It is difficult to make the decision to leave a marriage. There is often a deep fear of being alone, let alone the prospect of an unknown future. So many people settle for mediocrity, settling for low-level pain and dissatisfaction. However, that is not your best option. “Staying in a seriously unhappy marriage can have long-term effects on our mental and emotional health,” explains Carrie Cole, a couples therapist, and Gottman Institute Master Certified Gottman Therapist.
According to research, people in unhappy marriages have lower self-esteem, suffer from anxiety and depression, and have a higher rate of illness than those who are not. When people decide to divorce, they feel sad and grieve — but people who divorce do recover emotionally, according to Cole, and the majority find new relationships. According to one statistic, “85 percent of those who divorce remarry within five years,” she says.
Most, if not all, marriages will go through a rough patch at some point—but when does a rough patch become an entirely unhappy or loveless marriage? It can be frightening to consider the possibility that your marriage is over, or even to recognize the signs in the first place, but it is possible to reconcile if that is what you both desire.
According to marriage therapists, here are the main signs you’re in an unhappy marriage and what to do about it.
1. There is continuous criticism.
Constant criticism indicates that feelings of love and warmth for one another have given way to judgment. According to Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness, if you’re constantly criticizing each other, it’s not a good sign. “Criticism or name-calling is a huge boundary violation,” says Shane Birkel, LMFT, a licensed marriage, and family therapist.
2. Your relationship has devolved into a sexless one.
Another sign of an unhappy marriage is a lack of sex life. Or, if you do have sex on a rare occasion, it’s not very good. Of course, not having sex all the time isn’t always a bad thing, and some couples prefer a sexless relationship. It’s not so much how frequently married couples have sex as it is whether you enjoy having sex with your spouse and feel good about your shared sex life.
3. You find it difficult to spend time together.
Being in each other’s company may feel like a chore or extremely forced. Without the sense of intimacy that was once present, you may feel as if you have nothing to say—and, more importantly, that you don’t care what they have to say.
4. You stop celebrating each other’s victories.
Who is the first person you call when something exciting occurs? If it was once your spouse and is now a friend or family member, it’s a sign that your marriage has suffered. Birkel observes that in unhappy marriages, there is little incentive to connect or share anything.
5. You’re both on the defensive.
Both Caraballo and Birkel point out that constant defensiveness is a sure sign that the two of you aren’t communicating well, and that it goes hand in hand with constant criticism. Simple statements or questions can also elicit a negative response. For example, if one partner reminds the other to do a chore, the other partner may become defensive and say something like, “I already said I was going to do it—don’t guilt-trip me.”
6. You try to avoid each other as much as possible.
According to Birkel, avoiding each other in general is a fairly obvious sign that things aren’t going well. You’ll most likely have separate plans and have no desire to spend time together, all of which point to an unhappy marriage.
7. You fantasize about leaving.
It’s entirely possible that fantasies about leaving or being single will begin to surface in your mind. You’re becoming more aware of the issues in your marriage and how the marriage affects you, which inevitably leads you to consider other options.
8. There is a dynamic of anxious versus avoidant attachment.
Birkel has frequently observed a clash of attachment styles. “There’s a spectrum of pursuers,” he says, “who are kind of boundary-less and get their self-esteem from how the other person feels about them.” Then there are the withdrawers and conflict avoiders who don’t want to discuss issues.” In these situations, there is frequently a cycle of one pursuing and the other withdrawing, only to be followed by more pursuing and withdrawing.
9. When you are separated, you feel more like yourself.
When you first meet your spouse, you should feel like they bring out the best in you, and you enjoy being around them. In an unhappy marriage, you’ll feel more yourself when they’re not around and may even dislike who you are when they’re around, according to Birkel.
10. You stop arguing.
Birkel explains that if you’re not arguing anymore, it means you’re no longer willing to work things out. Arguing isn’t ideal, but it at least shows that you’re still fighting for something. “Loss of motivation to work things out with each other is a very bad sign.”
11. You’re oblivious to negative patterns.
Accepting that you’re in an unhappy marriage can be difficult, whether you’ve been together for decades or you’re simply opposed to the idea of divorce. This can lead to denial or an “inability to recognize negative patterns,” according to Birkel, who adds that “if you don’t recognize it, it will be very difficult to improve your relationship.”
12. There is no compassion or understanding.
Blame, judgment and shaming frequently take center stage in an unhappy marriage, according to Birkel, leaving little to no room for understanding or compassion. When something goes wrong or doesn’t work, no one is willing to give the other the benefit of the doubt; a supportive gesture, or even a loving tone of voice, is all that is required.
13. Changes in body language
Body language can tell us a lot, and it’s usually not difficult to read if you know what to look for. Simply put, even when you’re speaking, you and your spouse can angle your bodies away from each other. In a dominant or defensive posture, you may cross your arms or place your hands on your hips frequently.
14. Being together feels physically wrong.
Being in each other’s company is no longer warm and joyful, but rather cold, awkward, and uncomfortable. This can manifest itself in specific body language, such as the examples given above, or it can simply be an overwhelming feeling that you don’t want to be physically near each other. Without intimacy, a marriage may struggle to survive.
15. You have disdain for one another.
Contempt, along with defensiveness and criticism, is one of the “Four Horsemen” of relationships described by The Gottman Institute, one of the leaders in relationship research, according to Caraballo. Contempt is a strong dislike for another person, similar to hatred and disgust. It’s a lingering emotion that will make the majority of your interactions with your spouse unpleasant.
16. You’re both stonewalling each other.
Stonewalling is the fourth and final “horseman,” according to Caraballo. It essentially entails someone shutting down, especially during a conflict. They may choose to walk away or simply surrender in order to end the conflict and be left alone. Stonewalling, according to Birkel, demonstrates an unwillingness to improve your relationship.
17. You’re About to Have an Emotional Affair
If you are dissatisfied with your husband, you may be having an emotional affair, making another man your priority in your life. And, thanks to modern technology, catching up is easier than ever. “Technology has enabled people who would never risk having an affair to flirt online,” says Dr. Wendy M. O’Connor, a licensed marriage, family, and relationship therapist, relationship coach, and author of Love Addiction: How to Overcome Toxic Relationships & Find Love.
“This creates a ‘temptation’ situation, and not everything that happens online stays online. People are more daring when they are hidden behind a screen, and they frequently click on send without thinking.” If your relationship is already on the rocks, giving yourself to someone else — even if only virtually — will exacerbate the situation.
18. Date nights are a thing of the past.
Have you forgotten about your last date night? According to Greer, if you’re not planning any important or special events together, on top of not spending time together in general, it’s not good for your relationship. Make an effort to schedule a couple of outings, such as a movie night or a dinner at your favorite restaurant, and see if you can rekindle the flame. Marriages require effort and putting in the effort on things that bring you together as a couple is part of that.
19. You’re no longer each other’s top priority.
When you say your “I dos,” you make each other your number one priority over everything and everyone else. When you lose that vital component of your marriage, you may lose the person who once meant everything to you. If you’re not making your husband a priority in your life — or if he’s not making you a priority in his — it’ll be difficult to stay a solid unit. To get back into a healthy place before it’s too late, try prioritizing your time together, each other’s feelings, and each other’s goals.
20. You Have a Strong Sense of Self-Control
Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based family and relationship psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Aware Parent, describes a potentially problematic scenario in which one partner exerts control over the other. This is especially troubling if “one partner feels over-controlled by the other spouse and has made great efforts to verbalize; his or her feelings and feels defeated because his or her expressions and words are not validated,” according to Walfish. What is one way this problem could manifest itself? If one spouse manages the family’s finances and forbids the other partner from having their own credit card or checking account.
21. Your partner is unwilling to seek help or work on the relationship.
“I think it’s very important for people to recognize that there are very few things in a relationship that cannot be worked on, repaired, or resolved,” Walfish says. (Think about how many couples can even get past cheating.) However, if your partner is unwilling to work on improving your relationship, this is a clear sign of trouble. After all, she claims, “Working on a relationship requires two willing participants. That means both partners must be willing to look at their own work.”
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Unhappy Marriage but Cant leave
Developing an awareness of how you contribute to the conflict, taking ownership, and making adjustments can lead to mutual understanding and connection. When you believe you can’t leave an unhappy marriage, here are some steps you can take to start repairing your relationship.
1. Be present for your partner.
When your spouse tells you about his day at work, do you check your phone or give him your undivided attention? Do you have a habit of saying no to your partner when she makes a request, such as watching her favorite TV show or going for a walk together? When she is consistently ignored and dismissed, she feels unloved and lonely.
2. Take care of your friendship.
Do you remember what drew you to your partner? What was your friendship like? What activities did you enjoy doing together? How well do you know your partner today? You might want to download John Gottman’s Card Decks app and have some fun testing your knowledge of each other and connecting on a deeper level.
3. Communicate with your partner on a daily basis.
Many couples’ conversations revolve solely around work, kids, chores, finances, and so on. How often do you discuss the state of your relationship? If you have a hectic work schedule, a 20-minute check-in is preferable to none. Give each other 10 minutes to talk about your day and your feelings (not logistics!). What grade would you give your marriage? What do you want to start, stop, and continue doing as a couple?
4. Avoid making assumptions about your partner.
Do you believe your spouse is aware of your dissatisfaction, or did you express it to him? Your spouse is not a mind reader. Even if you’ve been together for 30 years, she doesn’t know everything that’s going on in your head. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. We can feel more emotionally connected when we explain our points of view to one another and realize there is no malicious intent.
5. Acknowledge and accept responsibility for your side of the argument.
Own it, even if it’s a minor part. Did you interrupt her while she was speaking? How about raising your voice? Did you fail to follow through on something? Take ownership of it. This helps to reduce destructive defensiveness.
6. Be willing to negotiate.
What is the significance of a particular issue to your partner? Discover the underlying meaning. According to psychologist Dan Wile, beneath a complaint is a wish. Be curious about that wish.
7. Practice self-soothing.
It’s easier to express anger than it is to admit you’re hurt, sad, ashamed, or scared. Anger makes us feel powerful for a brief moment and diverts attention away from ourselves. But when you’re angry, your brain’s ability to think logically shuts down. This leads to rash decisions, inflicting deep wounds, and saying things you later regret.
You have the right to be angry, but ultimately, what you do with that anger is your responsibility, not your partner’s. So, when things get heated, request a time-out and go for a walk, listen to music, or practice relaxation breathing. Self-soothing alters your physiology and brings your thinking brain back online.
8. Validate again and again.
When you feel seen and heard, you are more willing to understand your partner. During a fight, you try to arm yourself with the perfect retort, but you miss the entire message your partner is attempting to convey. A heartfelt “I understand why you reacted that way” or “That must have been scary for you” can help relieve tension. Even if it feels strange at first, learn to validate your partner with your own words. You are forming new habits; this takes time and consistent practice.
9. Look for ways to express gratitude on a daily basis.
If your spouse can easily recall positive moments in your relationship or kind gestures you’ve made, you may be able to get through some rough patches a little easier.
10. If you have children, find a private, designated space in your home where you can talk calmly with your partner.
It can be harmful for children to see or hear you argue. When you have children, your unhappy marriage involves more than just you and your partner. If you’re in an unhappy marriage with children, know that your children will be affected.
11. Have faith in someone who supports your marriage.
Not everyone can handle working on an unhappy marriage on their own. Discuss your concerns with a therapist or a trusted, nonjudgmental confidante. Request that this person provide honest feedback, even if it means calling you out on your behavior.
How to be Happy in Marriage
Some people spend their entire lives fantasizing about their wedding, but it’s rare that they fantasize about their marriage. Marriage is not always glamorous, and it is not for the faint of heart. Whether you’re planning your wedding or have been married for fifty years, marriage is rarely easy. Advice for a Happy Marriage
1. Communication is essential.
“It’s critical to be an open communicator,” Dr. Coles says. “That’s the only way to get through this hectic life.” Don’t expect your partner to be able to read your mind. If someone has a hard time telling you what they’re thinking and has inner conversations that don’t come out, it’s probably because they don’t trust you or themselves to communicate their needs without hurting you.”
2. Disagree, but don’t argue.
“Disagreements and arguments are not the same thing,” explains Dr. Coles. She advises that if you find yourself arguing all the time, it’s time to rethink your situation.
3. Make a plan for the future.
“If your partner doesn’t ever talk about the future; whether it’s their own or with you,” then that’s a red flag, according to Dr. Coles.
According to Dr. Coles, “if your partner never talks about the future; whether it’s their own or with you,” that’s a red flag.
4. Be Truthful Always.
According to Dr. Coles, many of her clients come in because of “infidelity of various kinds,” but this does not always mean the end of a relationship. “People also have a tendency to lie, which creates a sense of distrust that is difficult to overcome,” Dr. Coles explains. “I’ll find couples everywhere.” I have some couples fantasize about [infidelity], and another couple tells me they’ve cheated on each other three times.”
5. Do a self-check-in.
“I think a lot of people believe that as long as their partners are happy with their relationship, they’re safe from infidelity and challenges,” Dr. Coles says. “Really, what I want them to do is check in with themselves.” If you’re deeply unhappy, it can manifest as infidelity or addiction, which will have a negative impact on your relationship.”
How to Fix an Unhappy Marriage
Do you frequently think to yourself, “I’m unhappy in my relationship but don’t want to end it?” So, how do you mend a broken marriage? To give you a better idea of what you need to do to fix your unhappy marriage, we recommend the following steps on how to fix an unhappy marriage that can lead you to more fulfillment and happiness with your current partner:
1. Stop causing more harm to your marriage.
How can I mend my marriage? Avoiding the most common marital mistakes made by couples is the most immediate way to fix an unhappy marriage and stop causing further damage. Among these errors are:
- Starting unnecessary conflicts/arguments/debates
- Victimization, beseeching, and pleading (especially when it is done in public)
- Accusing and blaming your partner
- Relying on emotional blackmail to exert control over your partner
- Dissing your partner
Even though the temptation to engage in such behaviors may seem irresistible at times, it is critical that we take a step back and avoid causing further damage to our marriage by finding alternative ways to deal with hurt, tension, or frustration.
2. Resist the urge to “act out” on negative emotions.
As previously stated, negative feelings are associated with tension, miscommunication, betrayal, and disappointment, which can be a significant source of unhappiness and a sense of failure in many marriages. To repair and heal a failing relationship, we must first stop causing more negativity and then learn how to deal with the negativity that already exists.
It may not be pleasant to hear this, but no one wants to be married to someone who is constantly depressed, angry, struggling, insecure, or clingy. That’s just the way things are, and no one can be blamed for it. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you can cultivate the ability to deal with negativity in an effective and self-empowering manner.
You can learn to “act within” rather than “act out.” Apart from being the best thing that ever happened to your marriage, this ability will help you become extremely resilient in life in general.
3. Let go of the need to be right all of the time.
The need to always be right is usually used for one thing and one thing only: to murder your marriage. The fights and arguments that are started in order to make this “power game” possible only produce losers, guilt, and resentment.
Even if you “win” an argument, the satisfying sense of moral victory is usually fleeting. Your glory can turn into guilt and regret in a matter of seconds, which is why being happy is more important than being “right.”
4. Recognize the current challenges and opportunities
One way to accomplish this is to be honest with yourself and others; create an inventory of your marriage that includes responses to questions such as these:
- How dissatisfied are you with your marriage?
- How is your marriage’s unhappiness affecting your children (if you have any)?
- What is the cost of being unhappy in your marriage? How is your professional life going? What about your relationships?
- How does marital dissatisfaction affect your sense of self-worth?
- How would you rate the quality of your sex life? What level of emotional and sexual intimacy do you have in your marriage?
- How does your unhappy marriage affect your overall health and well-being?
You can do this exercise on your own as a reflective practice, or you can share it with someone you trust and have faith in (could be your partner too if you feel that this is the correct thing to do).
5. Turn your marital difficulties into opportunities for personal development.
At this point, your unhappy marriage may appear to be a total nightmare, and it may be difficult to recognize the positive aspects of your situation. The fact that you don’t see the positives doesn’t mean that there aren’t any, so looking at it from a different angle can help you recognize the tremendous learning potential that exists in an unhappy marriage.
Marriages provide us with the opportunity to heal our deepest childhood wounds, so if you can repair your current marital situation, you will also heal your soul. Typically, the partners we choose have the ability to reactivate the painful patterns that keep us stuck and unhappy in life.
We will be able to live a fuller and richer life, including a happier marriage, if we learn to rise above our childhood conditioning and reinvent ourselves through awareness and healthy habits.
6. Improve your communication skills
One of the most important pillars of marriage is healthy communication. Couples in a good and healthy marriage can communicate freely, openly, and honestly with each other. They not only express their feelings freely, but they also listen to each other’s concerns empathically.
Healthy communication paves the way for us to address one another’s concerns. It is normal in any relationship to get off track at times, and emotions can spill all over the place. However, one of the most important tools for how to fix an unhappy marriage is effective communication.
7. Prioritize your marriage.
Many couples may be unhappy in their marriage and are unsure what to do about it. One way to mend a marriage is to continue loving each other and performing acts of love.
Making your marriage a priority entails making sure you and your partner are in touch on a daily basis. This includes spending time alone together, appreciating your spouse, and not overcommitting to each other. Couples naturally drift apart after long periods of marriage, but some changes in the relationship are sure to fix a failed relationship.
8. Practice forgiving others.
A relationship can suffer from a variety of wounds, and if partners do not forgive each other on a regular basis, there will be a lack of trust and empathy in the relationship. Furthermore, forgiveness liberates the relationship. Forgiveness also implies that the partners truly love and accept each other. Furthermore, carrying a burden of resentment and unforgiveness puts a lot of strain on the relationship.
9. Establish boundaries
Unhappy married couples may not be able to create space between them. As much as spending time together is important, setting boundaries in the relationship is also a way to repair an unhappy marriage.
When boundaries are absent in a marriage, unhappiness often creeps in. Boundaries are essentially lines that couples draw in order to avoid exploitation and manipulation in marriage, and they are necessary because they require both spouses to take responsibility and take steps to resolve conflicts.
10. Seek assistance
Couples therapy is frequently regarded as one of the last resorts or steps in the repair of a marriage and spouses; only approach therapists when they are unhappy in their marriage. Couples counseling, along with other steps to rebuild the marriage, can be part of the solution to how to fix an unhappy marriage.
Therapists provide more targeted solutions to marriage problems based on the couple’s specific issue. They can also provide you with the necessary tools to help you repair a broken marriage.
An unhappy marriage is more than just a stumbling block, but it does not spell the end of your relationship. It may take some soul searching and difficult questions to determine whether you want to make the marriage work or if it’s time to walk away. However, if you and your partner decide that your relationship is worth it, you’ve already overcome a significant obstacle, and your marriage may be even stronger once you’ve made it through.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can an unhappy marriage survive?
According to a 2002 study, two-thirds of unhappy adults who stayed together were happy five years later. They also discovered that those who divorced were no happier on average than those who remained married. In other words, most people who are unhappy in their marriages or cohabits eventually find happiness if they stick with it.
Is it better to divorce or stay unhappily married?
If the answer is yes, then a divorce may be beneficial. However, if divorce will expose your children to fewer resources, such as increased conflict and difficulty parenting, the solution may be to stay with your spouse – at least for the time being (unless there is abuse).