I have been seeing a man for more than five months. I separated from my husband (and father of my two small children) 16 months ago after 15 years together, the last five of which were blighted by my postnatal depression, and his inability to cope with it.
He reacted by closing down to me emotionally, and we spent the last four years of our marriage in a haze of depression, anxiety and loneliness (me), and guilt, anxiety and loneliness (him). We parted amicably and the kids stay with him two nights a week.
I’m writing all this because I think it may be affecting my current issues with my boyfriend. While he seems keen and we see each other two or three times a week, I struggle to deal with feelings of knowing it could end, while wanting to help it continue.
We are very attracted physically and he is sweet and funny. Yet knowing it could end and that I would need to survive, be alone and be OK (not become depressed) are causing me to feel sad. I think I am a little more contained than I might have been in past relationships – which is not necessarily a bad thing? But finding my way around this halfway house and being OK with it is confusing.
I’m not sure what I want from a relationship following on from my husband. Or perhaps I do, but I can’t admit it. There is a feeling of being connected and in love without the concreteness. What future is there? Do I need it defined? Can’t I just be happy in the moment? I’m a confused 40-year-old woman!
I think it’s natural, after being with the same person since you were in your 20s, to feel unsure once you split up, however sure (or not) you may have been of the reasons for the separation. It’s as if you’ve been looking out of the window, every morning, at the same landscape and, suddenly, everything’s changed. Furthermore, depression can be destabilising – as if you have lost yourself and you don’t know which way is up. You seem to have made real progress in the last five years. It can be very hard for someone to bolster their partner through depression without both of you having support. But you’ve both come through it and co-parent your children amicably and successfully, which is to be applauded.
Looking at your marriage with a bit more analysis, psychotherapist Stefan Walters (bacp.co.uk) thought you had been involved in a “pursue/withdraw” dynamic with your ex. “There has been an attachment injury – you’ve been hurt in your marriage. You had PND and you husband wasn’t able to give you the support you needed. You were pursuing for reassurance from him and your husband withdrew.”
Walters thought there “was a danger of taking these patterns into this new relationship”. However, you say very little about your new boyfriend and his ability, or not, to deal with your feelings. Perhaps you haven’t shared them with him yet. Or perhaps the dynamic between the two of you will be different. Some people are better at emotional support than others. “It sounds,” says Walters, “like you’re saying, ‘Is there a guarantee? And that’s the difficulty with love, it’s only by being vulnerable that a relationship has a chance to develop.”
Did your marriage make you feel secure (before the PND)? Were there elements within it that made you feel safe or was it by virtue of being married that you felt you had something more solid?
It might be helpful to think about what makes you feel safe and secure – what gives you that “concreteness” you talk of – and what defines a relationship for you. What is it that you “can’t admit”? What would need to change to make this feel more defined? Is that achieveable?
While a relationship should be about sharing feelings, it might be beneficial for you to get some counselling to allow you to undo your past relationship and have a safe place to talk and to enable you to emotionally support yourself. That way, any additional support provided by your partner is a bonus. If you feel more self-reliant you’ll feel less afraid.
Walters adds: “It’s really important to have the tools to self-soothe. Although our main resource [for reassurance] is our attachment figures, if that need for reassurance comes across in a panicked way it can push the partner away because it comes across as desperate and clingy. If we come across in a vulnerable way however, it can be more productive.”
Walters recommends reading a book called Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, which talks about vulnerability in more detail.
I also think you need to acknowledge that you did survive and in fact, flourished. No one likes to think that they can go back to a dark place, but the fact that you did – and made it through – should give you strength.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 7 August 2015.