Marianna wants a family, but her boyfriend with a troubled past doesn’t want children or to live together, despite offering marriage. Healthista therapist Sally Brown offers her thoughts on whether love is enough to hold them together
My boyfriend of almost three years does not want to have children. He already has a 10-year-old son from a previous relationship. I am 38 and he is 45. We love each other very deeply but he struggles with a lot of psychological issues from his past. He cannot live together because of this as he has difficulty having people (his son included) within his living environment. He is ready to marry me and live separately for the moment whilst looking at moving in together in future. We have gone back and forth with the issue of having a child and he finally decided against it.
He has a very difficult personality because of what he went through in his childhood
It is quite important although I am now not really sure anymore since I am struggling with my feelings for him. Yes, I am really hoping he changes his mind. He is loving, caring, nurturing, loyal but also has a very difficult personality because of what he went through in his childhood. He cannot live together in his house in harmony because of the effects of his psychological trauma. He gets quite short-tempered when things are tampered with and is a neat freak. It is very difficult for him as he doesn’t understand this either. For this reason, he does see a psychologist from time to time therefore he is very serious about getting treatment as advised by his doctor. Even his doctor suggested it would not be advisable for him to have more children. I am very sad and angry about this situation especially since I love him so much. He has now proposed that we get married, live separately and have no children. What should I do?
Marianna, 38, Surrey
I admire your willingness to consider an unconventional way of living and your determination to be with the man you love so deeply and to make it work, whatever the challenges. Living separately does work for some couples (until their recent split, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton were the perfect example of a long-term couple who were happy living separate apartments).
It’s not hard to see the positives – you’re less likely to take each other for granted, you each get your own space to decorate to your taste and keep as tidy or messy as suits you. You have a peaceful bolt-hole to retreat to when you need it. Separate bedrooms if not residences has long been the norm among the aristocracy, and I suspect that many wealthy couples with more than one property end up living separately by stealth.
Even his doctor has advised him not to have any more children
But your situation is a little more complicated than just deciding who lives where. Let’s get to the baby question. Your boyfriend has made himself perfectly clear on this issue, so do not go into the marriage with a hope, however small, that he will change his mind. He will not change his mind. Let me repeat that – he will not change his mind. He already has a son that he can’t bear to have in his house. Even his doctor has advised him not to have any more children – I wonder, is that from a ‘not passing on his genes’ point of view, or because of the impact on his mental health?
Here’s what you can be sure about – if you marry him, you are agreeing to not have children. So you need to think very carefully about whether you can get over your sadness and anger, and come to terms with this. Your boyfriend has quite clearly set out his terms – he is prepared to marry you, but only if you live separately, and have no children. What he is offering you, over and above your existing relationship, amounts to a legal ceremony and a piece of paper that says you are married. His intention is that nothing else with change. I suspect that he hopes that somehow, signing this piece of paper that officially proclaims his commitment to you will stop you feeling sad and angry (and making demands on him that he can’t meet).
You need to think long and hard about just how much you love this man – enough to spend the rest of your life walking on eggshells, negotiating around his bursts of anger? Enough to give up the chance to have a child? Are you prepared to shut off that part of you that yearns to be a mother? Will you be happy to ‘mother’ this grown man instead, to soothe his anxieties and help him navigate his way through the every day challenges that he finds so difficult?
You wonder, as you have wondered so many times before, if you made the right decision
Fast-forward five years’ time: you have married, and you live apart. It’s another day when your husband has told you that he needs his own space. Last time you saw him, some days ago, he was particularly short-tempered with you. As you sit there alone, you feel relieved to have the freedom to please yourself, to be messy without upsetting him, to relax without having to manage another human being’s mood and emotions. Your mind drifts off into a familiar fantasy, one in which you live in a family home, with one or two children, and a husband who happily joins in the noise and mess. You wonder, as you have wondered so many times before, if you made the right decision.
Of course, it could go another way – in five years’ time, you may feel even more sure that your life’s purpose is to dedicate yourself to helping this deeply traumatised man who you love so much. You may be convinced that he is so special, he is worth any sacrifice. You may feel glad that you never had children because it ensured you have enough time, energy and headspace for the needs of your husband.
Being a rescuer gives you assurance that you are needed and important
I am curious about your past relationships, and wonder if there is a pattern of you taking on the role of carer or rescuer, or of putting your needs aside to prioritise someone else’s? It can be compelling – being a rescuer gives you assurance that you are needed and important. Sometimes, you may even subconsciously collude to keep the ‘victim’ stuck in their vulnerable position, in case they outgrow you, and you are no longer be needed. Or it may be that you were unaware of just how damaged this man is, and by the time it became clear, you were in love with him.
His trauma is like a third person in this relationship
I also wonder why you are so accepting that your boyfriend only sees a psychologist ‘from time to time’, even though he has been advised to ‘get treatment’ by his doctor? You don’t say what his childhood trauma was, but you have accepted that its presence will remain central to your lives. His ‘trauma’ is almost like a third person in this relationship. You can’t be messy because of His Trauma. You can’t live together because of His Trauma. You can’t have children because of His Trauma. His Trauma has very specific rules about what is tolerable or intolerable in other people.
Time is not on your side if you want to make a different life for yourself
It’s clear that you both want this relationship, but you also have very different ideas of how it will progress in the future – your boyfriend would be happiest if it stayed exactly how it is right now. You would be happier if you moved in together, got married, and tried to have children. And you both have the right to have the future you want. He is clearly unprepared to compromise (because of His Trauma).
It’s human nature to be hopeful, and believe in another person’s potential to change. But there is very little evidence to suggest that your boyfriend has the ability to do this (and I also wonder whether he has the motivation). I don’t doubt that you love each other very much. But sometimes, Marianna, love is not enough. At 38, time is not on your side if you want to make a different life for yourself, to meet someone else and start a family (or to start one as a single mother). Are you brave enough to take the chance?
What do you think Marianna should do? Offer your advice by tweeting @HealthistaTV
Sally Brown is Healthista’s resident therapist and agony aunt. She loves finding out what makes people tick and will winkle out your life story if you sit next to her at a dinner party. She feels lucky to make a living from hearing those stories, and helping people make sense of their lives and reach their true potential. Registered with the British Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists, which means she has the qualifications and experience to work safely and effectively, she also writes about emotional and psychological health for the national press.