Q: I’ve been with my partner since we were in school, and we are now in our late twenties. We grew up together, and our families get on great. Everyone is always saying they can’t wait for our wedding, and it’s started to make me nervous. My friends aren’t close to settling down and I’m starting to wonder if my relationship is right for me. I wonder if I’m missing out and should be out there partying instead. They are going on lads’ holidays, and my girlfriend and I never seem to go anywhere. I feel like I’m living a middle-aged life. Do I break up with my partner, or just stay and hope that things change? I feel like something needs to change, but I don’t know what — or when. We have lived together for the past five years and would be looking into getting a mortgage in the next couple of years. Maybe I’m just getting cold feet?
Dr West replies: Are your friends all truly having a great time, or is there a possibility that some of them envy what you have, and don’t actually enjoy the single life? Not everyone is able to open up and be honest about feeling lonely or craving a long-term relationship. Some might think that they would be perceived as weak or desperate, but this shouldn’t be the case. We are more likely to find a partner when we are honest about what we want, whether that is the type of relationship we are looking for or explaining what our values and boundaries are. It helps us narrow down our search, and also helps us to avoid disappointment. Things don’t change by themselves, and a happy and healthy relationship involves work to keep it fresh and nourishing. It won’t be exciting and wild all the time, as the rest of your life takes priority at times, but with work, love and communication, we can work on issues as they come up.
Perhaps, instead of your feelings being a doubt about the relationship overall, they may be doubts about marriage. If everyone has been assuming you will get married, it may have been hard to have had the freedom to envision a different path. Society is always telling us we need to find ‘the one’, and it is only recently that we can see alternatives to marriage and children. How would you feel about staying with your partner, but not getting married? There is a difference between a wedding and a marriage, and while all of the focus is on ‘the big day’, it is not as important as the lifetime of the marriage. However, the marriage will only work if both parties want it to, and this is why asking these questions now is better than before you enter a legal contract or pay for a wedding that you don’t truly want. It is very common to miss that initial relationship excitement that is present with new partners, but, over time, it transforms into a deeper intimacy that many spend their whole lives searching for. It isn’t always the case that a relationship will be exciting or even fun, but rather a relationship has many ups and downs, and even boring points as we go through life.
If, however, your partner is on a different path and really wants marriage and children, then you will both have to have an honest conversation about what you are willing to compromise on, and what is a deal-breaker. Both of you need to feel that you are going to live the life you want to live, and staying in a situation that doesn’t meet your needs will only lead to frustration and unhappiness. Talk to her about the pressure you feel and create a space to talk about what you see for each of you going forward.
Maybe your sense of having cold feet is a sign of fear about big financial commitments such as a mortgage or wedding, and not about the relationship itself? That is understandable as they are life-changing commitments, so being honest with your partner about your doubts is essential. Please don’t fall into the trap of staying together just because it is easier. If you are genuinely not happy and don’t see a shared future, then a break-up is on the cards. Break-ups are a painful process, and you will see your world shrink as your families may not spend time together, but there can be short-term pain for the long-term gain of living authentically.
You wrote that you grew up together. This can be really sweet for so many people — navigating life as young adults together can be reassuring as someone is always there to support you and knows what is going on for you. For others, they might find that while they are growing up together, they are also growing apart. We can change so much in our teenage years and our twenties. It is a time where our brain is still developing, and who we are as individuals is an evolving process to explore. What do you feel would be different for you if you were single, and what kind of life do you think would be possible for you? If it is wildly different to what your life is now, maybe it is time to revisit the relationship. Or can you do those things together? Instead of being on a non-stop train ride to marriage and kids, you can explore how you would feel about going travelling with your partner, moving away, and the activities that you want to try out. Your friends might have lads’ holidays that look great on Instagram, but you can also choose to have a fabulous holiday with your partner, too. Different doesn’t mean boring.
Whichever way you go forward, you do have to be true to yourself and honest with your partner.
Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately