Dr Caroline West tackles another reader’s question.
Q: My girlfriend and I broke up last year after a four-and-a-half-year relationship. My ex and I are still in daily contact almost nine months after the break-up; we support each other emotionally with daily life tasks and we still have an excellent friendship and emotional connection.
The primary reason for breaking up was children; she wanted them and I was on the fence. We lived together for a short while and after I moved in, things changed rapidly.
Within a couple of months, we were sleeping in separate rooms, as she said she can’t get a good night’s sleep next to me. There was a notable drop in her general appearance.
Sex as good as stopped, as did any enthusiasm or interaction during sex. She says it is because she has put on weight, yet she has refused to do anything constructive about her weight.
Some of the above, I suspect, was my reticence to start a family, but I am not happy with sex being used as a bargaining chip in a relationship. Sex would only happen if we were “trying” and this felt very transactional and lacking in genuine desire.
I started doubting if my ex had any physical desire for me and saw me as a provider, almost like I’m the wrong guy, but will do to start a family?
I find it all very frustrating. My mind and decision-making are like a pendulum going from one extreme to another. Is it having children, the lack of sex? Maybe if I’m honest, I don’t fancy her enough, but I trust her and know she would have my back in the future.
Dr West replies: This sounds like every ingredient possible for an unsuccessful relationship. Your sex life isn’t satisfying, the emotional connection behind sex is missing, your lifestyles differ, your desire for children differs, you admit you might not be attracted to her, and you’re walking on eggshells.
Living in limbo doesn’t help, and you have not had a clean break from the relationship. That break can be important to reflect on the relationship and see if you might be compatible as friends, but the going back and forth that you are both doing is not helping either of you.
It sounds like both of you are in denial about the future of the relationship, which leads to living in hope that something will change, because it is hard to make that final decision to let go. This gets harder if there are still feelings there and you care about each other, but this isn’t a sustainable situation.
The longer you stay in this situation, the greater the risk of resentment grows, as neither of you are going to be in a relationship where you are thriving together and separately.
Your comment about sex being used as a bargaining chip makes me suspect that this resentment is already creeping in. It’s great that you have a good friendship with her, but intimate relationships are more than just friendships.
There don’t have to be negative feelings or experiences in order for a relationship to end, or one big event. Love can change as much as people can change. You write about knowing she would “have your back” in the future — but would she not also do that just as friends? Is there a fear there perhaps that settling for this relationship is easier than starting off as single and dating again?
Children are such a big issue and a legitimate deal-breaker. If you genuinely don’t want children, you need to own this and be clear that this is your stance. You aren’t compatible with this woman if you want different lifestyles, which may or may not include children.
I hate the expression “Band-Aid baby”, as children don’t save failing relationships, and the increased financial, emotional and physical strain that comes with children will make things very difficult. It’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a child too, who did not ask to be born into such a situation.
Our partners often put on weight, and it can impact confidence, feeling sexy, and enthusiasm for sex. If she struggled to get sleep when sharing a bed, that would also impact her health, as sleep deprivation can have huge impacts on our ability to deal with stress and energy levels.
You said that if you were being honest, you’re not as attracted to her as you were, but you are hesitant about this. Think about why you feel hesitant: why is there a struggle to accept her changing body, and what does this mean for how you view your partners in relationships?
I would suggest that you take a strict, no-contact break from each other for at least six months. You can’t get over the relationship or view it objectively while you are in daily contact and essentially still together.
The space will give you time to reflect on your true feelings about children or your future with this person. You might find that you do want children, but not with this person, or you might decide that you don’t want them at all. I would not advise you to date during this time, as that will distract you from processing this relationship.
If you find that after a few months, you do want to get back together, you can talk about what has changed for you both, and what your shared future would be like.
The reality of how your relationship is now contains many lessons going forward. By allowing each other to have some distance from the relationship, you can avoid a slow spiral into resentment, or having children in a relationship that you don’t want to be in, or even children that you don’t want.
She can find someone who does want the same things that she does, as it sounds like this is more of a pressing issue for her. That pendulum swinging has to stop so that you can be on stable ground again.
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.