Writer and broadcaster

I don’t want to move house again. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I’m 40 and stuck at a crossroads. My husband and I have been married for 10 years; the relationship started 21 years ago at university.

We need to move house again for his job, but I am dreading it. I moved a lot as a child and never had any roots. We moved here just before I gave birth to our only child, who is now seven. It was supposed to be his childhood home, with enough extra room for siblings and family get-togethers. We were new to the area and it took years of hard work to make friends and settle down.

But the collapse of the marriage means that the family I wanted – an idealised version of my childhood but very different from my husband’s – hasn’t happened. One of the first things he said to me in this house, when we had just moved in and I was pregnant, was that he didn’t love me any more. He has shown that every day since. We never agree on anything and we treat each other with anger, silence and contempt.

Our son and families have been hurt in the fallout. I’m worn out by shame and failure and don’t know how to say that I don’t want to move into a new house together. I’m scared of letting go – taking the pain and problems with me but losing the comfort of familiar places, faces and routines. I don’t have the confidence to split up for good.

When I was younger, I was hopeless with money and I am scared of failing to provide for my son. Learning to manage my finances is a source of pride to me now but I don’t fully trust myself to take responsibility for him, too.

When I first read your letter, I looked for a missing paragraph between “we need to move” and “the collapse of the marriage”, but there wasn’t one. Put simply: if your marriage has collapsed, you can’t move again and risk isolating yourself further.

But it’s not simple, is it? I had a long chat with Paula Hall, a sexual and relationship psychotherapist (bacp.co.uk). We both had the same first thought: what is keeping you in this relationship?

Hall picked up on a couple of things from your longer letter that may interest you. Your relationship with your husband seems to be very parent/child and I wondered if, as your relationship formed at university, you’d ever lived on your own or stood on your own two feet? This can give you tremendous confidence in your ability to “go it alone”. Also, the way your husband treated you on your anniversary (which I have edited out), was very much treating you as a child: why involve your mother? Did she stick up for you or collude with him? Hall also pointed out that your husband referred to it as “your” anniversary “but it was his anniversary, too, why not say ‘our anniversary’?”.

I wondered who was telling you that you couldn’t “take responsibility” and if this was also something you’ve been told throughout your life, even as a child? From where I’m sitting, you’ve done remarkably well in less than ideal situations. Better than I could have.

Hall thought you had a “fantasy of how family should be. It has not happened and it’s not going to happen if you move. So part of your struggle is letting go of the fantasy. Also, you don’t seem to fully trust yourself. Were you brought up to feel you couldn’t manage on your own?”

You mention in passing that you “moved a lot as a child and never had any roots” – Hall thought this was important. “If you move a lot as a child, you never put down any roots. If you’re always the newbie you become very good at adapting, instead of learning about yourself. You don’t learn to establish your own identity, you have to fit in so you become very good at being a chameleon, playing the other children’s games instead of saying ‘let’s play this’. You learn not to make a fuss.”

Hall thought the more you stayed in this relationship, “the more confidence it will take from you”.

I understand change is frightening and only you can decide what to do, but as a half-way house, Hall suggests letting your husband move into rented accommodation for his new job, while you stay behind with your son and see how it goes living on your own. You may surprise yourself.

Staying together for the sake of your son (not that you gave this as a reason) is teaching your son what, exactly? That marriage is about “silence, anger and contempt?”

Hall also asks: “Are there friends you can talk to? Who are your mentors? Look at the reality of divorce, maybe at friends who have separated. Being a single parent is tough, but it’s not as tough as you might think.”

There is a saying: “The pain of growth isn’t as painful as the pain of survival.” What if the best part of your life is yet to come?


This article was first published in The Guardian on 9 May 2014.