In any long relationship one partner may experience a niggling sense of dissatisfaction. A corrosive thought arises: “Is this all there is?” The comfortable groove starts to feel like a rut. The contentment that had settled like an old blanket is slowly shredded by a longing for someone new.
It’s bad enough when the long term relationship in jeopardy is a marriage. But when the pizzazz goes out of the relationship with your hairdresser of 15 years, or your family GP, your book group or the woman who’s cleaned your house ever since your second baby – now adult – was born, then the dilemma is no less agonising. Breaking up is hard to do, even with the dentist you’ve seen every six months for 20 years. Infidelity is a moral morass, even when the object of desire is your best friend’s colourist.
A good thing about getting older is the length and strength of our relationships; the people who’ve known us since we were in school; people to whom we owe no explanation. But a bad thing about getting older is being stuck in long relationships through habit or misguided loyalty, relationships that bring no satisfaction. Even as we contemplate leaving them, we are racked by guilt. We procrastinate. Is the grass really greener? An accountant, shy and sweet, may not, you start to suspect after a decade, have the required aggression to milk the deductions. But would anyone else put up with your inadequate filing system and perennial excuses? We worry. The cleaner may be getting unreliable and slapdash but you can’t contemplate adding to her problems by sacking her. In a classic Seinfeld episode called The Barber, George tells Jerry: “You’ve got to start seeing someone else. Get out of this relationship.” But Jerry, who’s gone to Uncle Enzo for haircuts for 12 years, says, “I can’t switch, I’d hurt his feelings.”
But say you do pluck up the courage to sever the ties and start afresh, what’s your strategy? Do you ignore the dentist’s six-month reminder, and the next one, as if he’s just another small businessman who’s gone out of favour, not someone you’ve seen for half a lifetime? Do you pretend you never poured your heart out to your beautician over a decade, or confided in your pedicurist over the long years of your children’s growing up? Do you revert to the pretence the relationship was merely between a consumer and a service provider? You could stage a parting scene with your family GP where you tell her you’ve lost faith in her diagnostic skills; or you could walk out wordlessly like a spouse who goes to the corner shop for milk and never comes back.
We women know the hardest bond to break is with our hairdresser. Some women have known their hairdresser for longer than they’ve known their children; they’ve seen them more regularly than their siblings. A good haircut is a woman’s most precious investment, vital to her self-esteem and, later with the colour, even to her continued employment. When a woman feels her investment going south, or just suddenly tires of “the look” and starts to stray to her girlfriend’s salon, say, does she owe her old confidante a proper goodbye?
My mother faced the music in an honourable way. She took flowers (the hairdresser worked out of her own house) and simply said she wanted a change. They hugged. In contrast, I tried to sneak out of the year-long relationship my then-teenaged son had forged with a physiotherapist who was making minimal progress. But I lived to regret the appointment cancelled after-hours via answering machine. When I needed, months later, a letter from the physiotherapist I was made to realise the relationship had been more than a commercial one, he was a family adviser, hurt feelings were involved, and I ended up apologising.
In any long relationship one partner can start to take the other for granted; complacency and laziness can set in. You can see that sometimes in the relationship between old people and a GP who’s past caring. On the other hand, a client may be deaf to good advice just because it’s coming from someone too familiar. The same dire warning about regular flossing, or the need for exercise uttered by a new expert suddenly sounds like holy writ.
Most of the time I find myself cherishing my long term relationships and hoping nothing will disrupt them. I hope these treasured people won’t leave me: my book group, for example, of more than 20 years’ standing, my family doctor in his old-fashioned corner practice.
But it occurred to me, sitting in the hairdresser’s chair last week, that at this stage in life I have a new and respectable rationale for disentangling myself from some old relationships. No longer a full-time worker, now on a reduced income, I can legitimately say: “It’s been wonderful but I just can’t afford you anymore.” And then hope they don’t offer me a “senior’s” discount.
Have you moved on? How did you do it? Please click on ‘comments’.
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