It can be hard to know if your marital dis-ease is just a bump in the road or a sign of a bigger, underlying problem. Understanding the different phases your marriage will go through can help you answer the question, “Can you save an unhappy marriage?”
Stages Of Marriage
According to Dr. Susan Campbell, a best-selling author and relationship expert, there are 5 distinct stages to a relationship. Knowing these stages, and the stage in which you and your spouse may be, gives you insight to whether you can save an unhappy marriage. It helps you recognize why your marriage feels unhappy, how to become unstuck, and what the future may hold. It can help to save your unhappy marriage.
– Honeymoon Stage
The honeymoon stage can last up to 2 years, at which point, the overwhelming feelings of love and happiness begin to fade. According to Richard E Lucas of Michigan State University, we all have a level of baseline happiness. External events can temporarily raise or lower your happiness point, but in the end, it will always trend back to your baseline.
This is called adaptation theory, and can be applied to marriages. During the honeymoon phase, everything is fresh, new, and exciting. You may not realize your partner’s flaws or you can tolerate them because of the love you have. Without effort put into the marriage to keep the excitement alive, it begins to fade.
Love is considered a necessary quality for marriage in our western culture. And with love, couples can overcome almost any challenge. However, it means regular relationship maintenance to keep that love alive.
Tools To Navigate This Stage:
- Recognize that even though the excitement of a new relationship is fading, it does not mean your love for your partner is, as well.
- Spend less time with your spouse. Spending so much time with your spouse generates predictability, which may lead to boredom. Spending less time doing everything together helps break up the monotony. This helps you maintain your own interests and not lose yourself in the relationship.
- Try a new hobby that you are both interested in learning together. Challenging yourselves as a couple can help keep excitement in the relationship. It also allows you to grow together, instead of apart.
– Power Struggle Stage
As the honeymoon stage ends, the power struggle stage begins. Your life as a couple gets hard in this stage. The monotony of marriage becomes felt. It’s when your or your spouse’s dreams aren’t turning out as expected. Your expectations of what it means to be in a relationship (i.e. happily ever after, always and forever, without any effort) finally becomes seen as unrealistic.
During this stage, you may feel distant from your partner. You may feel like your partner is different than the person you married. However, you actually are still just learning about each other and each of your emotional needs. It may seem like you really knew each other when you got married, but in reality, this is just part of the learning process of this stage.
The power struggle stage can be difficult to navigate, and can last months to years. Many couples in this stage either begin looking for a new relationship or attempt to change their partner to match the expectation of when they first met. This can make each of you feel that you are constantly misunderstood, can’t be yourself, or you’re walking on eggshells.
This is a normal stage in any relationship. If you and your partner can work through this stage, you will have a healthier, more mature marriage. You will grow together as a couple and be more connected to each other. Successfully navigating this stage lays the foundation for a happy marriage.
Tools To Navigate This Stage:
- Learn how to effectively communicate your needs without emotionally triggering your spouse by using counterintuitive communication skills. Effective communication helps you and your spouse begin to understand what’s really being said, instead of just fighting to make sure your perspective is being heard.
- Work towards connecting in ways that you both enjoy and make you each feel safe.
- Develop steps or compromises to end recurring fights. Reframe problems and seek win/win solutions. Realize harmony naturally includes struggle to get there.
- Work towards starting a new narrative so that old wounds can heal and mutual trust can be restored.
- Strongly consider seeing a counselor to help build skills and change unproductive patterns. Couples tend to wait too long before seeking help (research says over 6 unhappy years!). Getting help in this stage, rather than waiting for a crisis which can be hard to undo, can make all the difference in the future of your relationship.
– Stability Stage
In this stage, you accept your partner as a unique individual. Rather than wishing for your partner to change, by now you’ve learned to respect your partner. You’ve figured out how to resolve differences and you each have established roles.
This stage brings peace and stability, but with that comes routine and set roles. This can be boring for some. Growth requires risk and ongoing learning. Being too comfortable in the routine of this stage means your marriage does not grow.
Tools To Navigate This Stage:
- Consider changing up roles in the relationship, even if just a few. It can raise your appreciation for your partner and grow you as a person.
- Try to vary the routine to make your relationship fresh again. As you and your spouse try new things, use the communication skills you learned in the previous stage. What you try needs to bring you closer together, not drive a wedge between you two.
– Commitment Stage
By this stage, you have recognized there is no ideal partner nor ideal relationship. In this stage you choose to commit to the individual you married. You both have learned how to communicate and continue to do so. You can freely share the good and the bad with each other, trusting your commitment to support you.
It’s common in the commitment stage to realize you love your spouse, but you may not like him or her at all times. We are all human and not perfect. Love can look beyond imperfection.
Tools To Navigate This Stage:
- If you are frustrated with the imperfections in your relationship, consider talking to a therapist.
- Couples workshops or retreat weekends can also be beneficial by providing new insight and skills and give you the opportunity to re-connect with your spouse.
- Continue to expand your knowledge of your partner. What are his/her current hopes and goals? How about his/her current fears? What are his/her feelings about upcoming events or milestones? We continue to evolve as individuals, even though we are married.
– Co-Creation Stage
In this stage, you and your partner consciously use your partnership to benefit people (or something) beyond your marriage. This typically involves engaging in a joint creative project. Using the strength of your partnership, the two of you create something you value together. Habitat for Humanity is an example of the power of the co-creation stage. In other instances, this is when a couple may decide to have children, which can also complicate navigating an unhappy marriage.
In this stage, you act as a team. A pitfall, though, can be losing focus on nurturing your relationship. You may find yourselves back in the power struggle stage. Instead, navigate conflicts by using the tools you learned in the previous stages.
Tools To Navigate This Stage:
- Take your time to thoughtfully choose a creative venture that excites both of you.
- Prioritize routines that nurture the relationship.
- Periodically pause and take inventory of the relationship. Are we still on track?
Whichever stage you currently occupy, recognize these stages are not linear. You may find yourself in any of these stages multiple times throughout your marriage. But each time you go through a stage, you and your partner are working towards a deeper connection.
So, Can You Save An Unhappy Marriage?
There is no one right answer to the question “Can you save an unhappy marriage?” There are just too many situational variables involved. However, by reflecting on your relationship and the stage it is in, hopefully you can discover your answers on how to proceed. Here is some additional advice to help you navigate your unhappy marriage:
– Accept the truth about your marriage.
Acceptance doesn’t mean wishing your marriage was different or manipulating change in your marriage. Acceptance means you see the truth, accept the reality, and cease trying to fight the reality. Instead you make intentional decisions about how to move forward.
Accepting the truth doesn’t mean staying in an unhappy marriage, and doesn’t necessarily mean divorce. Rather, it’s a starting point for the next step so you can begin to move towards happiness for yourself.
– Mourn the loss of your marital expectations and dreams.
The vast majority of people are excited to get married. They overflow with hopes, dreams, and positive expectations of what their future, as a couple, holds. During the honeymoon stage, it’s hard to realize happily ever after doesn’t happen without work. And unfortunately for some, it won’t happen.
Grief occurs when we lose something. And a broken dream or expectation is the loss of something big. However, there is great potential with grief. By allowing yourself to mourn, you can gain new perspective of yourself, your life, your marriage, and your spouse. It can set the stage for change.
– Listen to your inner voice to discover what you want and need.
The struggle of an unhappy marriage and the emotional pain it causes can be overwhelming. It can reduce your bandwidth, so simple things feel impossible to start, let alone accomplish. Or you may find keeping yourself busy and distracted is easier than facing yourself and your marriage.
Determine the goals you want for your life and for what you want out of your relationship. Be specific! These goals are a great way to begin a conversation with your partner and discuss what you each expect in the future. Through this discussion, you can work towards understanding what is possible from each of you, what isn’t, and where you can both compromise.
Discussions about your goals can also act as a starting point for you and your spouse to work from. It can break down the monumental task of repairing your marriage into bite size pieces. Or it can give you the information needed to decide to part ways.
– Is Your Spouse Willing To Participate And Change?
Both partners in an unhappy marriage need to be willing to say, “Yes, you can save an unhappy marriage.” You both need to want to do the hard work necessary to repair the relationship. And make no mistake – it can be emotional, hard work.
After all, it feels vulnerable to own up to your own faults and insecurities. It can be difficult to put aside the past narrative and re-write a new one. Effort is necessary to change how you have always responded to one another. It may also be challenging to acknowledge an issue your partner raises if you don’t see it that way. But this is what it takes to change.
However, don’t wait for your spouse to start changing first. And don’t think you can change your spouse. You can’t convince your spouse to change or grow if he or she is perfectly happy living the life they are now. Or your spouse may not even realize your marriage is in trouble. He or she may be focused on doing their own thing, unaware of the consequences, and feeling no need to change.
You only have control over yourself. Your own words, actions, perspective, and attitude. For example, where is your focus? As you and your spouse spend more time with each other, often you begin to notice less of what you loved about them and more of what annoys you. Your focus shifts. The more you look at his or her negative actions (or view them as negative), the less likely you will be happy. You have power and can change your focus at any time.
– If you decide to work through your marriage with your spouse, you may struggle to give each other support as you each work on your issues.
Your spouse may lash out, be frustrated, or be angry as they take inventory of their faults, weaknesses, and contributions to the marriage. You may, as well, as you own up to your own. It may be difficult to give each other space to process without adding to existing marital struggles. Agreeing to take intentional time away from each other may help.
– You might not be able to move past some actions.
Currently, 50% of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. However, don’t let that statistic decide whether you can save an unhappy marriage! Some of these divorces are the result of lack of effort to remain in love or repair the lost connect.
However, some of these divorces make sense and are for the best. Relationships involving violence or physical or emotional abuse, intolerable infidelity, unremitting addictive behavior, or irreconcilable incompatibility aren’t just unhappy marriages. They are marriages that cannot and should not be repaired. When your safety and security is compromised, parting ways is the best thing to do.
In other instances, you will have to take time to reflect and discover what you can or cannot live with. What can you accept? Can you compromise on some things? What is a firm no – I can’t live with that – for you?
Taking time, stepping back, and answering some hard truths will help you navigate this difficult time. And hopefully after some time, you will be able to answer the question, “Can you save an unhappy marriage?”
If you need support and are in the Chicagoland area, consider reaching out to one of our qualified therapists or coming to a group workshop. Life Care Wellness counselors in our Glen Ellyn and Chicago offices can help you sort through everything and develop a vision for your future.
Jean Tschampa, PharmD, LCPC, CADC, C-IAYT, BCC