I’m 41 years old and have been in a relationship for 19 years; my partner is 15 years older than me. Our life is companionable and materially comfortable. Intimacy has been sporadic for a number of years; children were never an option as my partner had made a decision early in her life – that used to be fine with me, but as I’ve got older and my friends have had children I’ve started to wonder if I really missed out.
I recently accepted redundancy from my job and shipped myself off on a volunteering trip. Where – stereotype alert – I inevitably met the “other woman”, a 20-year-old student. Over the course of eight weeks in a strange, remote place (doing something worthwhile for the first time in either of our lives) we gradually bonded – until the final week when we slept together, a much more sensually and emotionally rich experience than any I had had before. Nevertheless I was racked with guilt.
When I came home everything seemed dead and grey. My partner called me out on my behaviour: “You went away and have come back a different person.” We rowed – I didn’t confess but did concede that I felt different about things. She was devastated, and I was distraught: how could I cause someone so much pain with my selfish actions?
So we have settled back into a sort of stalemate. The Other Woman lives 500 miles away but we’re in contact online: she’s the first and last thing I think about every day. She feels like the only possible source of joy I have ever known or will ever know in my life. I dream about being with her, though I know there are a hundred reasons why it wouldn’t work. My partner I shall always love as a friend but we’re like siblings – and part of me resents her more and more for not setting us free. I’m acutely aware of the clichéd nature of this scenario, but I assure you that from the inside it’s the exact opposite of midlife madness. I have been sleepwalking through life for nearly two decades, and now I have woken up. My old life is empty. What can I do?
Michael, via email
Let’s do the maths. Nineteen years ago you were 22, and your partner was 37. Over the years it sounds like you have settled into a pattern of behaviour where your partner became the one in charge. She made the decisions and you followed along, happy to surrender responsibility. Now you are 41 and you have changed. I’m not sure how much of this situation is actually to do with the 20-year-old student and how much is about you finding a sense of independence and purpose. It does seem extraordinary that an adult is waiting for someone else to “set him free”.
You have a choice about what happens in your life: and be very clear; staying with your partner now is as much of a choice as leaving. Nobody walks away from a 19-year relationship lightly, so before you do explore every option. Can the “new” you find a way of existing in your “old” relationship? Whatever happens now, people are going to get hurt, and you have to accept that – or the person who will be the most damaged is yourself.
I understand why the student volunteer is so present in your thoughts but don’t be fooled. She is simply a catalyst for change. She has shown you an alternative life. Now you have to decide if you have more to gain from embracing the unknown, or more to lose by abandoning your partner of 20 years. Try asking yourself this question. Do you want to be 61, sitting across the table from a 76-year-old, still dreaming of one night that happened two decades earlier?
Life isn’t all about numbers: but in your heart you know that there is something about all of this that doesn’t add up.
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