Ten years of EXTREME doubt and regret about relationship
March 22, 2015 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Its been ten years since I broke up with my daughter's father for the first time (of many), and I still go through periods of extreme doubt and regret. I'm not talking about having fleeting moments of uncertainty; I will literally ruminate for days about our relationship and what went wrong and wonder if we should/could fix it.

He's just a really good guy, but I know deep down I'm a good woman too. We have similar values and both put our child first. However, while I'm introverted and really focused on my career so I can support our child, he's very extroverted and laid back, which I can sometimes see as laziness. But he's an amazing father and friend, and we value each others opinions; get along with each others family for the most part. We've both dated other people throughout the years, but our emotional attachment to each other keeps us from fully moving forward with anyone else.

I want to love this man, rather be "in love" with this man and be a family. Sometimes, I think, maybe I am and I just don't know it because I've never had someone truly love me before? Friends tell me there's no one else out there, and it's normal to not always feel "in love". So we try again, with me always being completely honest about my feelings and both of us not promising anything. Yet it always ends up the same. I feel I need to get out. Things about him begin to irritate me and I'm no longer attracted to him. These are little things, like the way he eats, or how he talks too much to everyone at the grocery store. He picks his nose, a lot. His house isn't very clean and he hasn't made a single update to the 1950s decor since he bought it 9 years ago. I begin envisioning a good future for myself and daughter, and he is not included in the picture of what I think will make me happy. We talk about it and then go along as we were before, until one of us suggests going out to eat or something, and the cycle begins all over again.

A big problem is that I'm not sure I've ever been happy. I've made huge advances personally and professionally in recent years, only I find it hard to be proud and happy about them. I feel like I'm always finding someway to punish myself. Maybe because I don't feel worthy, or because I feel like there must be something wrong with me to not want the man who is the type of man I thought I always wanted. I also realize I am easily annoyed and slightly ocd, so I have a hard time knowing if I would ultimately end up where I am with any man I was so intimate with.

When we're on one of our "off" periods, I think that if I could just let go of my idealizations and perfectionism a little more, allow myself to fully be loved and accepted, maybe it really could work. I think about us holding each other and being intimate, and it makes me want to try again. But it never ends up that way. I know I (we) sound insane, but I just keep thinking that we just didn't try hard enough. There's something else we need to do.

Our daughter has only ever seen us as her parents who are also friends. We've lived separately since she was one, and she doesn't know when we're trying things again. But it's an unhealthy cycle, one that I don't think either one of us can handle for ten more years. Yet neither one of us can seem to fully walk away and move on. There's something there that keeps pulling us back, but on my end there's obviously something else that makes me want to run.

I've been searching, literally, for the right answer to my dilemma for a decade. I know there is no right answer, that it's a choice I need to make and stick to. But like breaking a bad habit, I can't. We both can't. So I need to decide which road is the best for all involved. Do I try, really, completely try to accept the things about him that drive me insane, or is it too late for that? I'm now 40 and unfortunately I don't feel so great about either scenario. I might be settling and keeping a good man from what he truly deserves in one, and pretty sure I'm choosing the life of a lonely middle age woman who's lost her chance to ever have true love with the other.
posted by aprilc34 to Human Relations (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
A big problem is that I'm not sure I've ever been happy. I've made huge advances personally and professionally in recent years, only I find it hard to be proud and happy about them. I feel like I'm always finding someway to punish myself. Maybe because I don't feel worthy, or because I feel like there must be something wrong with me to not want the man who is the type of man I thought I always wanted.

As I was reading your description, I increasingly felt like this was a question about personal fulfillment and feeling satisfied in life disguised as a relationship question. And then I got to this paragraph above and was all "aha, and even she kinda thinks so!"

I think you need to explore the issues you've raised in this paragraph more. What makes you happy? Is Deciding What Kind of Dude You Should Be With any more relevant to your happiness than say, professional success? It's fine if it is, but based on your experiences, I wonder if Being In A Stable Relationship might leave you with the same feeling of reality not matching up with expectations that you've experienced in other parts of your life.

I'm sure you'll get some recommendations to go to therapy in this thread (especially since you're a self-professed extreme ruminator), but you don't need to do that to dig into the question of what really makes you happy in life, and how relevant this dude is or isn't to that. It can be helpful to have a third party to talk through this stuff, though.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:42 AM on March 22, 2015 [10 favorites]

I have to say, most of the specific things you describe about him don't seem all that horrible to me -- nose-picking is gross, but having a different level of interest in decor or being chattier than you are the kinds of manageable problems that couples work around all the time.

However, your emphasis on ambition/laziness and the other things you mention as problems suggest to me that you don't fully respect him and don't see him as a presentable partner for yourself after your personal and professional advancements.

I can't tell you whether you're right to feel that way. There might be some snobbery in it. There might be a realistic assessment that to support your career and future growth, you need someone who is a better match for the lifestyle you want to have, someone whom you can take to company parties and who fits in with your coworkers. It could be both realism and snobbery at the same time.

Lots of people marry across differences like this, but it requires a) recognizing and deciding to live with/compensate for the area in which your partner isn't a good fit for your lifestyle; and b) having a deep serious respect for the other person regardless of differences. You can't do a successful longterm relationship without respect. You don't seem to have it for him and you aren't able to make it spontaneously appear.

I think you should leave him be, at this point, other than as your co-parent. Your description makes it sound like the decisions to try or stop trying have all come from you, that you've been picking him up and discarding him over and over. That is not kind to him.

Also, 40 is not The End.
posted by shattersock at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2015 [8 favorites]

Look into relationship substantiation and see if that piece, "I think it moved," resonates with you. My therapist essentially has pointed out that my level of distress about making a decision in my relationship is the source of the actual distress, not the relationship itself. If it does resonate, it may make sense to see a therapist specializing in OCD to address the anxiety of not knowing what to do.
posted by namesarehard at 11:02 AM on March 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

I don't think it's too late, if you are both willing.

Any person that you are with will irritate you. That is part being human. He will do things that irritate you, and you will do things that irritate him. When you are in a bad place in a relationship, the slightly irriatating behaviors will be even more irritating.

There are some things that conscientious partners can do for one another. If it's a reasonable request, they can try to stop doing the things that irritate. This is where communication comes in. If you kindly tell him that his nose-picking really irritates you, maybe he will cut it out or do it privately. Remember, that in love conflicts will arise that will make you feel unloved and irritated. That is the way of relationships and some relationships have less conflict than others.

It's important to get your own shame issues resolved and healed, and it's also important not to hyper analyze, live your life, and know that we are all wounded and trying our best in relationships.

A book recommendation:

Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart by John Wellwood.

***Choosing gratitude over grievance:
“At every moment we have the choice of either feeling gratitude for what has been given to us or indulging in grievance about what is missing. Grievance and gratitude are polar opposites. Grievance focuses on what is *not* there—the imperfections of relative love—and looks for someone to blame. Gratitude recognizes what *is* here –the simple beauty of human presence and contact—and responds to it with appreciation. When we reflect on how our life is possible only because it is held, surrounded, and nourished by a field of kindness, this gives rise to natural gratitude.” (p. 94)

***Absolute inner love plugs the holes:
“As long as you still hold onto the childhood fixation on not being loved, then no matter how much others love you, it will never be enough. The wound will operate like a hole in you: No matter how much love someone pours in, it will always leak out the bottom. And you will continue focusing on the love that’s not there rather than the love that is. That is why the practice of tuning in to absolute love is so important. It is a way out of the endless, fruitless attempt to plug the hole of love from outside…To know that you are loved, then, is to know that you *are* love.” (p. 147)
posted by Fairchild at 11:10 AM on March 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

You don't sound like you have chemistry.

He certainly doesn't sound like the love of your life.

Sometimes people are 85% perfect for us, or 95% perfect for us... but for some reason something is missing. Often we will try and figure out how to get that 15% or 5%, thinking that because everything else is right, that its evidence that it should be right.

But it isn't. And you can't change that.

The best thing to do in these situations is move to a foreign country so you can learn to be alone for a while and grow into the person you were meant to be, without getting a percentage of your emotional needs met by this great guy who just isn't the one.... obviously that's not possible here.

I believe that you should find your own path alone and work on your identity as a woman. Find your inner passion. Start practicing gratitude.

That's how you find yourself in the position to be 100% in love and fulfilled in a relationship that is healthy for you. It takes time, and it takes how long it takes...
posted by catspajammies at 11:29 AM on March 22, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: FWIW, I would have a lot of trouble not feeling resentful of someone who doesn't care about taking care of his own home even to the extent that it's not "a mess," and *also* doesn't care about his career or professional stuff really, and *also* is always needing to be on social and chatty and is high maintenance emotionally like that.

That sounds like an exhausting person to "hitch your wagon to," and, to be perfectly frank, I sure wouldn't look forward to growing old with someone who's that much work. If the genders were reversed, I doubt many people would give you the advice, "you really should stop being a snob and make yourself feel OK with this person who acts like a bimbo but who you also don't find attractive (and who picks her nose all the time)." YMMV.

I get *wanting* to want to be with someone. I've been there, too (and we don't even have a child together, so the stakes for us being together/not aren't even that high). But you can't make yourself feel things you don't feel.

And you don't HAVE to be with a man right now in any case. It sounds like your friends are figuring this guy is the best of a bad lot, which imo is a *terrible* way to pick a partner. If you'd prefer being single to being with him, that is FINE.

You guys sound like good co-parents and like your friendship is going well. Which is fantastic! No need to push that friendship to become romantic or to tie your lives together beyond what they already are. Sure it would be convenient if you were also in love with the man romantically, but you're not, so you're not. Can't fit a square peg into a round hole.

This man can be your friend and your daughter's father -- you say he's great at both those roles. He does not have to be your boyfriend or husband, a role that you don't sound like you think he's a good fit for (and after you've given it *a lot* of thought, too).

If you're having existential angst or are feeling too down on yourself or any of that kind of thing, that's a good time to go to a therapist or try to find meaning in something else you care about (politics, art, etc etc etc) -- NOT a good time to force a man you don't particularly want as your boyfriend into the role of boyfriend. A man isn't going to give your life meaning in any case, and you've already learned the hard way that *this* man isn't going to, for sure!
posted by rue72 at 11:30 AM on March 22, 2015 [7 favorites]

Although I rarely suggest therapy on metafilter and often roll my eyes when I see others suggest it, I wonder if either working with a therapist and/or thinking through various angles of this on your own first would help? Think through all the issues and questions first rather than decide to try a relationship again and then change your mind.

Some of the issues that might help you address this and assess if it can truly moves forward (ie, toward a possible relationship) are things such as:

• Are there accommodations that he or both of you could make to address those issues? For example, you mention messiness of his house as an issue. Now if you both lived together, could you both hire someone to come in and clean twice or month or whatever you felt comfortable? Then it would be fair to both of you and you wouldn't be judging him based on that. Some of the other issues, which has already been addressed, can be ameliorated with a request. You don't like seeing it, please don't do that.

• What are his goals and values? Do you know what they are? You might, but everything can't be described in a paragraph. You mention judging him because he doesn't update his house, for example. Everyone has a limited amount of time - does he use that time and energy toward something else? So perhaps not updating the house but being a great parent and saving puppies (no idea, just making something up) might change your perspective. I wonder if conversations with him (and observations) to see those other values would help. I think it would need to be addressed by you if you can't align it - so it doesn't enter the world of judgment and even contempt, because then this issue will never resolve.

This is something to think about to let it go:

• I want to stress that there is nothing in your description to state that there is a problem in this domain, but just in case (ie "annoyed", "OCD") - some people use this as a common descriptor, while others are open about underlying mental health issues. If you think there is a real underlying issue, can this be addressed in your personal life? Because if there is a real mental health issue that it is treated, it might help the continuous ruminating and revisiting the topic in your head over and over again. But again, there may not be a problem and nothing you stated remotely suggests it - but if it rings true, it might help.
posted by Wolfster at 12:01 PM on March 22, 2015

Best answer: This has been going on for ten years? I strongly suggest that you find a competent therapist and begin unpacking all of this.

It really seems like you're spinning yourself into butter over him. It's fine to recognize that he's a great co-parent and leave it at this, yet you're really contorting yourself with this notion that you should love him more.

It's fine to not love him as a partner and with help, you'll be able to accept that. Ten years trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and beating yourself up is just way too much time spent agonizing.

A few other things:

Friends tell me there's no one else out there...

Your friends are 100% wrong.

I'm choosing the life of a lonely middle age woman who's lost her chance to ever have true love...

Life isn't only binary choices. It's not like if you don't stay with him you're automatically going to be a lonely middle aged woman. Speaking as a single mother who is 10 years your senior, trust me when I tell you that there are lots...LOTS...of incredibly eligible partners out there.

Anyway, it's been over ten years. You would KNOW if you loved him by now. It seems that you know you DON'T love him.
posted by kinetic at 12:11 PM on March 22, 2015 [26 favorites]

The irritants you mention make me wonder if you would be happier living without a partner. I'm easily annoyed by dumb stuff, and think that I've realized that I'm much better off not spending a ton of time with my partners because I like having a lot of time to myself and they get on my nerves if they're around all the time, no matter how much I love them. Do you see yourself as potentially being happier living an independent life with romantic partners as only a small part of it?
posted by metasarah at 12:18 PM on March 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

You absolutely do NOT want to be married to someone who irritates you already. Because even if you marry someone you're head over heels with, eventually you're going to feel irritated by them, so if you start out feeling that way, it's unlikely to get better. Being married is hard, and it sounds like for you, just being in a relationship with this guy is too hard to stomach, not to mention being married. It sounds like you think he's a decent human being, but you need way more than that to make a life commitment to someone. Stop trying to settle and find someone who's a better fit for you. Getting back together because your friends are telling you you have no other romantic options seems like a truly bad idea.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:41 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm 42. I've had more dates in the past two years than at any other time in my life. There are plenty of single people out there. No reason for you to settle for someone who you've never been able to make it work with - you need to decide he's just not even an option since it has NEVER been what you wanted/thought it should be. You can love a person without being with that person.

And also, I would like to note that it's 152% okay for you to decide that you don't actually need or want to be with anyone. I'll go on to say that that seems like a healthier option than the person you don't work with.

There are an infinite amount of choices out there - the only reason you should think in terms of being a lonely middle aged person is if that's the life you CHOOSE. If the thought of making that choice makes you sad then make a different choice.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:42 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

For me, it's been a lifelong struggle not to let my mostly-manageable anxiety spill over into second-guessing my relationships and making bad choices -- leaving perfectly (which is to say "mostly") good ones, and choosing inherently-unstable ones. If I know how flawed I am but they're content with me, what's wrong with them? How will I become the better person I need to be while with a partner evidently content with (my) mediocrity? That's just one of the many subconscious veins of anxious thought that have tended to surface as questions about whatever specific relationship I was in.

I think even asking this question is a good step forward, because it means you're starting to unhook from the content of the worries and start looking at the pattern. Your pattern may or may not be the same as mine, but that's the way to get past the details to the underlying issues.

Even though it is, as they say, a "personal problem," couples therapy was the most helpful to me. Individual therapy might help, but for me, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether the relationship WAS good. Whereas in couples therapy, I got to skip that part and go straight to resolving some of the issues that were causing problems, both issues between us, and issues that my head created out of almost nothing. The therapist could also see that our relationship was basically good. Maybe for you, since you've started to see the pattern, you could discuss this with a therapist on your own. There are some books out there that helped me discover other roots of anxiety (e.g., a fear of replicating the less positive parts of my parents' relationship) that were getting funneled into questions about partner choice when really, I'd feel that anxiety regardless of whom I was with.

Also, it's been helpful to know that I am not like others in this way. You'll sometimes see AskMe comments like "I knew from the moment I met him. If you're feeling a second of doubt, leave; he deserves someone who truly loves him." You see some of this "you either have it or you don't" absolutism in the comment above about chemistry. That is totally true for the person writing it and their partner. It is not true or useful for me. It was helpful to get this validated by a therapist who laughed when I asked whether even having doubts meant the relationship wasn't right and doesn't everyone else just know.

Good luck. This is not fun, I know. The nice thing about being our age is that it starts to become easier to see patterns and surf above the ups-and-downs of the moment, in a way that's hard when you're 21.
posted by salvia at 1:08 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you are very involved in each others lives, as friends and co-parents. It's probably very difficult to get perspective when you are that close to someone. One moment you're annoyed and repulsed, the next you're getting along great and attracted, and which feeling is more significant you can't tell. I think that, if you can, you should spend some time away from him, socialize with entirely new people, and see how it feels. Go on a vacation if you can. Join a tour group and spend a couple weeks with strangers. Take a retreat. Tell everyone you are going on a weekend staycation and won't be answering non-essential communications.

But set aside time to take a class or socialize with new people and promise yourself that you are not going to think about this man and your relationship with him while you are "away." When your vacation from him is over, see how you feel. Are you happy to see him again or was it relieving to get away and connect with other people? Did the people you met and the things you did make you feel like there was more out there or did they leave you dissatisfied and nostalgic for your relationship? Do the little things that irritate you about him now seem charming or even less tolerable than before?
posted by wrabbit at 1:40 PM on March 22, 2015

Have you had any other sexual relationships with other men since?
posted by discopolo at 1:54 PM on March 22, 2015

begin envisioning a good future for myself and daughter, and he is not included in the picture of what I think will make me happy

I think it might be best for you not to be as emotionally attached to him as you are, and give yourself a lot of space. Maybe don't share with him/lean on him so much.

You aren't in love with him. I think you're happier without him, and he'll just make you unhappy. You're just lonely, and he's low hanging fruit.
posted by discopolo at 1:58 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Wanting to love someone is different from loving them. It is as simple as that.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:14 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you don't know how to make yourself happy. Just on a day-to-day level, not an overarching level. So when you're with this guy, it sounds like when you feel irritated, you don't take responsibility for your feelings, you blame him instead. It's an easy target. And you expect him to just know what you want automatically. It's like you're focusing on his flaws in order to distract yourself from something else that is going on inside you.

Next time you find yourself hating him, say to yourself: "this is my pain. It is not his fault that I am feeling so hateful right now. What else could be causing my pain?" And then just give it some space and see what comes up.

I have a friend who struggles with this; it is buried anger over other things that come out with their partner because it feels like a safe space to do so.

Anyways if you could get over this you might be very happy with him. Just don't fall down the trap of hating him for being good natured enough to tolerate your bad moods.

tl;dr - see a good therapist.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:53 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

It sounds like most of these issues are coming from inside you; and yes, it would be this way with any guy. If not nose-picking and chattiness, then money-spending and forgetting birthdays; if not that, then video games and too fast/too careful driving, or something.

Honestly, he doesn't sound that bad. I think his human imperfections reflect back to you your own human imperfections, and it makes you uncomfortable. When you're alone (or only with your child), there is no witness to you "not measuring up".

You mention issues with self-worth and OCD, and not being able to take pride in your achievements, which are big red flags suggesting that you might have had abusive or neglectful childhood, and were never able to learn the patterns of loving acceptance, that fundamental fabric of successful close relationships. You were not accepted as you were, with all your positive and negative traits, so you didn't learn how to accept yourself and others. I don't think you'll be able to resolve your on/off relationship issues unless you sort yourself out first.

If not therapy, can you start with books? There is a bunch that Metafilter always recommends, and I can vouch they are very good. You could see if any of them resonates with you:

Will I ever be good enough? Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers

Running on empty: Overcome your childhood emotional neglect

Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving
posted by Ender's Friend at 5:24 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm with salvia; my anxiety tends to spiral out easily and turn into, BUT OMG WHAT IF THERE IS A MORE PERFECTER CHOICE OUT THERE?

I'm you on the flip side; been with my husband almost 2 decades, and I would say almost daily I wonder if I Made The Best Choice.

It has to be exhausting living with me, to be honest.

But I will say, that once I process the annoyances and the irritations and the things I wish he would change but probably won't, when I really get down to it, I haven't left because I don't want to. That isn't to say that I Just Knew or I've never had a doubt (see above, I am full of doubts. All the time. About everything. Medication doesn't completely clear it up, but at least makes me functional). When it really comes down to brass tacks, I think, "He's imperfect, but I'd rather have him here right now in this house with me than not." And that's why I've stayed married to him. Every day, when my anxiety spins out with "I could be with someone who is a better fit", in the end, I think, "Maybe. But I like the person I'm with now." I envy the people who can just be content, but I've also learned that isn't me and probably won't ever be me.

I don't know that I'm answering your question. What I'm trying to say is, I think when you break it off, you're recognizing your truth - that you don't work well enough with him to be a long term partner. If you didn't have a child together, would you still be trying to make this work with him? Is part of the issue that you're dealing with the larger social narrative we have, which is The Parents Should Be Together If At All Possible For the Good Of The Child? Because that is definitely a thing in our society, and I wonder if that's pushing some of what you're dealing with.
posted by RogueTech at 8:54 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the thoughtful responses. To respond to a few:

There might be a realistic assessment that to support your career and future growth, you need someone who is a better match for the lifestyle you want to have, someone whom you can take to company parties and who fits in with your coworkers. It could be both realism and snobbery at the same time.

I do not want him to support me career wise or financially...I do that on my own. We've both had opportunities at our jobs to make advances; I took advantage of them, he didn't. He uses his free time to practice with his band and hang out with his brother. Both good things he should be able to enjoy, but I admit to feeling as if the weight of financial worries has been disproportionally been placed on my shoulders. This isn't about I wish he'd buy me nicer things or a bigger house; it's hoping we'll have enough money to support our child.

Discopolo, yes, I have had two brief relationships in the past 7 years. Both didn't work out; one mainly because the guy turned out to be a creep, the other felt too soon to move on. Both left me feeling guilty and reinforced by worries about leaving my daughter's father.
posted by aprilc34 at 5:00 AM on March 23, 2015

In your case I highly recommend the book Mindful Loving.
posted by rancher at 7:12 AM on March 23, 2015

To be clear, I didn't mean "support your career" to suggest you wanted to depend on him financially. I have a fairly demanding career, and it helps to have a partner who understands what I'm trying to accomplish and why I care, and fits into my social world well enough to be an asset when we spend time with my colleagues. I could probably still manage without that, but it makes a difference.

So I meant that remark as "there are totally legit reasons why this might matter to you." And yeah, not wanting to be the only financially responsible person in your household is also totally legitimate and an even stronger concern.
posted by shattersock at 9:03 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am your male counterpart. I am 39 in two weeks, and I am going through something very similar. I have never been apart from my girl, but that crossroads that you and I are in is very tormenting. I am very, very unclear on what someone should accept and cope with, and how much time and effort one should spend on it, so I can't advise you, but I sure would like to hear your story when you come out of this. My therapist and I pinpointed that I am in a crisis, and being almost 39, it's the midlife variety. My experience is that everything loses its novelty, and the intoxicating romance wears off. In my case, I don't think any woman exists that could keep me from picking out faults or second guessing my choice. However, I still have to sell that to my self every day. Love, friendship, companionship, 80% lifestyle compatibility, and trust in her more than in myself keep me with her. It torments me when I feel like I may be wasting time not finding better, but nobody better has knocked on my door in 15 years. One may have gotten away that maybe could've been, which may be partially responsible for my tailspin, but with all of the idealized daydreams pushed to the side, the reality is that I have a good one, and a lot invested. I know how difficult this is and how much it dominates your thoughts, but hopefully you'll work through it. I wish you the best
posted by Shylo at 6:53 PM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Deficiency can also cause confusion, so take good care of yourself, rest, and don't do bad things to muddy the water any worse.
posted by Shylo at 7:03 PM on May 14, 2015

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