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What To Do When You Can’t Leave An Unhappy Marriage

This guest blog was written by former LCW therapist Tina Villis in 2019. It has been updated to include additional recent information.

I took an Uber to meet my spouse for dinner recently. After some small talk, the driver asked me about my profession. “I’m a mental health counselor,” I responded. He immediately proceeded to tell me about all the countless ways his spouse makes him feel miserable and that he can’t leave his unhappy marriage.

He looked at me through the rearview mirror and said, “Do you see what I have to deal with?” “Well,” I replied. “You told me all the things your spouse has done wrong. How do you think you have you hurt the relationship?” He nervously chuckled, and we drove in silence the rest of the way.

The Typical Unhappy Marriage

An unhappy marriage feels painful and hopeless. It can cause resentment and profound loneliness. You get caught up in the same vicious cycle with no end in sight. You (wrongfully) compare your marriage to pictures of seemingly blissful couples on social media and wish you had the same.

couple-having-an-argumentOften, couples who feel they can’t leave an unhappy marriage have terrible fights. You know how to push the right buttons and use words that cut deep – and do it intentionally. It’s a battle of who can yell the loudest and who can slam the door the hardest.

These couples also engage in defensiveness, both trying to prove your point, as irrelevant as it may be. “No, it was Tuesday, not Monday.” You keep score. “I did this for you last week, and now you owe me.” Then you attack! “What’s your problem?” or “Why do you always/never do this?” or “You’re so thoughtless!”

Sometimes there is the tense, silent treatment. You avoid talking to each other for days or sometimes longer. Confrontation is too risky, and it feels like you’re walking on eggshells. Your guard goes way up, and you continue to coexist as roommates. Why should you be the first to initiate communication? You feel stuck – like you can’t leave an unhappy marriage.


Related reading: Are You in an Unhappy Marriage – 8 Telltale Signs


Why Arguments Are Good

When I ask couples about their goals for therapy, many say “we don’t want to fight anymore.” What tends to get misunderstood is that arguing is normal in relationships and productive when managed appropriately. Arguing can be a way for you to get to know your partner on a more intimate level – their preferences, pet peeves, triggers, emotional scars, etc.

couple having s discussionAccording to relationship Dr. John Gottman, 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable because of personality traits, pet peeves, or long-standing marital issues. This means if you aren’t working to find a compromise, you will continue to argue over the same thing, eventually letting it turn bitter and ugly.

Fighting turns unhealthy when you are fighting for the sake of fighting, attacking your partner personally, shaming them, or blaming them. But you don’t have to let that happen. There are ways to resolve past conflicts and learn how to communicate, and argue, better.

Even though fights are natural in relationships, arguments that turn physical or emotionally abusive are not acceptable. If you believe you are experiencing domestic violence and are in the west suburban Chicago area, please contact Family Shelter Service at 630-469-5650, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.


Is Your Spouse Really the Problem?

Like my Uber driver, many spouses are convinced their partner is the problem. I see many of these people come into therapy determined to prove they are right and the partner is wrong.

But this black and white thinking leaves you entangled in frustration because neither of you gets your way. You don’t realize your behavior toward your partner tends to invite the opposite of the reaction for which you’re looking. You forget that marriage is composed of two imperfect people, with two different mindsets, life experiences, personalities, temperaments, habits, and quirks. And then you wonder why you aren’t always on the same page?

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

What to do When You Can’t Leave an Unhappy Marriage

Developing an awareness of how you contribute to the conflict, taking ownership, and making adjustments can lead to mutual understanding and connection. Here are some ways to start restoring your relationship when you believe you can’t leave an unhappy marriage.

1. Show up for your partner.

When your spouse tells you about his day at work, are you on your cell phone or do you give him your undivided attention? Do you tend to say no to your partner when she makes a request, such as watch her favorite TV show or go for a walk together? When she’s consistently ignored and dismissed, it makes her feel unloved and lonely.Married couple holding hands

2. Nurture your friendship.

Do you remember what attracted 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 may want to download John Gottman’s Card Decks app and have some fun testing your knowledge of each other and connect on a deeper level.

3. Check-in with your partner daily

Many couples’ conversations tend to solely focus on work, kids, chores, finances, etc. How often do you talk about the state of your relationship? If you have hectic work schedules, a 20-minute check-in is better than 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 think your spouse knows you’re unhappy or did you actually tell him? Your spouse is not a mind reader. Even if you’ve been together for 30 years, she does not know everything that is in your head. Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. When we explain our perspectives to each other and realize there is no malicious intent, we can feel more emotionally connected.

5. Acknowledge and take ownership of your part of the argument.

Even if it’s a small part, own it. Did you interrupt her while she was talking? How about raise your voice? Did you fail to follow through on something? Own it. This helps diminish destructive defensiveness.

6. Be open to negotiation.

Why is an issue crucial to your partner? Find the underlying meaning. Psychologist Dan Wile says underneath a complaint lies a wish. Be curious about that wish.

7. Practice self-soothing.

It’s easier to express anger than to admit you’re hurt, sad, ashamed, or scared. Anger makes us feel momentarily powerful and takes the attention off of us. But when you’re caught up in anger, your brain’s ability to think logically has shut down. This leads to making impulsive decisions, inflicting deep wounds, and saying things you regret. You have the right to feel angry, but ultimately what you choose to 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 changes your physiology and brings your thinking brain back online.

8. Validate and validate some more. 

When you feel seen and heard, you’re more willing to understand your partner. During a fight, you try to arm yourself with the perfect comeback, but you miss the entire message your partner is trying to convey. Saying a heartfelt “I can understand why you reacted that way” or “That must have been scary for you“ can help ease the tension. Even if it feels weird at first, learn to use your own words to validate your partner. You are developing new habits; it takes time and consistent practice.

9. Find ways to show appreciation every day.couple holding coffee cups

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 kids, find a private, designated space in your home to talk calmly with your partner.

It can be damaging for kids to witness or hear your arguing. Even young children sense something is wrong, which may cause anxiety or acting out behavior – your unhappy marriage doesn’t just involve you and your partner when you have kids. If you’re in an unhappy marriage with kids, know that your kids are definitely affected.

11. Confide in someone who is a fan of your marriage.

Not everyone can handle working on an unhappy marriage on their own. Talk things through with a therapist or with a trusted, nonjudgmental confidant. Ask this person to provide honest feedback, even if it means calling you out on your behavior.

Related Reading: How to Fix an Unhappy Marriage

You may feel you can’t leave an unhappy marriage for a variety of reasons, but it doesn’t mean you have to be stuck. Individual or marriage counseling with a qualified therapist can help you work towards a healthier balanced life – and just maybe bring happiness back to your marriage. If you’re in northern Illinois, please reach out to us at our Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park), Yorkville, or Sycamore offices.


Rhonda Kelloway is the owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, Yorkville, 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 psychotherapist, Rhonda is a trained divorce and family mediator.