If you’ve ignored the early signs, your unhealthy marriage might have become toxic.
Every relationship has its emotional ebbs and flows. And locking in your commitment through marriage doesn’t guarantee steady waters for life. When boredom sets in or tempers flare, you may start wondering what happened to your fairytale utopia. What if I made the wrong choice? What if our marriage is unhealthy? What if the person I married isn’t really the person I married?
Even the best of marriages navigate predictable stages. No one can remain saturated in those stimulating, excitable romance hormones forever. At some point, couples have to live, return to work, raise children, deal with crises, see family and friends.
Ask the experts and they will tell you there are as few as three and as many as twelve stages of love. The number is less important than the message: love evolves. It is no more static than your feelings, preferences, and hairstyles are static.
But that doesn’t mean love can’t be steady and sustained. And, when the question of whether a marriage is unhealthy arises, it’s important to return to this awareness. How do you know if your healthy marriage has become unhealthy? And, worse yet, how do you know if your unhealthy marriage has become completely toxic?
A healthy marriage is grounded in friendship. Each spouse cares about the well-being and highest good of the other and accepts responsibility for his/her role when problems arise. The marriage is a partnership, not an enmeshment.
A healthy marriage supports the uniqueness of each individual, just as it nurtures the uniqueness of the union itself.
How do you gauge if your marriage is unhealthy? If there were a thermometer for relationship health, what would it be?
The most transparent indicator of the health of a relationship is how the partners communicate. You may not be hanging on one another’s every word anymore. But, if you’re not listening to or caring about what your spouse says (or vice versa), you should be seeing some red flags.
Communication whittles its way into every aspect of a relationship. It goes beyond the spoken word to what is unspoken, assumed, feared, felt, implied. We are always communicating (even with ourselves). What matters is what and how we’re communicating and whether we have the self-awareness to recognize those essential relationship elements.
Here are some signs that your marriage is unhealthy (or is heading in that direction):
- You start blaming one another.
It takes a lot of energy to look within yourself and evaluate where you could have done better in a situation. And it takes a lot of humility and trust to offer a sincere apology and commitment to work harder on behalf of your marriage.
Healthy marriages are anchored in self-responsibility. Spouses may have their tiffs, but they know how to fess up to their own failings.
When communication starts getting careless, spouses aren’t as interested in the other’s side of the story. It becomes easier to deflect, dodge, and open dialogue with “you” statements. And that becomes a tough habit to reel back in.
- You stop spending meaningful time together.
Marriage requires a constant infusion of positive intention. And, when life gets jam-packed with careers and children, you may lose interest in scheduling time for the two of you.
While sex is important to the health of a marriage, it’s not everything. Spending time talking, planning, going on dates, and trying new things together are all ways to build and secure intimacy.
If you notice that you’ve become more like avoidant roommates than a happily married couple, you may have a sign that your marriage is unhealthy.
- You avoid fighting.
This isn’t a trick statement. Obviously world peace is everyone’s goal, even on the homefront. But people in healthy marriages do fight. It’s why and how that matters.
If you are changing your behavior or giving up on things that matter to you because you don’t want to fight, pay attention. This pattern could be a red flag that bigger issues are going on.
Are you afraid of your spouse’s temper? Do you feel exhausted just thinking about what the fight will look like? Do the two of you not have rules about arguing? Have you started giving up on your marriage?
- One partner starts controlling the other.
Marriage is supposed to be an equal partnership in which both parties bring their influences, needs, and wants to the same table.
When a marriage is unhealthy, issues of control are usually evident. Finances are an easy weapon of control. One partner starts deciding how money is spent and how much the other spouse can spend.
Control can also spill over into areas like friendships and outside activities.
- You stop laughing together.
Laughter isn’t just good medicine, it’s like Super Glue. Couples who laugh at themselves and at their own “relationship funnies” have a deeper intimacy than those who don’t.
Think about how your relationship and life in general would look if you didn’t take yourself quite so seriously.
The leap from “unhealthy” to “toxic” may seem more like a fine line than a leap, especially if you don’t pay attention to early signs.
In toxic marriages, feelings of unhappiness are often coupled with feelings of fear and/or hopelessness.
Here are some signs that your marriage may be toxic:
- One partner becomes extremely controlling.
When one spouse uses intimidation, demands, or threats to control what the other spouse spends or does, the marriage may be toxic.
Control is one of the many signs of abuse, and it can bleed over into every area of a relationship.
- You start to feel isolated.
Control (and abuse in general) thrives in a context of isolation. If you notice that your social life has become non-existent, or if your spouse shames you for your friendships, you have reason to be concerned.
- You have no voice.
In a healthy marriage, both partners have an equal voice — even when they disagree. Each person’s feelings, needs, and wants matter as much as the other’s.
In a toxic relationship, however, one partner is often shut down and given no voice.
- Criticism becomes common.
As one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, criticism is a way of attacking another person. It goes straight to the person’s character, usually in the form of “you always/never” statements. It is the entry to a cycle of criticism and defensiveness, both of which can quickly erode a marriage.
- Your core values are worlds apart.
Even when a marriage is unhealthy, spouses may still have common core values. They just may have lost sight of how to live them out in the context of the marriage.
If your marriage has become toxic, you probably don’t have even the most essential things to hold onto anymore. If you’re not on the same page about essentials like children, careers, and issues of faith, it’s difficult to have something to work toward.
- You feel as if you are losing yourself.
A healthy marriage is fertile ground for the self-esteem of both partners to grow and be strengthened. When you don’t even recognize yourself anymore, you may be in a toxic, even abusive, relationship.
Both unhealthy and toxic relationships are cause for immediate action. Seeking intervention can help you fix an unhealthy marriage and get that loving feeling back.
Fixing a completely toxic marriage may not be possible. But ultimately only you and your spouse can decide if it is worth the effort. Whether to stay in your miserable marriage or divorce is a difficult decision. But when there is self-awareness and determination to evolve, there is always hope.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach who helps people, just like you, who question whether to stay in a miserable marriage or divorce. You can download your FREE copy of “Contemplating Divorce? Here’s What You Need To Know”. And if you’re interested in working with me personally, you can book an introductory 30-minute private coaching session with me.
Looking for more ideas for what to do about your unhappy marriage? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Unhappy Marriage.
Would you like your life to be better?
Mirrors are funny things. How else would you have any sense of your countenance without reflective surfaces? That visual self-awareness, however, is just that — visual (and the reverse of how you appear to others). Answering the question How can self-awareness help me? requires a different (and much more important) kind of mirror.
For all the eye rolls women get for the time they spend in front of mirrors, it turns out men have greater expression of the Narcissus gene. Men look at their reflection an average of 23 times a day, compared to 16 times a day for women.
What is especially interesting about this study’s findings is that men visit their reflection to admire it. Women, on the other hand, approach with a more critical eye.
No matter how easy it is to focus on the exterior, life and relationships are about so much more. There’s nothing like the revolving door of Hollywood marriages to drive home the point that wealth and physical beauty don’t guarantee happiness.
So you ask, How can self-awareness help me? How can it make a positive difference in my life if I don’t even realize I need it?
Self-awareness is a component of emotional intelligence. It’s how you bring your interior, unconscious filters to the level of consciousness so you can make better choices and healthier responses.
And this, in a nutshell, is how self-awareness can affect communication in positive ways and, by doing so, improve your life.
It brings clarity to your personal experiences. Instead of your thoughts and feelings getting confused, they assume their own identities, allowing you to recognize the influences behind your responses.
Think about how often you respond to a stimulus without even thinking first. It’s as if, at some point in your life, you went on autopilot. You didn’t need to learn anymore, listen anymore, think anymore.
You had somehow compiled all the information you needed to respond to any experience and any person. Your unconscious mind had convinced you that it already knew all you needed to know. No need to delve further, dig deeper, explore the unknown (or at least the not-understood).
It’s so easy to make assumptions and have a knee-jerk reaction to them. You may not even know how you get from A to Z, but, by golly, you get there in a heartbeat. Your boss/spouse/family member says or does something that triggers you, and all bets are off.
The next thing you know, you’ve done a split-second psychoanalysis of what the other person was “really” saying, and you’re off to the races. Your pulse quickens, your body language gets defensive, your voice tenses and gets louder, and you become reactive to a script that was written inside yourself.
And therein lies the key to understanding self-awareness. It’s an inside job.
How can self-awareness help me? If being happy is your fundamental goal in life, at some point you’re going to have to embark on the journey inward.
Happiness, like the self-awareness that fuels it, really is an inside job. It stems from the choice to respond to life with acceptance, curiosity, gratitude, and joy.
And there is no way you can make a choice unless you first know your options.
Self-awareness exposes and clarifies those options. It holds a mirror up to those life experiences that have shaped your thoughts, triggered your feelings, and inspired your values.
It connects your sensory experience in the present to its deep-seeded history. And it gives you the opportunity to verify the applicability of that history to the experience at hand.
In other words, self-awareness allows you to stand confidently and authentically in the present. And it does that, in part, by helping you own your past.
Why do I get so angry when he comes home late without calling? Why do I feel so threatened when she buys expensive things without telling me? Why do I feel objectified when he wants sex all the time? Why do I feel so rejected when she never wants sex? Why do I assume he doesn’t love me when he leaves me with all the housework and childcare to go play golf? Why do I feel like shutting down when she nags me about things I’m not doing right?
While there may be valid reasons for these feelings and questions to rise out of your present circumstances, there is likely more to the story.
There is good reason that relationships are likened to mirrors. They are a reflection of what lies unresolved within us, a beckoning to wounds left open or only partially healed.
And, regardless of all the fantasy and flutters that draw us into romantic relationships, we are actually drawn to them for deeper reasons. Relationships have the power to heal – even rewrite – the past.
But they don’t magically do the work alone. They can become a battleground for acting out, allowing old wounds to continue bleeding with a certain fatalistic “I knew this would happen.”
They can also become a healing sanctuary – a haven of safety for the deep, often painful exploration into what holds you back from self-fulfillment.
Can self-awareness improve your relationships? Absolutely.
Can your relationships help your self-awareness? Absolutely.
As with any kind of growth, however, there has to be the willingness to stretch beyond your comfort zone. You can’t be self-aware and emotionally sedentary at the same time.
Self-awareness comes with a honey-do list. It expects you to pay attention – first and foremost to yourself so you can then give your conscious attention to others.
It expects you to be on-purpose with your thoughts, words, and actions and to recognize their influence on the present.
And, most importantly, self-awareness asks you to sign a contract exchanging victimhood for self-accountability.
The reward is self-empowerment and the ability to fearlessly step into and embrace the present, whether to learn, grow, heal…or simply enjoy.
How can self-awareness help me? It’s the first and most essential question in what will become a lifetime of self-learning.
And the answer will be revealed and continue to be revealed in each moment of happiness you experience.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn and I’m a life coach. Schedule a 30-minute private consultation for support in discovering how developing your self-awareness can help you find greater happiness.