Have you hit a relationship milestone?

Our favourite relationship expert gives her best tips on getting over the most common issues faced by couples

Should you commit so soon? Is he a keeper? Are we ready for kids? Is he taking me for granted? Four couples struggling with the big relationship milestones turn to psychotherapist Lucy Beresford for advice.

RELATIONSHIP MILESTONE 1: AM I ON THE REBOUND?

‘Six months after meeting my boyfriend, I’m unsure whether I should commit again so soon after my previous relationship. We’re both 25.

I’d just broken off an engagement when I met Alex. My ex and I thought we were in love but, looking back, we were more like friends than lovers. We were both starting out in our careers and the love waned as we became increasingly preoccupied with our busy jobs. After three years with him, I realised I was too young to settle down and we were outgrowing each other, so I ended it. Getting into another serious relationship was the last thing on my mind. But I couldn’t help but fall for Alex. The chemistry was incredible and my instinct told me it was different. Our relationship has the passion that the last one lacked, and I feel with him I can be more myself. I’ve told Alex all along about my fears of committing again so soon. He’s kept things casual and has even given me the option to date other men, although he says he would be upset of that happened. I feel society expects me to be single at this stage in my life. I am still young enough to be dating lots of men. Plus, my career’s going well. I’ve been collaborating with well known brands and started doing consultancy work, which means going to functions most evenings.

Ultimately, my fear about throwing myself into another serious relationship stems from the fact that I don’t want to miss out on career opportunities or enjoying this part of my life to the full by being tied down.’

PSYCHOTHERAPIST LUCY BERESFORD SAYS:

‘Historically, commitment always used to be solely a male concern. But women have so many more opportunities these days that they are becoming just as hesitant to commit.

Your relationship experience at this stage is limited and you may wonder if the grass is greener. But relax. Committing now doesn’t mean wedding bells are imminent. If it doesn’t work out, you can still leave. Try to keep your feelings to yourself. You don’t want to kill the early stages of a relationship by blurting out your deepest fears. Get to know each other better by going on dates with each other’s friends, to find out what others make of him.

Enjoy being adventurous in bed and learning more about yourself. Ask yourself if your partner makes you feel like a better or a worse version of yourself. An exclusive relationship can make you feel like you can take on the world. But the wrong man can male you feel stifled. If he’s too dominant and you find yourself becoming more reliant, undermined or childlike around him rather than confident, it is time to get out.’

WHAT NEXT FOR LELA AND ALEX?

Lela says: ‘I’m not sure about the idea that I shouldn’t have voiced my concerns. I only really relaxed after I had talked to Alex about my fear of commitment so soon after my engagement broke down, which I’d been agonizing over to myself. But instead of holding back, I’ve decided to throw myself into the relationship 100 per cent and call myself his girlfriend.’

Alex says: ‘I’m glad my patience has paid off and I agree it’s better that Lela talked about her feelings with me. It’s important she trusts me. We’ve decided to have a chat once a month about where our relationship is heading to make sure she’s still happy.’

RELATIONSHIP MILESTONE 2: IS HE A KEEPER?

‘After 18 months of dating my new 28 year old boyfriend, I cant decide if he’s the one. I’m 26.

I always had a vision of the way my life would pan out. I hoped to spend my twenties at a top advertising agency in New York and travel the world. I imagined I’d be a professional high-flying office exec. But sometimes life doesn’t work out like that.

After a friend introduced me to Simon, he melted my resolve to remain single. Perhaps opposites attract, but his work involves manual labour, so he’s very practical. I love the fact he can mend things around the house, and he’s less self-obsessed and materialistic than City types I’ve dated. We’ve just been on our first big holiday and we’re about to move in together. Its serious now and, whether we marry or not, my heart is saying this is the man I could spend the rest of my life with.

But it also seems daunting. I want to make sure I don’t make the wrong choice. My parents have been married for 35 years and still hold hands in the street. I’d love to be like them, but I wonder if there is someone even more suitable for me out there. How can I be sure he is the one before I take the leap to join our lives together?’

PSYCHOTHERAPIST LUCY BERESFOD SAYS:

‘By this stage, the infatuation period is over and minor irritations have probably crept in. The make or break moment tends to happen as couples reach their late-twenties and are considering key life decisions, such as whether they want to buy a home or get married.

To work out whether the relationship can last, I advise doing a “value check”. You need to understand what makes each other tick, and can do this my sitting down and prioritizing what is important to you both. What are your attitudes towards starting a family? How important are your own families to each other? If you combine finances and a home, how would you divide bills and who would do the chores? This will give you an indication as to whether your futures as aligned. If your values are different, ask yourself if you can imagine being together at 40, with children – and with different attitudes to money.

You may hear truths about yourselves that you don’t like. Be prepared that this period of deeper exploration might give rise to rows, as you work out what your priorities are. But ultimately, it will give you more control and save a lot of heartache later on – and the increased honesty and understanding that emerges will stand you in good stead. Besides, the worst thing you can do is walk down the aisle, or decide to start a family with the niggling anxiety that you’re doing it with the wrong man.’

WHAT NEXT FOR KATHRYN AND SIMON?

Kathryn says: ‘Surprisingly, talking about serious issues wasn’t that scary, and I’ve learned that Simon and I share the same values on money, family and work. I’ve realised that, just because we’re in an established relationship, it doesn’t mean I can’t pursue my other goals – we’ve since talked about moving abroad together, for example. I’ve vowed to stop wondering about lifestyle I thought I’d have with someone else and focus on making the relationship I’m in the best it can be.’

Simon says: ‘I’ve always told Kathryn not to waste time on “what ifs”. I’ve known from the beginning she was the woman for me and will support her in whatever she decides to do. Our relationship should open up new opportunities, not feel like the end of fun and adventure. I cant wait for our future together.’

RELATIONSHIP MILESTONE 3: SHOULD WE HAVE A BABY?

‘After two years of marriage to my 35 year old husband (I’m 31), I’m happier than ever, but worried about how parenthood might change our lives. We like the idea of having kids but worry that becoming parents would hinder our lifestyle. We have the freedom and finances to travel and have fun, and we both enjoy work. Johnny often does 15-hour days, which are hardly compatible with a newborn.

I’m trained as a geotechnical engineer. My previous job in South Africa involved travelling and working on government projects to improve communities. I loved it and, having moved to Britain to be with Johnny, I want to succeed here too. Can I imagine being a mother in ten years? Yes. But I’m not wildly maternal now. Being in my thirties though, I don’t have the luxury of time. As our friends start having children and our friendship circle is diminishing, we feel under increasing pressure, both culturally and biologically, to start a family. Johnny is more broody than me and doesn’t want to be an old farther. I want to make him happy but I’m not sure he’s emotionally ready either. It’s a dilemma, not knowing what to do for the best long-term.’

PSYCHOTHERAPIST LUCY BERESFORD SAYS:

‘This isn’t a debate to put off. You need to have a potentially awkward discussion about whose career goes on the back-burner during your baby’s early months and talk about the financial implications. There’s now more scope for flexibility, and house-husbands are on the increase. But anyone taking months of maternity leave may find it hard to keep the momentum going.

Try to imagine how you would feel at 50 if you didn’t have children .Most people eventually come down on one side of the fence. Give yourself permission to embrace being child-free, if that feels right for you. Ask yourselves if you react positively to the children you encounter. Do they give you a warm glow or leave you both with lingering doubts as to whether parenthood, in fact, leads to ruined lives and wasted opportunities? Then ask yourselves whether you have similar ideas in terms of actual parenting. How were you both brought up, and are you keen to replicate your own childhood or do things differently? The answers wont come overnight. We are conditioned to be enchanted by babies and you may have friends who have already procreated and are desperate for you to become pregnant, too.‘But its important to block out society’s expectations and go with your instincts.

Ultimately, if it’s an issue that you can’t agree on, it can create irreplaceable resentment. Yes, a baby that’s wanted by one partner more than the other can prove an unexpected delight. But it could also provide enough pressure to break up your relationship.’

WHAT NEXT FOR MICHELEANI AND JOHNNY?

Micheleani says: ‘This has confirmed my suspicious that were not ready. Our careers are too important to take a break from right now. I think Johnny and I have similar ideas on how to raise a child, but we still have a few more years to decide, and rushing the decision would be foolish. I don’t want to become a mother until I can be certain I’ll do it right. Doing it and then resenting the decision would the be worst outcome.’

Johnny says: ‘Starting a family is still something I want to do. Obviously, it’s easier for me because I don’t have the stress of a biological clock ticking. But I want to be young enough to take my child rock-climbing and run around the park. Hopefully, it will happen sooner rather than later. But I’d rather wait until Michelanie feels ready than rush it. After all, we’ve realised it will be her who will have to make many of the compromises.’

RELATIONSHIP MILESTONE 4: I FEEL TAKEN FOR GRANTED
 
‘Seven years and a two-year-old son later, as a full time mum aged 36 I’m just not sure if I can re-ignite that spark with my 33 year old husband.

After Harley was born, I was going to take nine months off; then go back to my job as a travel agent. But two months before my maternity leave ended, Michael was promoted. When we did the maths we worked out that the cost of childcare for me to go back full-time barely covered my wages, so I quit work. Being a stay at home mum is more difficult than I anticipated. I don’t think Michael realises just how stressful it is being at home all day with at two year old. When he gets in, he wants to go straight out for a run. He plays football at the weekends and in January he took himself off on a snow boarding holiday with friends. Things like that get at me and have led to arguments. Before I had the baby, I was a person in my own right and we had this fantastic equal relationship. Now, I’m just a mother, here simply to look after the baby. I still love Michael very much but feel resentful and taken for granted.’

PSYCHOTHERAPIST LUCY BERESDORD SAYS:

‘Falling in love, settling down and having a baby is all consuming. It is only when couples emerge from new parenthood that they realise problems have crept in. If you’ve sacrificed a career to look after you child, while your partner’s career has flourished, it’s easy for resentment to develop. The breadwinner can struggle to understand the thankless slog of childcare and may throw himself further into his career because he feels abandoned by the focus you’re giving your child. It can feel like you living separate lives.

The first step is to acknowledge any jealousy. Then do something to reignite the romance. Date nights are a cliché but provide an opportunity to do something fun away from home. Get dressed up and go out. Hold hands in the park. If you can afford it, take a holiday alone together. Remind yourselves why you fell for each other in the first place. Resenting being taken for granted is partly about a need to get approval from your partner. This is childlike in itself. It’s better to respect your own input. If, say, you resent not being thanked for cooking supper, stop cooking and see what he says.

Both make a list of things you partner does that you appreciate. This should act as a trigger for them to acknowledge what you do. Remember this stage wont last forever – and use parenthood to grow as a couple.’


WHAT NEXT FOR AMANDA AND MICHAEL?

Amanda says: ‘I thought it was obvious to Michael how I felt, but when I vocalized my feelings he was shocked. Just talking about it has made us appreciate each other more. Sometimes it feels impossible to spend time alone as a couple, but I’ve realised how important it is that we make an effort to every week. I’m already feeling better about the future and confident we can get through this tricky phase and come out stronger – so much so that we’ve just decided to start trying for a second baby.’

Michael says: ‘Amanda is a wonderful mother. I respect what she does and want her to be happy. I had no idea how undervalued she felt. I’ve suggested she go back to work part time so she can have more adult conversation during the day. I’ve also cleared more time in my weekly schedule to make sure we do something alone together at least one evening a week.’

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