Writer and broadcaster

My boyfriend is 23 years older than me and I worry about being left alone when he dies. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I’ve been with my boyfriend for two years and we have a stable, loving and wonderful relationship. The only problem is there’s a significant age gap – I’m 25 and he’s 48. If it wasn’t for this, we’d probably be heading towards marriage and a family in the near future, but we both have some serious reservations about whether continuing is the best thing for me. Mutual friends have encouraged us to go for it, and I’m sure that things would be great for the next 20 years or so, but we have to be pragmatic and think beyond that.

Realistically, I wouldn’t expect him to live past his mid 80s at best. While I am not particularly worried about my children having an older father (my siblings and I did), the thought of being a widow for 20-plus years terrifies me. I don’t think I could be happy or fulfilled in the long term without anyone to come home to or to share my daily life with. I have trawled the internet for stories of women who had been widowed at about this age and what I found wasn’t just sad – it was horrific. Almost without exception the women talked about wanting to die, even years after their husbands’ deaths, and many said the only reason they kept going was to avoid upsetting their children. The possibility of my husband becoming ill and incapacitated at a stage where I want to be active and travel also weighs heavily on my mind.

We have discussed these issues openly and at length, and have made multiple attempts to pull away from each other. We have tried to cease contact and have even been living in different cities for the past year, but, as neither of us wants to be apart, we can’t make any of it stick. Just the thought of seeing someone else makes me feel sick and anxious. And there’s no guarantee that separating would mean I’d find someone with whom I’d be happier.

Things can’t keep going on like this – I need to commit or walk away, but I feel paralysed. Neither is a choice I want to make and I’m afraid of being filled with regret years down the track. 

I’ve been thinking about your letter for some weeks now and what strikes me is your overthinking. You are exploring every possibility, every scenario and in so doing you are, as you say, paralysing yourself. Because you are largely exploring the negatives, with every thought of “what if …” you end with a sadness, a disaster. That’s exhausting and pernicious.

We tend to overthink when we are anxious and this was one of the first things psychotherapist and couples counsellor Chris Mills picked up on. He felt this might be why “you are attracted to a man who, chronologically, could be your father [perhaps because he gives you authority or makes you feel safer]. I’m not making any negative judgment about the age gap, as many age-divergent relationships are very happy and successful – as long as the age difference isn’t the main element driving the attraction.”

When we are anxious or unsure, we also want rock-solid guarantees and tend to think in black and white. You say, “I know I need to commit or walk away,” but actually, you don’t. Sometimes the most proactive thing you can do is … nothing.

As Mills says: “There’s no obvious definitive answer to your dilemma, and not surprisingly you wish there were. You’re reaching for a perfect solution. You’re also trying to map out a risk-free future. Sadly, neither exist and wouldn’t even if you and your boyfriend were similar ages. But why the urgency in either committing or walking away? This question is too important to rush. You’ve got time. I suggest you carry on enjoying each other’s company and carry on talking, and my guess is that in the next few years there’ll be fresh information that will help you both decide. And anyway the decision is just as much your boyfriend’s as it is yours.”

I was struck by how catastrophic you felt losing a partner would be and how your life would be, in essence, not worth living. While few would relish the thought of losing a partner, there are many examples of people leading successful and fulfilling lives after the death of one. I feel this needs further exploration, because if you are prone to anxiety, you will find something to catastrophise about in any relationship you go into. I worry you are looking for resilience outside of yourself. What has made you so much in need of absolute certainty?

When a decision is so vast, and with this many variables, the key is to shorten the focus. Think about the next year or two. Think about your own self, your life, as well as that with your partner. Do nothing just yet, because I don’t think you are ready to. Remember that if you split up and it’s not the right thing to do, this has the ability to affect all your future relationships, so this relationship has the ability to have an impact, even if you don’t stay in it. You need to explore it further, either until it’s no longer right for you, or you feel going forward with it is. You need to split or stay for concrete reasons, not based on a projection of what might happen.


This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 4 November 2016.