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Reasons to be staying

19 December 2014

PETER had experienced a difficult few weeks with his ageing partner - some 20 years older than himself, and ailing. Peter had told me about his battles with various authorities, lobbying for better care. "You've handled it brilliantly," I said, because he had. But, instead of looking pleased, he looked hesitant. "When the Dutch use the word 'partner'," he said, "they're referring to a business matter. But this is a relationship, isn't it?"

Peter and Tom have been together for more than 20 years, but circumstances now make life difficult. They have had to move to a town where they have no friends, and Tom is too unwell, physically and psychologically, to make new ones. Meanwhile, the pressure is on Peter to earn enough to keep them in food and accommodation, while the threat of eviction is real.

When he's not doing that, he's trying to get help for Tom and his diminishing health. So Peter has many anxieties. But he does not speak about these things to Tom, because the last time he mentioned a problem, Tom went into a serious relapse.

We sit together now, and note that he is both carer and lover, which are different. A carer may withhold information in certain circumstances; and, while it's demanding work, they can at least go home. But a lover will struggle to withhold information, or lie, because something in them dies when they do. Neither can they go home; they are already there.

So Peter's next revelation is hardly surprising: "I was shocked to discover my blood pressure's gone up," he tells me, "especially as I cycle 20 miles a day, and eat only vegetables." Secrets do not just eat away at relationships, apparently: they lodge in the body, and disturb the good order there.

Some people cannot understand why Peter stays with Tom. "'Life would be much easier without him,' that's what they say to me; but it isn't like that." "So how is it?" I ask.

"Things have been really difficult for a while now - years, really," he says. "We've made some bad decisions, and now we're trapped by them. And I do think of suicide. I'm not saying I'm going to, but it crosses my mind. But I don't do it, and I won't do it, because of Tom; because of the responsibility I feel. If I went, what would he do? He keeps me here."

This echoes the recent comments of a psychologist, who was talking about high levels of alcoholism in older women: "When the children leave home, they find themselves without the responsibility that once gave shape and order to their lives. There's nothing to hold them now."

Peter gets up to go: the carer and the lover, struggling with the authorities, struggling with secrets, whose partner gives him both stress and meaning. "I'm at peace today," he says, "but it's a vulnerable peace."

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