you writing now? I think maybe you are not writing now. What if you tried the good old Julia Cameron “The Artist’s Way” method and cranked out 3 pages of whatever comes to mind longhand (or 750 digital words) every morning? If 3 pages is too much, what about 1 page? What about setting a timer for 15 minutes a day and whatever comes out comes out? 10? 5? Or, if that’s even too much, what about using the voice recorder app on your phone? Could taking some baby steps around the act of writing help you get back some joy and agency, without immediately thinking “MY CAREER” (career….career….career…) or the pressure of crafting something that you can sell?
- Can you disengage emotionally from your part-time job? Remind yourself each day “This isn’t forever, but right now it’s paying some bills and it’s the Devil I know. I need to do & care the minimum amount to preserve options for myself and take care of my kid. I can handle that, for now.“
You don’t have to stay stuck forever. You don’t have to marry someone you don’t want to marry just ’cause you said you would and now you’re scared not to. You can be a great parent who is not married to your kid’s father. You can work together to find a housing and parenting solution that keeps everyone close and safe and involved without having to build a romance and sexual relationship on top of it, too. You can work on treating your depression and feeling more at home in your life. You can even solve your job/career stuff eventually.
When I broke up with an ex of 5 years, a good and wise friend said “I know you loved _______, but for a long time you’ve been in that ‘should I stay or should I go?‘ place, and every time I talked to you The Problem of _______ was hanging over your life and coloring all your decisions. I know you’re sad, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing who you’ll be without The Problem of ________.”
I was sad when it ended, but there was also this relief, this flooding giddy sense of relief. It was so much easier to be kind to each other once we stopped trying so hard to make it work.
So, what happens if you say “I am not going to marry Rob” out loud to yourself or write it down in a notebook tonight? What else falls into place once you’ve made that decision? What do you grieve for? What becomes newly possible?
*With a written lease so he lives legally where he lives and a written agreement between you about how you handle finances and custody. Maybe his rent is $1 and he puts $XXXX into a joint account “for Lila” every month, whatever, but if you go this route, write it allllll down. ❤