Writer and broadcaster

I’m enjoying my partner being away, should I leave him? The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I have two young children. My relationship with my partner – their father – has fluctuated over the last few years between general contentment and really hard times during which I’ve wanted to leave. Recently we’ve been fine, experiencing a fairly calm happiness, but I haven’t felt in love with him for a long while.

He is currently away on a month-long work trip and I’m really enjoying life without him. He is extremely messy, chaotic and stressed, with frequently unsocial work hours. His absence means our home is tidy, and I feel a rare ownership of my life and routines. I’ve needed help from family and friends to juggle the children’s school schedule with my work and, thanks to them, it has been easy. 

People have said how relaxed and happy I seem and the kids are the same. They love their dad but he and my elder son often argue, which affects my son badly. He says he doesn’t miss his dad but is looking forward to seeing him again. My younger son doesn’t quite understand the time-frame of his dad’s trip, so while he asks every few days where he is, he seems mostly happy and himself.

My partner says the children and I are everything to him, and I believe him. I feel terrible that I can’t say the same. I don’t necessarily want to split up and I don’t want to meet anyone else, as both these actions would destroy my partner. I emphatically don’t want to do that to the children either. Much of the time when he’s around, our unit of four feels right and we have good times. However, my personal fulfilment comes from my children, friends and work rather than my relationship. 

How can I find the freedom and happiness I’ve known during the last couple of weeks once my partner returns? I think a new dynamic is required but I don’t know what or how.

I don’t want to press you to stay in a relationship you don’t think is right for you but real, grown-up relationships, especially where there are children, can take work. They can be staggeringly ordinary. They are not like the love of adolescence where everything seems so exciting you can’t eat or sleep. If they were, how would anybody get anything done?

I also wondered how you would feel if your partner had written in such a letter to me, about you?

Mo Perkins, a psychotherapist who deals with families and couples (bacp.co.uk), also had this to say: “It’s almost as if you think there’s something wrong with being OK while your partner’s away, but it’s a sign of maturity, that you can enjoy life without him.”

Imagine if you fell apart when he went away. Just because you cope without him there for periods of time, doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your relationship or that he is surplus to requirements. It’s OK for him not to be your “everything” – really, who is?

Perkins continued: “You like that feeling of empowerment [when you are flying solo]. It’s great that you enjoy life without him when he is away for work, it’s not a negative thing.”

I would also compare this to going on holiday, in that what can seem idyllic and do-able for a few weeks or even a few months, is not necessarily how you’d like to live long term.

I don’t mean you should trudge on. But, as you say, your husband plays a vital part in your children’s lives. He’s their dad. He contributes to their emotional wellbeing and to the family bank balance. He’s the rudder than enables you to take the controls so efficiently.

Perkins also mused that what you describe as “fairly calm happiness” is what some people think of as love.

Also, given the age of your children (edited out), I wonder if this is the first time you’ve been able to look up and think, “Who am I?”

She wondered how much time you spend together as a couple. And if some of those family and friends who are helping you now could help when your husband comes home so that you can spend time together alone. She also wondered what your husband’s strengths are – you don’t mention them at all.

I think one of the things you are also suffering from is “re-entry” – that transition from flying solo to then being in dual control. It is tricky. I bet your husband finds it hard too, coming home to that. Talk to him. There may be small changes you can both make to make it easier for each other.

That said, a relationship should not substantially alter you. I know you have tried relationship counselling, but perhaps a few one-on-one sessions with a counsellor may help you work out what you really want.

This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 24 October 2014.