Leading questions: ‘I feel unhappy with my girlfriend, but I fear if I end things it will destroy her’

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I love my girlfriend but don’t see myself with her for marriage or kids. I feel so conflicted. We’ve lived together for five years, we get on well most of the time. But I find I am losing patience with her. She’s jealous of any female colleagues, which makes me loathe to discuss work or friends with her. She will go through my Facebook friends at times and ask “Who’s [name]?” – it feels like an accusation every time.

I’m very extroverted and enjoy doing things with others, making plans at random, and she’s the opposite of this. I think it’s healthy to have outside interests and friends, and she doesn’t have any. I’m beginning to think we just aren’t right for each other, but I fear if I ever made a decision to try and end things, it would destroy her. I’ve tried talking to her before and felt I got nowhere. I feel unhappy, but wrong for feeling unhappy. *

Eleanor says: We both know that the quiet core of this question is no question: you want to leave. When we speak about our partners to other people, we should listen to what we say. The first thing you said was that you don’t see yourself with this person for marriage or kids. The second thing you said was that there’s a list of good reasons for that. So if you’d like permission to feel that way, you have it: I release you. You don’t have to stay.

But you know that, and you knew I’d say that. I’ve been in your position before, we all have; knowing enough about our desire to leave to talk about it to other people, but not quite enough to act on it. We lay out our dissatisfactions to our friends and they agree. They license leaving, and then when we don’t our friends are mystified.

So why don’t we leave? Often, as you say, it is because we fear it would destroy them. We’re afraid to leave for the same reasons that we want to: they don’t have much else going on, they’re not interested in anything else, they don’t have close friends or family. Convinced of our indispensability, we martyr ourselves because “it would be cruel to leave”.

But listen: it’s also cruel to stay. People know when you don’t love them. They can tell when you’re not excited about a future together. If this woman wants to be married or to have kids, you are wasting her time. And even if she doesn’t, you should not let her continue to be with someone who does not want her wholeheartedly. You plainly care about her and love her enough to not hurt her by leaving; let that same care guide you away from the hurt you’d do by staying.

I’m not saying it will be easy. Maybe she will fall to pieces and call you drunk at three in the morning and tell you that her life is over now. Or maybe, instead, she’ll call on resources within herself that she hasn’t had to use in years, put on some Destiny’s Child and be glad to have hit rock bottom so she has something to bounce off.

Whatever happens, you do not help her by staying. If the best thing in her life is a partner who isn’t sure they want to be there, you should not play any part in keeping her stuck this way.

Leaving partners we love and routines we know takes enormous courage and comes with enormous risk. We break away from the familiar because we hope that the unknown could be better. This takes bravery, and optimism, and most importantly hope. Have that hope for your partner as much as for yourself, because the familiar isn’t good for her, either.

*This question has been edited for length and clarity

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