- Before breaking up, consider all of the implications for you and your partner
- You cannot change your partner, but you can take a break without breaking up
- Ask yourself how big the ripple effect might be, and what it means for both of you
After another endless fight, breaking up may feel like the only way out of this mess. But here are a few things to consider before calling it quits -- ask yourself these four questions first.
1. Am I jumping to conclusions?
Molly Barrow, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of "Matchlines for Singles," says that she often sees women who assume their unhappiness is entirely caused by their partner. If you're convinced that your spouse is the problem, and especially if you find yourself repeatedly and testily telling him all the reasons he's standing in the way of your damn joy, then Barrow recommends that you put your thoughts down on paper.
"Slow the communication down to a crawl," she says. This does not mean berating your husband or boyfriend for 22 pages. (We can't stop you, of course, but if you do that, rip those suckers up and start again.) The idea is that once you've stepped away from your typical fight, you can acknowledge your part in the stress party happening at your house -- stretched finances, pressure at work, feelings of depression, or exhaustion from juggling the needs of your children. The letter serves two purposes: It lets him know what's actually upsetting you and clues you in too.
2. How big is the gap between my partner and me?
We all know that Prince Charming doesn't exist. We tell ourselves our expectations are realistic. Still, the questions we ask ourselves about our relationships (Is there still passion? Do I find him attractive? How can he figure out how to keep food warm in a subzero parking lot for his after-hockey practice potluck but forget his own child's birthday?) are often too surface to matter, says Barrow.
What she means is that the cracks that occur over time because of an unsatisfying sexual relationship, lack of communication or contrasts in personality aren't necessarily irreparable. Unlike obvious deal breakers -- long-term goals that are out of whack, an inability for your partner to celebrate your success, substance abuse or unprotected infidelity -- many of these issues can be addressed if both parties are willing to work, respect the other's right to disagree and can be a teeny bit flexible.
3. Have I taken a floating holiday... by myself?
"You absolutely cannot change your partner," says Barrow, "but just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, if Ginger goes another direction, the dance looks different." What she means is to try something unexpected. For instance, you might get "a little divorced," a phrase Rachel Zucker coined in The New York Times, by escaping from your family/partner for a few days. (Or go for a long walk if this isn't possible.)
A time-out, even a short one, will give you an opportunity to think about how you can make changes that will improve life in your world. Reconnecting with friends, limiting your commitments to your kids' school or taking a rock-climbing class at the gym could help you ease some of the tension in you and in your relationship.
4. How big will the ripple effect be?
We know some married women who fall into a "grass is always greener and full of mojitos" daydream of Life Without Him. Maybe you've envisioned whole weekends when you can decide what to do and when to do it. You may have even thought about the downside of how your day-to-day might change: Paying the bills could become more of a challenge, or getting to the gym for an hour after you've lost your built-in babysitter might not be possible. But have you ruthlessly considered post-spouse life?
For one thing, your husband may want to take a more active role in decisions he previously left up to you, like playdates or extracurricular activities involving your children. For another, dating is not like it was when you were 25. If you're in your 30s (and beyond), do you imagine parties filled with a sea of smart, funny, charming fellas? You are not wrong. Except the men at these parties are often married, or encumbered with girlfriends (or boyfriends), or muddling through horrific divorces themselves.
Barrow suggests you think about every aspect of the daydream and compare it to what you have: a guy who knows, among other things, how to hot-wire a Crock-Pot to a car dashboard. Okay -- that's a little glib, but the point is that it's easy to tell ourselves that we've really thought out this other fantasy life. And it's supereasy to judge the imperfections in the person we've been with for ages. But it's not fair to your spouse (or to you).
You may find that it takes months to answer these questions and to decide whether the relationship is worth saving, not to mention months to actually save it. But trying to salvage the relationship after you've already severed ties, says Barrow, is next to impossible.