Do relationships have a best before date? Stephanie

I'm very cynical about supermarkets - the bright lights that blind us from the ridiculous profit margins and the manipulative displays that lead us to a trolley full of three for twos; that's why I am totally cavalier about sell by dates. You may want me to buy it by the fifth Mr Sainsbury but that will not dictate when I eat it. I'd rather trust my eyes, my nose and my taste buds. Aside from an unfortunate incident with a sausage sandwich circa 1999, this methodology has seen me well and saved me many pennies; also each time I flout the rules I enjoy the sense of rebellion. Here's the thing, best before dates are more of an art than a science - one woman's spoiled meat is another's slow roasted stew and the same is true for relationships. Recognising the end of a relationship is as much about the individual as the state of the relationship. I love Gretchen Rubin and her wonderful categorisation system of personality types. She suggests that an upholder accepts rules and is the sort of person who keeps New Years resolutions; a questioner questions rules and accepts them only if they make sense; a rebel flouts rules and resists control and an obliger accepts outside rules. How can an individual personality type effect a relationship? Simply put, have you ever tried to complete a Rubix Cube? Did you toil away until you had that sucker completed or did you chuck it in a corner the minute things got difficult? Neither option is correct, the right choice is the one that brings you the most peace. 

There are a few key times when you must end a relationship - if experiencing abuse or neglect or repeated betrayals but outside of those situations when is the right time to call time? A quick survey of my mates didn't make things any clearer. 

'When things feel bad more often than they feel good.'

'When I'm no longer learning about myself or the other person.' 

'When I start noticing other people in a sexual way.' 

'I have no idea. I always let the other person end it.' 

That being said none of the people questioned regretted the time they spent with previous partners, there was always something to learn about themselves and about the world, things that made their next relationship far better. In short, aside from those rare unperishable unions, most relationships have a best before date because we change and our needs change and that's a lot to put on one person for a life time. If you're asking yourself this question your relationship best before date may be fast approaching and if the contents of that relationship are putrid and slimy, if you wouldn't serve it to a friend or loved one, please throw it away but if it's just a bit tired or wilted, add some spice, make a stir fry and enjoy what you have while you can.

The mums who intimidate me at the school gates

I'm about to start my second term as a school mum. I've gotta say the boy has adapted far better than me. A lot has changed, unlike nursery you're supposed to get to school on time, if possible before it starts. If you have a late night or a craving for pancakes you can't dawdle until you feel like leaving the house. And another thing, although I'm grateful for the free childcare, school finishes mid afternoon and there are all these days they call 'holidays', when they won't take him. There's been a lot of adjustments but the biggest has been the jungle known as the playground. Twice a day I find myself hovering in the shadows of the climbing frame, eyes darting around behind my sunglasses, not knowing where to put myself. The playground is divided into tribes, through careful observation I think I have catergorised each one and they all scare me.

Career Mums - Not women who work, women who make mothering their job. They arrive early and have morning meetings by the gates, I overhear them chatting confidently about charity events and the parent teacher association - things I meant to put in my diary. When they leave I assume it's to check on stew in the slow cooker or stock up on crafting supplies.

Professional Mums - These mums are working and also werkin' it. They race to the gates in make up and heels. Their energy communicates much business and importance. Often they are on their phones, I confess that I am intimidated by people who take phone calls before lunch, it reminds me that the early bird catches the worm and I haven't had a worm in a while. 

Young Mums - So bouncy, so full of life. So young.

Sporty Mums - Have either completed or are about to begin a session of something energetic. I try not to get to close because the endorphins can be overpowering. Even in cold weather I can sense the Lycra under her heavy coat. These women have so many gifts - time, energy, waistlines - I'm not sure what we would have in common. 

DGAF Mums - Don't really fit into any of the above groups and therefore categorised as not giving a toss about assimilation. They sometimes wear leather, tend to have red painted lips and sunglasses, you just know they were the cool girls at school. Their kids have hip names and confident mini swaggers, whatever they're doing in between school hours is nobody's damn business. 

And there are dads of course but they don't fall prey to my assessments. Maybe because I find it harder to compare myself to men, probably because I have accepted societal prejudices that any man doing any childcare gets to do so without scrutiny. 

I spoke to my friend about my uncomfortable drop off experience and she asked me which of the groups I fell into. 

'Well obviously, I'm in none of them. I'm the weird loner Mum.' She thought about this for a minute and pointed out that I often wear leggings (because comfort) and I mostly wear sunglasses (because eye bags) and sometimes I'm rushing off to a meeting (because bills) and from time to time I collar another parent to ask about the Harvest Festival or the next Parents Evening (because I never, ever put anything in my diary). And really, to another mum I could look like any of the mothers I've listed and the mothers I've listed could be feeling exactly like me. This doesn't mean I've got over my playground fear but I'm taking steps to conquer it. I'm gonna look up more this term, make eye contact, maybe bust out a smile or two and give me five or six years and I might feel completely at home. 

Top tips: 

Bucket list - a storage space for dreams

In my early twenties I moved from Birmingham where I had been studying and working for six years back to my home time of London. I missed my family and friends and the comforting constant of noise pollution but in order to gain those things I had to be willing to give something up - space and lots of it. I had collected quite a lot in my first years adulting and in those pre Kondo days I felt anxious about letting them go. Luckily my cosy new flat was a stones throw from a Big Yellow Storage and I nabbed one of those metal boxes as my oversized wardrobe space for the next five years. Aside from the monthly direct debit I pretty much forgot about my trove until another five years passed and I it came time to move again. When I finally returned to my storage box I looked upon the mish mash of Ikea furniture and old CD's and saw it for what it was - crap. Almost everything went directly from storage to the tip. I didn't want any of it; I certainly didn't need it and I didn't think about that box until a couple of weeks ago. 

I was talking to a friend and the subject of bucket lists came up. She told me that at the very top of hers was a sky dive. I'm not sure why one would make skirting with death a goal but each to their own. I asked her why she hadn't yet done it. She pointed to the cost. I eyed up her designer handbag and suggested she put a bit aside for a few months. She uhmmed and ahhed and mumbled that she would rather raise money for charity. I wasn't convinced. Maybe she wants to skydive, maybe she simply likes the idea of being an adventurous person, whatever the case placing it on her bucket list means she doesn't have to work out the answer - it's a storage space for her dreams. 

And that's OK, if you want to forget about the them. If you're a parent you might be reading this thinking, it's all good because I don't have time for dreams. But the problem with storage is you pay a price. It might not feel like a lot but each month there is a direct debit from your sense of self. When you design a bucket list, you're sort of saying that the items on it will complete you and for the time they remain there collecting dust, you tell yourself you are incomplete. It's a new year and time I usually think about making grand plans and reaching new highs but my this time I'm going to do things differently. I'll pick one goal and start working towards it, maybe I'll succeed; maybe I'll decide I don't really need it but then it will be gone and I'll be off to the next, like a bucket list without being reminded of my mortality and adding more admin to my life. These days, I don't have the headspace. 

Do you think your partner can be your best friend?

So you want to call your partner your best friend? Why not? As the great philosopher Sheryl Crow once said, 'If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad.' When you really think about it what are you saying? You're dating someone you can be yourself with; someone who makes you laugh; someone you like hanging out with more than anyone else. Congrats, you're in a healthy relationship! 

Apart from being a bit too high on the cutesy scale for my liking, I don't think there's anything wrong with proclaiming your lover as your bestie unless... Is there any chance you're giving yourself an easy out from engaging in the world beyond your Netflix account? Socialising is hard work, especially after you enter your thirties and kids and commitments and an ever decreasing stamina get in the way. How much easier is it to declare your partner your best friend when, conveniently, you don't have to leave the house to see them? Adult friendships take a lot of effort but I seriously think they're worth it. When navigating life it's a gift to have access to as many perspectives as possible and to gain that it helps to have a wide circle of friends. A partner will offer endless support but when seeking advice, I find a person who doesn't want to sleep with me can be more objective. And of course if your partner is your best friend, who are you going to turn to when you need to have a good old moan about them?

How can you trust a man when you've had previous horrible relationships? - Ruth

One of my first bosses was a horrible, horrible man. He was 'playfully' misongynistic, casually racist and what I found worse at the time, almost never did any work. He was a walking embodiment of the patriachy, having secured his senior role on the golf course, he distracted from his lack of ability by belittling his subordinates, always younger, most often female. It was a common occurrence to find a woman crying in the loos before lunch; we all accepted him as something to endure rather than overcome. I didn't think I had a choice but to accept him because there were bills to pay and happy hours to frequent and although he made me miserable, I thought I could do little but work hard until I had enough experience to move on to another job. And that's what I did, even though my first experience of being an employee was tortuous, I found another job because the benefits of working (being able to pay rent) outweighed the risks of working under another monster. The same is true for relationships, after a brush with evil it can be tempting to stay away from the dating game entirely but then you may miss out on all of the delicious perks of being in a couple (less bin emptying, night time foot warmer). The key is not in trusting men but trusting yourself, know that with your updated romance CV you will find better partners and opt out of relationships that don't meet your criteria. Remind yourself...

More experience means better positions. With all your life and love experience you will have more to offer a partner and that means you will attract similarly equipped men. Make clear to anyone you what you value in life, a good match will be excited to meet you where you are; don't accept a contract with anyone who dismisses your needs or doesn't understand your goals.  

Ask questions at the interview. We all know a first date is an interview. I refer to my first meeting with a guy as a pre-date. Usually I opt for coffee or a drink, something lasting less than an hour. This is my time to assess their presentation skills, get a quick overview of their relationship history and ensure there is no ick factor. Should a potential partner succeed at this stage they can progress to the cinema or maybe even dinner. Don't wait to be chosen, you get to be the picker. 

There's always a probation period. Films and fairy tales have made us think that the only way to find love is to throw caution to the wind but real life doesn't always have a happy ending and it really irritates me that some people give more thought to their electricity supplier than the people they let into their life. Use the first few weeks of a courtship to assess your dates potential for the position and if they don't meet the criteria don't be afraid to cut them loose - you're amazing, there will be plenty of new applicants. 

If you have a question submit to

How do you keep romance alive when you have two kids and little time? - Kim

This question warms my heart so much! I'm sorry you're struggling to find the time to get soppy with the other half but please take some comfort in the fact that you want to. So many couples slip into a state where they're living like disgruntled housemates and wonder why they have nothing to talk about when they do get a moment alone together. You still want to make beautiful memories with your partner and that's half the battle! You are well ahead in the game. Kids are passion killers, it's probably a good thing, otherwise you'd inadvertently fill you house with 'too much prosecco' babies. One day the kids will be gone and you'll have all the time you want to share candlelit evenings together. Isn't that exciting?! Simply keep romance on life support for a little bit longer, doll. 

You'll be pleased to know I've had questions along these lines before - you are not alone. I don't know what people are expecting after introducing a screaming, crapping, attention-hogging, emotional and financial parasite into their relationship but this 'kids are killing the romance' problem is a common one. So here's some previous posts that in summary encourage you to make the most of the little time you have:

Alternatively, you can do what I did - get divorced, move out, struggle to support two households, divide time with your children, start the soul destroying process of online dating, weed through dozens of cretinous men to find the one respectable dude left on the planet and invite romance into your life every other weekend! Things don't sound so bad now do they...

Does anyone find themselves wondering why a partner cheats? - Tracy

Does anyone else find themselves wondering why a partner cheats and then blaming themselves? The last FOUR bf's I've had all cheated and I am now wondering if it's my fault?

Whenever a relationship ends you find yourself wondering, was it me? My marriage has been over for some time and I still find myself getting distracted from the food shop because I'm analysing the things I said and the decisions I made, wondering if I'm living out the real-life Sliding Doors and not sure if this is the shitty life or the good one. It's natural, not always useful, but natural. We can learn from all our experiences but especially the negative ones and the end of a relationship is a good time to consider what, if anything, we would do differently. That being said, when it comes to cheating, I'm pretty hard line - the fault lies with the cheater and never the cheated. Your exes might have tried to convince you otherwise but cheaters are very often liars, so I'd probably disregard what they had to say. 

It's not you it's me is a cliche because it's true. When a person cheats it's about their choices, their insecurities, their fears - nothing you would have done could justify it. I know the things you have running through your mind because I've thought them too - I wasn't fun enough, I wasn't pretty enough. None of it is true but what if it was? That would be like firebombing your local newsagents because they gave you the wrong change. 

I can't imagine your friends and family have told you anything different, so I thought I'd try and back up my stance with some cold hard facts. Research by the organisation Trustify reveals that 55% of men are willing to admit to cheating. Let's look at that. More than half and that's the men who are willing to come clean. The odds are not in your favour. The study also examined the reasons why people cheat and to be honest, I got bored. All the reasons boiled down to one thing - they wanted escape. And who doesn't feel like that sometimes? We all feel lost or trapped or confused from time to time and some people respond to that by betraying people they love. Sadly that's life and bad luck. 

That being said four partners in a row is very bad luck and whilst I hope I've made clear that I want you to absolve yourself of any responsibility for the cheating you have experienced, I'm wondering if it's a coincidence that you've found yourself with a string of cheaters? You see, the kind of men who cheat feed on one thing - insecurity; they can smell it like sharks smell blood. A woman who doesn't completely love herself will let the little things slide, those small indiscretions that hint at the greater disrespect to come; she'll be willing to put in the other eighty when she's only getting twenty percent; she'll be accepting, so very accepting, that the wrong man will take advantage of that and she'll persevere with the wrong man because she can't quite believe that the right man is waiting around the corner. If any of this sounds familiar, I urge you to take a break before your next relationship and the only love affair you should be having right now is with yourself. 

3 Little Buttons

Confessions of a New Mummy