Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of women who are contemplating leaving their marriages but who aren’t sure.  What’s holding them back?  “My husband’s a good guy,” they say.  “It’s not like he’s abusive or he cheats on me.”  The implication is that if something were egregiously wrong, it would be easier for them to make the decision (though we know that’s not true: women in abusive relationships can definitely find it hard to leave).  But what they mean to say is, “Is it okay for me to leave a so-so marriage?  Are there circumstances other than abuse when it’s okay for me to say I don’t want to do this anymore?”

This is a tough question to answer, given that it touches on a number of different sensitive areas in a person’s life, including their religious background, family values, and personal moral compass.  Those are deeply personal realms of a woman’s life that she needs to explore either on her own or with the help of a counselor or spiritual adviser.

But it also brings up some other important life questions for women to consider — things that will help them to know if they have done all they can to salvage the relationship, if they are giving up “too soon,” or if the stakes of leaving are just too high:

– Am I personally dissatisfied with where I am in my life?  If I felt greater satisfaction, would I feel better about my marriage?  

If you are personally dissatisfied with your life, think about other changes you could make to be happier.  Perhaps you’d like to change careers or start pursuing a passion for a hobby that could turn into a business.  Perhaps you have always wanted to travel and could begin to save and plan for a meaningful trip.  Or maybe you have been stuck in a rut of taking care of yourself last and you need to start taking better care of your own needs, including exercising more, changing your relationship with food, or losing the weight you’ve so long wanted to lose.  Once you feel good about yourself, it may be easier to see if you can live with your spouse’s shortcomings or if you truly feel it’s time to move on.

– Are my expectations of marriage (and of my partner in particular) realistic?  To the best of my knowledge, is it true that I could be happier in another situation?

Sometimes we expect a prince and get a real guy instead.  It can be hard to let go of our idealized, longed-for, romance-novel-quality leading guy and to learn to live with someone with real foibles and issues.  Do your best to figure out if you’re placing unrealistic hopes on a very realistic situation; if you don’t, odds are that your next guy will fall short, too, once the woo-ing phase is over.

-Have I done my part in communicating my needs to my partner?

You may feel like you’ve been outlining problems to your spouse for years and that he should have gotten it by now.  That may well be true but it’s important to look at how the communication has been delivered.  If your message is always packaged in sarcasm or at high volume or in snippets, it may be time to try getting a third party to help the two of you make progress in your discussion, which leads into the next question…

-Have I sought help with my partner to see if these issues can be resolved?

Marriage therapists have long said that couples pursue counseling an average of 6 or 7 years “late,” well after the negative patterns have been entrenched and resentment is flaring.  Do your part to change those stats and seek help early on; if you seek counseling and it doesn’t help your marriage to feel more fulfilling, then you can always look back and say that you did what you could to make it work.

-Who else would be hurt if I left the marriage?  Can I live with those consequences?

If the two of you have children together, then obviously you want to weigh out the impact on them versus the potential gain.  Child therapists and even school counselors can help give you advice regarding the impact of separation and divorce on children; lawyers can advise you on custody arrangements.  At the end of the day, though, only you live in your home and know whether the daily situation feels stressful enough that you all would be better off with a change.

Honestly answering these questions and assessing where you may have fallen short in your efforts to deal with the problems can give you an idea of what to do next.

If you have tried all of the ways at your disposal to elevate the marriage from so-so to happy, then consider trying a trial separation.  For some couples, the chance to live alone for a few months, to see what life is like on their own, and to even consider “dating” their spouse again, makes them realize that they do want to be together after all.  For others, it can serve as confirmation that they are better off living apart.