Everyone says that marriage takes work. Many people are married for a long time and become used to each other but are not really happy. Some common bad habits can lead to this. Before I discuss the 8 things you can do about an unhappy marriage, you may want to think about why you are unhappy in your marriage. Let’s start by looking at the bad habits that may be contributing to you being unhappy in marriage.
Bad Habits that Lead to an Unhappy Marriage
- Focusing on your phone or the TV instead of your spouse: If you are talking to someone and they are constantly scrolling through their phone or looking at the TV, you know it feels terrible and makes you feel like they are disinterested in you, let alone in the conversation. Relationship expert John Gottman describes this as ignoring the other person’s bid for connection. Turning toward and answering these bids for connections is a key factor in healthy relationships. So you have to be able to put down your phone and make your marriage a top priority.
- Becoming boring: It’s easy to get into a routine. But remember that the physics principle of “bodies at rest tend to stay at rest.” So you must push yourself to break out of the routine and become more adventurous. Be active together, take a trip, or hang out with friends.
- Ignoring problems: All marriages have conflict, and you can’t just brush it under the rug. Ignoring the issues is like packing the room with dynamite – it’s going to blow at some point. Good communication requires asking for what you want rather than assuming your spouse should know. You need to speak up, as well as really listen to each other.
- Spending more money than you have: While money is not the top stressor for couples, it does tend to be one that is pervasive and long-lasting. You must be on the same page when it comes to money. Plan budget meetings where you discuss income and expenses. What you value is where you put your money. If you can’t get to an agreement on your own, consider hiring a couples money coach.
- Threatening divorce: Dropping the “D” word turns a fair fight into a dirty one. When you say threaten divorce, there is nowhere to go from there. Why put any more effort into the relationship if the other person is already packing their bags? This puts your spouse in the position of being either the only one fighting for the marriage or feeling like they shouldn’t bother if you don’t want to be married.
How to Save Your Marriage from Divorce
If you are in an unhappy marriage but don’t want to leave until you’ve exhausted all options, there are some things you can do to try to save your marriage. Even if you and your partner have drifted apart there are ways to work through conflict and differences. Here are 8 things you can do to make a difference in your unhappy marriage.
Robert Enright of the International Forgiveness Institute notes that forgiveness “is a response to an injustice (a moral wrong), and it is turning to the ‘good’ in the face of wrongdoing.” When you forgive someone, you are releasing yourself from the feeling that the other person owes you something. Forgiving your partner is important if you’re not happy in your marriage because keeping negative feelings towards your partner will create a wall between you. Release yourself and your partner from the pain of holding onto it. Not sure how to forgive? The International Forgiveness Institute has lots of resources.
Have Good Will Toward Your Partner
Couples’ expert Susan Page discovered that one key trait separated couple who thrive from ones that don’t: good will. As she says in her book How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together, “Good will means making your love active, not passive.” Two key aspects of having good will toward your partner are showing support for your partner in whatever they do and appreciating your partner for who they are. How can you support your partner? Take more interest in their work or projects they are working on even if it is something out of your league. Your partner will feel good that you’re taking interest in what they do and it will also help in getting to know them better. And how can you better appreciate your partner? Do not compare your marriage to that of your friends or acquaintances. Instead, look for things you appreciate in one another and articulate those thoughts. Compliment your partner on little things too. Although such efforts can seem meaningless, they make your partner feel appreciated and that their actions matter and are noticed by you.
Speak Your Partner’s Love Language(s)
Gary Chapman, a Christian pastor, wrote The Five Love Languages in 1992, and the book has had numerous reprintings and continues to be a best-seller three decades later. Even though the book was written by a non-psychologist, it is used by therapists around the world, and the ideas of the book have shown validity in research. The gist is that each of us has a predominant “love language” – a way in which we best prefer to receive and give love. While we “speak” all five languages, we develop a preference by early childhood. Those five languages are words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch and closeness, and giving gifts. By learning to “speak” in your partner’s preferred “language” intentionally each day, you help them feel that you love and value them. If you instead “speak” your love language and it’s different from your partner’s, they will not feel as loved as they could be.
Build Shared Interests in Your Marriage
For a marriage to work, you both need to invest time in each other’s life. I think of it as inviting your partner into your world, and your partner inviting you into their world. Have your partner do some of the activities you love and you do the same for them. Do you love opera and your partner loves football? You each commit to going with each other without complaint at least twice during the season. And work on injecting “new blood” into your relationship by finding new shared interests. Commit to both trying something new together at least 6 times each year – whether that’s a new cuisine, a community college class, a new travel location, or a new game. Regular “infusions” of new energy are important. This will help you both develop shared interests and you will also find activities that will become routine for both of you.
Use Kindness When Discussing a Conflict or During a Disagreement
Many couples argue and become cruel over the most mundane things. For example, they may fight over dirty dishes when dirty dishes have little to do with the actual argument. It really has more to do with how the issue was brought up, the context of the conversation, and the meaning behind it.
“Why can’t you empty the damn sink? Is it because you think you have a maid here? You are so lazy. I’m tired of you.”
“Can you please wash the dishes? I appreciate all the hard work you do around the house. Thank you for being so helpful”
Do you feel the difference? When you love someone and are committed to making your marriage work, it’s imperative to use kindness when discussing conflict and to learn to fight fair when you have differences in opinion.
Take Care of Your Appearance
Vivian Diller, Ph.D., writing in a PsychologyToday blog on the subject of physical appearance in long-term relationships, notes that “looks matter and they impact relationships. As superficial as it may seem, it’s a truth most of us recognize instinctively, even if it’s one we hate to admit. While we like to believe “it’s what is inside that counts”, who we are and how we look matters to our partners.” Taking care of how you look and feel not only helps you, but it will send positive vibes to your partner, as well.
Be Honest in Your Marriage
Sometimes hiding things from your partner leads to misunderstandings. Your partner feels that they are not important enough for you to share those things with them. It’s important to be honest in the marriage no matter how bad or embarrassing the thing is. This will help build trust and a strong foundation. A therapist can be a helpful outside party coaching you on how to be honest about things you’ve been hiding, as well as a guide in looking at why being dishonest is something you’ve fallen into.
Be Happy From Within
To be happy with things and the people around you, you need to be happy with yourself first. Only if you are happy from within will you be confident to deal with the problems of an unhappy marriage. Don’t put the responsibility of happiness on your partner. No one can and should have the sole power to influence your feelings and state of mind. You get married to share your life with someone, including your happiness, love, aspirations, and dreams. How can you share those things if you don’t have them? When you’re happy with yourself, you will project that energy onto your relationship as well.
How to Rekindle Your Marriage
Looking for something you can do right away to rekindle your marriage? Here are some quick ideas to jumpstart the spark:
- Redefine a Date: We often think of a date exclusively as a date that takes place at night. While that is the most common, you have many other options. For example, plan a date day where you both use a vacation day. Do things you both like that are fun.
- Do the things you did in the beginning: When couples date and move towards marriage, they take the time to create fun in their relationship. They try new activities, eat at unique restaurants, and take time to engage each other in conversation. Ask open-ended questions – just like you did in the beginning. Recapture some of that and remember why you got married in the first place!
- Go to bed together 20 minutes before sleep time: Cuddle and take 10 minutes each to talk about how you felt about your day. No problem-solving, no logistics or planning, no interrupting – just vulnerable sharing about your experience and listening to your partner’s sharing.
- Linger while kissing: Couples expert John Gottman says research shows that 6-second kisses support the feeling of connection and love. Imagine that your kiss is filled with all the tenderness and care you want to convey and would want for yourself. Routinely do these kisses morning and night and you’ll soon notice a difference.
- Learn from others: Who can you and your spouse learn from when it comes to having a great marriage? Find a book you can read together, a podcast to listen to, or a couple you can meet with. This is often a great conduit for talking about your relationship and trying out new ideas.
Although we are focusing on what to do about an unhappy marriage and how to improve a marriage, there are certain circumstances where improvement shouldn’t be the goal. If you are experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or want to know how to save a marriage in crisis, you probably cannot improve the marriage on your own and should seek help.
Life Care Wellness provides couples counseling as well as individual therapy. If you are in the northern Illinois area, we can help you with your unhappy marriage. Please contact us at our Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park), or Sycamore offices.
Rhonda Kelloway, LCSW, SEP
Rhonda Kelloway is the owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She is a trauma specialist utilizing a Somatic Experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. She also uses EMDR and a variety of traditional psychotherapy approaches in her work. In addition to being a somatic psychotherapist, she is a trained divorce and family mediator.