Breaking up when I should be settling down
November 8, 2010 1:25 PM   Subscribe

I need a reality check and a lot of support and encouragement so I can leave my relationship without fear of being alone for the rest of my life. Please help me believe I'm not too old or weird to attract another guy to have the kind of wonderful relationship people talk about in this thread.

I am a woman in my early to mid-40s. My partner of six years (he's about 30) and I love each other but we both have needs that the other cannot meet. It seems like we both know we should part, but it's very hard to actually do so. He is in a stage of life right now where he feels he needs to focus on his passion (an artistic endeavor) above all else, and to play catch-up for several years he "lost" due to some problems that preceded our relationship. He has tried to do this while being in a relationship with me, and it's not working for me, although at first I thought I would love that kind of free-spirited, independent alliance where our art comes first. Basically, it's been like having a roommate you split expenses with, sleep with, hang out with, and love monogamously, but there's no merging of lives or long-term plans. And I'm finding that I want there to be.

I want a fully committed partner who looks forward to waking up with me every day for the rest of my life, and always has my back, whose eyes light up when he sees me, and who puts me first as I do him (which I have been -- but it hasn't been reciprocated).

He is consumed with building his career and becoming an independently functioning adult rather late in life due to the interruption. He says he can't fully give himself to another person until he proves to himself that he can stand on his own two feet. He also says he's a very selfish person and has no desire for marriage and family. He's "married to his muse." And I thought I was the same way, until I met him, ironically.

I can clearly see how me wanting him to grow into the role of equal partner with me, before he even knows himself, is asking him to skip a developmental stage I already went through years ago. I love him and don't want to impede his growth. He loves me and says I deserve better than what he can currently give. Still, when it comes time to pull the plug, neither of us seem ready.

If I were 25, I could wait a while, but at close to two decades past that I'm scared that I'm aging out of the dating pool and my greatest fear is that I'll grow old and die alone.

We separated about a year and a half ago. It was my idea and he didn't want me to go. I moved into my own apartment. I was so sure that I would feel a huge freeing of energy that the relationship had sapped, and that I'd be renewed by the separation. I also thought I would start dating someone closer to my age that I had more in common with.

Well, that was a bust. I was blindsided by grief and loss and I missed my love more than I ever thought possible. I tried dating a guy in his 40s who seemed to have a lot in common with me on the surface and it felt absolutely, completely wrong, like I had woken up and had a whole different life. This was truly my "Total Recall" moment.

My BF, on the other hand, moved past his grief and felt all the pride of living on his own that he never expected. We stayed separated for 8 months and by the time I moved back in, we had reversed roles: I was the insecure one and he was the independent one.

That was about a year ago, and we're still where we were before: both of us conflicted and ambivalent but still loving.

One major complication for me is that I hate the city we live in (he isn't crazy about it either) and would love to move, but he won't commit to making an actual plan with me to do so. I feel like I'm hanging out here in a city that's a horrible fit for me, just waiting for him to catch up to me.

Part of me just wants to cut and run. Every time I hear about a happy relationship like those in the thread I linked, or my sister's, or my newlywed friends', I just feel incredibly sad and lonely because that's not what we have.

And yet, when we part (even for a week's vacation, let alone our previous separation) we miss each other a lot. I don't want another Total Recall moment. I was going through major anxiety, depersonalization and derealization and I could barely sleep. I don't ever want to go through that again.

Also, there's the matter of my age and general "weirdness." (In a good way, I mean). My partner and I are countercultural artistic freaks who live unconventionally (and I should add, I have never been interested in having kids) and it's not easy to find guys I'm compatible with in that way -- and never having been in the dating scene as a 40-something, I imagine it might be even harder.

Further, I know that I would need a recovery period, and they say it takes half the time of the relationship to recover from it, so I'd be three years older from the time we break up before I'd be ready to find someone. I'm scared that by that time perimenopause will have stripped me of my youthful glow and trim figure and that pheromonal, fertile quality that attracts men.

TL;DR: I'm scared to be a lonely old lady because I squandered the last precious years of my hotness on a relationship that didn't work out; reality check desperately needed!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, there's a lot of fear here and not a whole lot of reflection on the facts -- the material facts, and the facts about what's really in your heart. You need to listen to your intuition, your wisdom, and your gut, instead of being sidetracked by "what-ifs." I believe that you'll know what is right if you listen to yourself fully.

I don't want another Total Recall moment. I was going through major anxiety, depersonalization and derealization and I could barely sleep. I don't ever want to go through that again.

But you will be waking up with a whole new life to get used to - you have to face it. And the anxiety and depersonalization may well not have had anything to do with the quality of your relationship with your partner, but rather the actual wrongness of the "guy in his 40s." I think you were using your feelings of anxiety to figure out what your relationship meant, but you really need to draw on sources of information other than your momentary bad feelings to find out what's best for you here.
posted by yarly at 1:34 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, there's a lot of fear here and not a whole lot of reflection on the facts -- the material facts

There is a difference between facts and fears. yarly has it. you are having trouble coping with the fear, not the facts. treat the coping with the fear part as separate from the deciding whether I want to date part.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:37 PM on November 8, 2010

my greatest fear is that I'll grow old and die alone.

I think that this, right here, is the problem. You don't need to be convinced that 40 is the new 30 or some such nonsense. You need to be convinced that being single, no matter whether it's for a few months or forever, does not mean that your life is a failure.

You're going to grow old (I hope) no matter what. Right now, you're facing growing old with someone who isn't committed to you, who isn't particularly concerned about structuring his actions to build a happy life with you, and with whom you feel insecure and unloved and upset. That's the status quo. If you never break up with this guy, you will die in a relationship with someone who isn't prepared to take care of you.

If, however, you break up with this guy, you could meet someone wonderful and live happily ever after until you both die of old age entwined in one another's arms. Or, it's possible that you'll never meet someone with whom you want to have a long-term relationship. You'll date and make friends and treat yourself to fabulous vacations and fancy dinners and jewelry. You'll decorate your house any way you like and do the dishes when you damn well feel like it and always get to watch what you want to watch on TV. You'll save your money carefully and make legal and financial plans to care for yourself as you age and to ensure that you have the resources to allow others who love you (or who are paid handsomely) to care for you if you can no longer care for yourself. You'll have a lovely life, surrounded by people who care about you; just not one person in particular who cares about you in that particular way.

That's a possibility. And if that happens, assuming that you're able to love yourself well enough to accept it, it won't be so bad. It could even be great. But you have to believe that it can be okay, that you're strong enough to do it on your own if no one comes along whom you like enough to let them help. The fact that you end up single is not a signal that you squandered the years you were in a relationship. The only way you could squander your youth is to spend it with someone who doesn't make you happy. And you can squander middle age and old age the same way if you stay with someone out of fear of being alone.
posted by decathecting at 1:40 PM on November 8, 2010 [77 favorites]

I've found that conflicted ambivalent living is not living. It's treading water in hopes that someone will throw you a life-preserver. It's not particularly fun and 99% of the time, there is no one there to throw the life preserver except yourself.

You need to take back control of your life and decide what you're going to do. I think you feel as if these are decisions you can't make, but that's not true. You have lots of choices, but I think you're also held back in making those decisions by lots of assumptions that you see as facts: it will take you three years to recover from your relationship, that dating in the 40s is total recipe for disaster, it's not going to be easy to find someone who shares your unconventional lifestyle.

These may be true, but then again, they may not. The only way you'll find out is if you test them.

You have choices, lots and lots of choices. You have more choices than most people of your age group and demographic. You have so many choices that your friends are likely envious. You need to take a long and clear view of your relationship - is this something you want to continue or is it just an albatross around your neck? Once you figure that out, I think you will see that the sky is the limit on where you can go and who you can meet.
posted by Leezie at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

Oh, and about that lovely thread about long term relationships? When I read it, I also felt sad not to have that in my life -- but I was also really surprised to see how some of the descriptions match how I feel about my longtime friends and relatives. You don't need to have romantic love to get some of the benefits of long term relationships.

And don't stay away from your happily coupled friends because you feel sad -- happy couples are often great supports and friends, precisely because they are happy. Hanging out with couples also gives you (and the couples) emotional and social diversity -- sometimes, hanging out only with my other single lady friends can be a downer because we're just reflecting our similar problems back to each other. Plus, when you hang out with couples, you'll come to appreciate your own, single, free life (no kids, no fights, total peace!).
posted by yarly at 1:46 PM on November 8, 2010

Maybe this short true story will help. I broke up with the man I thought I was going to marry when I was in my late 30s. I figured that was it for me, I'd missed my personal age of opportunity to get marred. Due to strong encouragement (read: nagging) from my brother, I checked out a few personal ads, just to prove to myself I could do some casual dating. I explained in each of my (voicemail) responses to these ads that I wasn't interested in a long term relationship.

The second ad I answered was my husband's.

You never know. You do need to end a relationship that isn't working. Then see where life takes you. I
posted by bearwife at 1:47 PM on November 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

You don't fill your need for a good relationship by enduring a bad one. Further, that bad relationship is taking the place of a good one--it's occupying the spot (and your time and attention) that would be occupied by a better relationship.

Look at it this way: if you found some shoes that were the perfect color, the perfect style, and the right price, you wouldn't buy them if they pinched your toes. That's the kind of relationship you now have--it's not totally unbearable, but it's uncomfortable and isn't giving you what you want. Your relationship is at least as important as a pair of shoes. Get out of this relationship now to make room for a better one.

Good luck.
posted by Jenna Brown at 1:53 PM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

-it's occupying the spot (and your time and attention) that would be occupied by a better relationship.

And it's also occupying the spot that would be occupied by any millions of other things you could be doing with your energy and happiness: making more art; investing in non-romantic relationships; baking cookies; volunteering at arts institutions...the list is endless.
posted by yarly at 1:58 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I tried dating a guy in his 40s who seemed to have a lot in common with me on the surface and it felt absolutely, completely wrong, like I had woken up and had a whole different life. This was truly my "Total Recall" moment.

You mention only one other guy you tried dating. Try, try, try again. It may take several duds before you find the gem. But I also agree with the other posters that you need to also be comfortable being single.
Any new relationship you try is going to feel a little weird at first because you were so used to what you had and any new person is going to be a whole new dynamic. Now could be an excellent time to move to a city that "fits" you better. Maybe you'll find more of the artistic counterculture types you think you will mesh with in a different type of city. Don't waste your time in a relationship in which you don't feel you are getting what you need. I wouldn't worry about dating at any age...there are single people in every age range.
posted by mrdmsy at 2:06 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Re: dating -- yeah, it's not age that's the issue, it's just the plain (and perhaps frustrating/scary) fact that you just have to keep dating till you find someone you click with. It took me about a year back in the dating pool till I found and hit it off immediately with the future Mr. Scody (who was himself in his early 40s at the time; I was in my late 30s).

The bright side of that year of dating was that, with only one or two horrible-hilarious exceptions, virtually every guy I went out with was basically a good egg. There weren't a lot of sparks with any of them (though one became a fairly good pal for awhile till he moved out of town), but I was gratified to see for myself that there were plenty of genuinely nice men out there who were sincerely interested in finding a relationship with a woman who was outside of the "hot chick in her 20s" demographic.

As for fearing that your hotness is going to go the way of the dodo once you get a little further along in your 40s... all I can say is google "Helen Mirren bikini."
posted by scody at 2:36 PM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

my greatest fear is that I'll grow old and die alone.

To focus on one small part of your question, this idea is a huge pet peeve of mine.

Even if you stay in a LTR all the way to the bitter end, one of you is going to die alone. By saying you don't want it to be you, you're essentially counting on it being him. As in, you would prefer that the person you theoretically love would endure the thing that you, personally, are most afraid of.

Relationships end. Sometimes they end avoidably, sometimes unavoidably. The most beautiful long-term relationships still end in death, rarely for both parties simultaneously. Do you wish for a better relationship, or a certain type of one? Excellent, we can work on that. Wishing to not die alone? That is sort of selfish and irrational. I wish people everywhere would put this unfortunate phrase to rest.
posted by hermitosis at 2:46 PM on November 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

No matter what you decide, it's going to be scary. That's life. So you have to decide what scares you most: Living your life with a man who doesn't fulfill your most fundamental needs or risking your mediocre relationship for a chance (and yes, it's just a chance) at finding what you really want.

It's really, really tough to accept that a relationship may or may not be in the offing. I'm there with you (and I'm working hard on the acceptance part myself.) But I've been in the milquetoast relationship. Being single and building a life of my own choosing is much, much better than suffering through that.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 2:46 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

... I squandered the last precious years of my hotness...

Hotness does not have an expiration date. And neither does "the dating pool" have an age cutoff. Be kinder to yourself.
posted by phliar at 2:47 PM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

I agree with other posts, please try to get over the fear and KNOW that you will NOT die alone, unloved, etc. I've been in your situation; all through my 30's, when friends were getting married, having babies, I was chalking up yet another crappy or unfulfilling relationship (regardless of how much I wanted to make it work). And not marrying the guy who was a "male" me....which really does suck because you think you won't EVER, EVER find anyone to fit with you like that person, but trust me, you DO, and they usually tend to fill in the gaps that current mirror-image does not.

But I was/have been much better off being single; being single gives me an empowering feeling that being in a relationship does not (even the good relationships, and i HAVE had one or two of those, too!)

Just embrace your awesome creative and carefree life, your friends and family that you have with you that love you for you because I'm sure you make their eyes light up.

You sound like a really warm and caring person; you deserve someone who looks at you the same way you look at them (or at least the opportunity to meet that person).

Best wishes.
posted by foxhat10 at 2:52 PM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also popped back in to address two things:

I'm also 40 ... and I'm way hotter now than I was in my 20s. Trust me. :)
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 3:02 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Print out decathecting's answer above and put it in your wallet. Read it 10 times a day until you know it by heart and believe it. Meanwhile, live your life and do the things you love to do, that make you happy and bring you fulfillment and let you give of yourself to others.

I would rather be alone for 10 years then spend one year in a relationship like the one you describe with this guy. No, make that 100 years. To me, being alone means being open to the possibility of something worthy and wonderful. Being in an unhappy relationship makes for an unhappy life. You will be fine on your own. Trust yourself and trust your abilities to find what you need.

Oh and if you need to believe that happy endings are possible .. I met my hubby at age 43 and got married and had a baby at age 44.

Wishing you good luck and the strength to go find yourself some happiness.
posted by Kangaroo at 3:22 PM on November 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

I know someone who got married in her early 50's. After having been very single since her 30's. Sometimes miracles do happen and you haven't expired your hotness. (Considering that I am following in her footsteps, it helps to know that.)

Really, I guess the question is: are you better off with or without him?
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:39 PM on November 8, 2010

As the others above have so eloquently stated, you need to be ok with being by yourself.

I say this as a person who married at 32, got divorced when at 42 (right around the same time as many of my friends from college--why this happens to people at this age is another topic), and found that I really loved being on my own. So please jettison this guy from your life and take advantage of all your new-found me time.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:56 PM on November 8, 2010

He loves me and says I deserve better than what he can currently give.

This. It seems like he's moving on already. You deserve much better.

Also, wouldn't you rather be single and happy than the reverse?
posted by onegoodthing at 5:12 PM on November 8, 2010

I broke up with my ex about a year and a half ago. We'd been together for awhile, but weren't married. At the point when we broke up it was a sort of "make up your mind" scenario, and like you I also had been pretty geographically dissatisfied (alas, still here for various reasons, but making a move real soon...), and basically I realized that we had pretty different ideas of what a fulfilling life is. Why it took me so long, don't ask...but the sort of ambivalence you describe, the lack of merging, is exactly how I felt. I totally, totally get you.

I'm a little younger than you (35), and I'm a guy. But I'm also kinda afraid now in the way you describe, I get that too. Things are different now that I'm 35. That sense of fun and easy-going-ness about the possibilities of relationships I had when I was in my twenties is gone. Maybe that's me, maybe that's my age. Maybe it's a problem, maybe it's not. I dunno. But the fact is that I can't get around it, so I am having to go through it. I won't lie to you: I feel pretty lonely a lot of the time. It doesn't help that I'm already socially isolated and dislike the city I'm in, and feel pretty much no desire to leave the house. Why make friends when I'm going to be leaving soon (but not soon enough...argh)? And if I'm lucky enough to see the friends who I do have here, well, they are all married or have kids, and well...that is only so much fun once in a while, frankly. Some nights I'm just...sad. Being alone can be lonely, no joke.

This is all just to set the backdrop for what I'm going to tell you now: at no point since I've broken up with my ex did I sincerely want to get back with her. Sure, I had some "what have I done! I've made a mistake!" moments. But those passed pretty quickly; rationality and an overwhelming sense of relief took hold as it always has since then. I have never regretted letting go of that person who fundamentally didn't understand me or want to share my goals. I have never felt lonelier or more ambivalent as a single person than when I was in a relationship with that person. The relief I feel is real. The at times crippling, subconscious anxiety about being stuck with someone for the rest of my life who doesn't really do it for me is gone. I'm so much more aware of my priorities now and I will never again compromise those priorities. Sure, if the right person comes along I will be willing to share my life with them in a healthy way, making adjustments and compromises within the scope of the larger goals I've set out for myself, but I will never again let go of those goals just because someone else has different ones and I lack the balls to say goodbye.

For all the sadness I've felt since breaking up I know in my heart it was worth it. If I'm alone the rest of my life, and if at the end I were to look at that thread you linked to and sigh a sigh of glum resignation, nevertheless I would not be regretful, but feel comfort in the fact that I went the way that was true to myself, the only way that would allow me to be happy and satisfied. Life is uncertain, there are no guarantees we will ever have anyone to hold and be ours, but if you want any chance at happiness at all you have to be true to yourself.
posted by innocuous_sockpuppet at 6:56 PM on November 8, 2010 [20 favorites]

: "they say it takes half the time of the relationship to recover from it"

They. "They" say a lot of things that are just flat-out wrong. "If you're pregnant don't lift your arms above your head or you'll strangle the baby." How silly. Everyone is different and you will take your own time to grieve your relationship. You might already have started that process.

It really is okay to be single and it's really important to learn to love yourself and know that you don't need another person to be whole. You can be whole with just yourself.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:40 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

My 60 year old dad got divorced and remarried within 18 months. They seem really well-matched. He didn't spend 18 years or whatever getting over my mom. Admittedly, we all wished he'd spent more time single, but he didn't. So to say the obvious, people who are 60 can find a happy marriage.

But also, did you guys try therapy? I had this lack of merging thing with my current bf, and 6 months of therapy cured it. So, its not like there's one right path here. I don't think the focus of your question is "should I break up?" but more "how can I get out of this stalemate quickly?" I used to think breaking up would always be the fastest route, but it worked out otherwise for me.

The absolute worst is the fear, ambivalence, and urgency without outlet that you feel now. It truly is the worst. I really feel you on that. May your ongoing experimentation find a path out.

What about moving but not cutting ties?
posted by salvia at 10:06 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

This seems similar to this question. There was a lot of good advice in that thread. Could any of those answers help you out here?
posted by freya_lamb at 2:27 AM on November 10, 2010

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