BRENT STOLLER

Writer. Advice giver. Peanut butter and chocolate enthusiast.

Advice for the Modern Man: 5 Ways to Determine If It’s Time to Break Up

Breakup

To send in a question, please complete this form. All submissions are anonymous.

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

I’ve been married for 16 years. At the start of our marriage, my wife was finishing college, so my income was our income. I did well, and we increased our standard of living.

Eight years ago, I lost my lucrative job, so my wife became our dominant breadwinner — until she lost her job. The financial pressure we felt drove us apart.

She has brought up the idea that we separate and possibly divorce. She isn’t happy, and neither am I.

But every time I start to pull away, she refuses to let go.

She has gotten a new job, and I started another business. If we do stay together, I believe we should limit our lifestyle, but she disagrees.

Beyond that, we have had rough times over the years. Finances have not been our only issue. I cheated on her at one point, and we have been abusive to one another.

We have three children, which makes everything more complicated. I don’t think I want to end the marriage, but I’m not sure if we can still make it work. What should we do?
–DEGO; Atlanta, GA

When I was single, I couldn’t comprehend being married. I couldn’t comprehend picking one person to spend the rest of my life with, to grow old with, to eat hard candy and drink prune juice with.

Still, it wasn’t something I ruled out. I knew I wanted to fall in love; whatever happened beyond that was anybody’s guess.

Which is why I’d ask the married people in my life — my parents, my friends, my family — the holy grail of dating questions:

“How do you know when you’ve met the right person?”

Their answer was as enigmatic as it was exasperating:

“You’ll just know.”

What? That’s it? That’s a little kid’s answer. We’re talking about a lifelong commitment of partnership and compromise and sacrificed college football Saturdays, and that’s what you’re sending me out there with?

Of course, they ended up being right. When I eventually met my now-wife, Emily, I did just know.

But at the time, their cryptic response drove me nuts.

And as I read DEGO’s submission, I sensed that same frustration. That’s because he’s now wrestling with my question’s evil twin:

“How do you know when it’s time to break up?”

This question is just as critical, because whether you’re figuring out how to select a partner or when to walk away from one, your future hangs in the balance.

In an effort to provide the level of advice that was never provided to me (albeit about the opposite end of the relationship spectrum), what follows are guidelines of assessment when your relationship is on the rocks.

While specific struggles vary from couple to couple, these five questions are all-encompassing enough to ensure you can answer one more:

Is it over?

1. Can you put the past in the past?

Some relationships sour in an instant, usually as the result of betrayal, like infidelity or blowing your kid’s college fund at the craps table.

Other relationships ignite in a slow burn. One little thing happens, then another, and then another. And before you know it, you’re gashed by a million paper cuts.

In both cases, the only way you can move forward is by promising to not look back.

Whether you’re struggling with a relationship felony or a series of misdemeanors, if the two of you want a future together, you have to forgive and forget. You can’t hold onto previous mistakes and play them as a trump card when things don’t go your way.

These transgressions are what led you to this crossroads. And if you can’t let them go, they’ll lead you here again.

2. Do you still want the same things?

When you start dating someone, the only thing you want is to be with her.

But as the infatuation stage dwindles, your focus shifts from what’s right in front of you to what’s out ahead of you. The two of you create a world together that’s grounded in a shared value system — in what you prioritize and what you want out of life.

When that value system falls out of alignment, though, it’s almost impossible to coexist.

Maybe one person changes their mind about children, or the other redefines what’s an acceptable lifestyle (see submission above).

Regardless, most relationships can’t survive that seismic shift.

This is not to say people can’t change (more on this in a minute). But it’s possible they can change so much, or in the most critical ways, that they’re no longer a good fit for each other.

3. Is there still trust and respect?

Looks change. Lust fades. Love is not enough.

But trust and respect endure.

At least, they better if you want a lasting, successful relationship.

It’s (almost) inevitable that you and your partner are going to evolve. It’d be unhealthy if you didn’t. You don’t want to be the same person at 51 that you were at 31.

But that means your relationship must evolve with you. And the only way it can do that is if it’s anchored in a foundation of trust and respect.

When you have faith in each other, and you treat each other with kindness, compassion and dignity, not only do you have the freedom to mature individually, you have the strength to withstand any storm. Together.

4. What do you have to lose?

I’m not talking about money or houses or whatever else you wish was in the pre-nup. And I’m not talking about the sunk cost of time. “I’ve come this far” is no reason to stick around.

I’m talking about children.

When it’s just the two of you, it’s OK to admit things aren’t working, cut your losses and move on.

But when you have kids, you have to factor them into your calculus. Before walking away, you have to at least pause and double-check that you’ve done everything possible in the name of keeping your family intact.

That said, I don’t believe in staying together solely for the kids’ sake. They’ll detect the disconnect, which will ingrain in them an unhealthy concept of marriage, along with lord knows what else.

In the long-term, your altruism could do more harm than good.

5. What does your gut say?

Like an NFL general manager scouting quarterbacks, my dating days were spent looking for a girl who had “It” — that unquantifiable quality that made her the right fit for me.

Thankfully, I found it in Emily. While I thought she was beautiful and our personalities were symbiotic, beneath those checklist items was an unspoken connection that told me she was different. In a good way.

That’s how it feels when you’re with the right person.

But as DEGO, and plenty of others, have shown, there are no guarantees — just because you feel that at one time doesn’t mean you always will.

It reminds me of the line from “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot:

“I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.”

Sometimes that X-factor gets x’d out. And when it does, you’ll no longer be able to picture a future with this person. Even if you can, you won’t want to pursue it.

There’s understandably angst in figuring out if a relationship is over. But there doesn’t have to be.

After you’ve asked the above questions, and you’ve processed their answers, all you have to do is tap into that same instinct that brought the two of you together in the first place.

And for better or worse, you’ll just know.

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This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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