Should One Stay on in a Relationship Out of Duty?

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This is a line in a song called That Old Devil Called Love sung by Shirley Horn; a poignant piece of music, especially for some of us who have separated from a loved one. Parting is hard but it is sometimes the best thing for a long-standing relationship where you want the friendship but not the sex. Is it fair to the other party, and should one stay out of duty or be true to oneself?

We know during the first year of a relationship whether we have made a mistake, but we continue on. Our feelings warn us, but we keep hoping our thinking will change. Sometimes we have extreme moments of clarity, but we think of the children, we think of the cost of living with a single paycheck, and we think that we are being selfish to even think of leaving a good man like that. So do you stay because he’s a good man? Will you fake the next forty years of your life?

Sometimes people leave because they are by nature wanderers, nomads, and cannot be in one spot or with one person forever. I have a 70 year old Norwegian friend called Ulf. He is in Cape Town now passing through and is staying with me for four days. Ulf has had four wives, has five children, the youngest of which is three. Ulf spends eight months of the year travelling, a few weeks with one daughter in Trondheim, a few weeks with the other daughter in Oslo, a few months with his wife in Beijing and the rest of the time on his own in Trondheim. He is a walker, talker, writer, professor, mountain climber, sailor, enjoying all the fruits of culture and nature, and this afternoon walked from Plumstead to Mowbray to go to the bank.

Is it fair for a partner to watch this kind of relationship and be satisfied? Ulf is like a waft of warm air when he arrives; you feel the draught when he leaves. As for Ulf, who says he is an atheist and does not believe, he is the best of believers because he loves all God’s creatures, helps people, and is a great friend. There are many reasons people have for wanting out of a marriage, including friendships with other people and not wanting to be controlled. Ulf will go back to Norway and trundle through the thick snow in the forest with twelve year old daughter Celeste and I will carry on with my work. Who can understand this? They’ll throw out the old Viking helmets and all.

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