1. Do I have a hard or a soft problem?
If you have what marital therapists call a "hard" problem, for example, your spouse is abusing you or has untreated addictions, says William Doherty, PhD, lead researcher on the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota
, then you need to get out of the situation immediately. But let's say you're like most people in a tough relationship, and, on thinking about ending things find yourself saying things such as, "We've grown apart," or "We're just not in love anymore." That's code , says Doherty, for another, unrecognized problem. Are you lonely or feeling isolated? Do you feel disliked, criticized or ignored? If you don't know the specifics of what's making you unhappy, it's pretty hard to figure out the specifics of what will make you happy—whether these things have to do with your current partner or anybody else.
2. Am I already divorced?
Maybe you're living this scenario: You stay late at the office (the real office, with desks not beds), then meet with friends for a book club or a new play downtown. Meanwhile, he goes to the gym after work; then, he watches CSI
and goes to sleep long before you get home. This goes on for a few years—or 10 or 15. At that point, a divorce feels like just a formality, says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD
, author of Make Up, Don't Break Up
. The natural assumption is: well, if we're already split up emotionally, why not just take the plunge and do it legally? But Weil believes that's the time to stop and ask, "What's the rush now?" An official call for a breakup, she feels, is actually a call to fix the marriage, because a divorced relationship (read: a distant relationship) has become your norm and nobody comes into a counseling session looking to do more of what they're already doing. It's crucial—and often illuminating—to investigate why the two of you haven't already ended your relationship. Yes, there may have been obligations, such as the kids or financial security, but was there something else, also? And is it still there?
3. Who's changing the snow tires?
If you're in a troubled, miserable marriage, you're often focused on the miserable part. After yet another long, ugly fight, a future outside that grief seems pretty appealing. But Doherty says that couples make a mistake when they focus on this post-marital-conflict snow globe of bliss. "The husband or wife can't imagine everything that's going to occur: breaking up the household; moving; dating." Couples with children conveniently forget their fellow parent is going to be at the soccer game, the bar mitzvah, the grandchild's 1st birthday party. He suggests couples write down who will handle the activities of each specific day and occasion exactly one year after the marriage is over, covering the mundane-but-somehow-crucial stuff too, like who will get the Le Creuset, or change the snow tires. These hard realities—which must include the even harder reality that 60 percent of all second marriages also fail—is a litmus test. If, upon consideration, the upheaval still seems worthwhile, you might want to get out. If it doesn't, it's time to rethink.
Next: The one word you should watch out for