When is it time to take notice? When is a marriage unhealthy vs. just in need of a little spring cleaning?
Just like housekeeping, marriage inevitably sees its share of “just stick it in the dishwasher for now” management. Kids need to get to school, you need to get to work, bills need to get paid. And, well, the house needs to be cleaned.
But eventually there is a moment of awakening. That moment when your eye catches the gray layer on top of your furniture, and a finger-swipe reveals what’s underneath the dust.
Is just a little Pledge-and-wipe warranted, or is this an indication of what might be lurking in corners and under the furniture?
When is a marriage just navigating “life”? And when is a marriage unhealthy?
If you knew how things would look and feel years down the road, surely you would pay attention now.
Or so you would think.
The truth is, we are constantly forewarned about every aspect of life. Health, exercise, nutrition, investing, parenting, education, etc.
And yet, if you’re like most of the world, it’s not until the consequences strike that you take notice.
When it comes to recognizing an unhealthy marriage, there are signs that can help you catch it early. And your response upon your awareness will determine if your marriage dies, survives, or thrives.
First of all, it’s important to recognize the difference between an unhealthy marriage and a toxic marriage. They may sound the same, but they are divided by a spectrum of hope.
In order to help you answer the question When is a marriage unhealthy? it’s important to consider multiple viewpoints.
There’s you, your spouse, children (if you have them), and your marriage.
(*Note: If you or your children are in danger due to physical and/or mental abuse, please seek help immediately. An abusive or toxic relationship exceeds the discussion in this article and warrants immediate professional intervention.)
How is an individual affected by an unhealthy marriage?
This can be a tricky discernment, as individuals bring their own “stuff” to marriages. Unresolved childhood issues, health issues, relationship and communication styles — they all play a role.
But, if you start noticing a decline in your self-esteem, or if you start feeling depressed or hopeless, take note.
You don’t want to jump to the conclusion that your spouse or marriage is at fault. But these could be signs that you are living in an unhappy or unhealthy marriage and are bottling up the symptoms.
Usually an unhealthy marriage involves poor communication. Even “no” communication delivers a huge message.
So you may not notice that your spouse is showing signs of self-deflation or depression.
If either of you is suffering from a “loss of self” or progressing depressive symptoms, it’s time to reach out for help.
Sometimes there is a chemical or hormonal imbalance at the root. And something as simple as the right antidepressant and individual therapy can help turn things around.
Another individual sign is the onset of fantasizing about life without your spouse. You escape the work called for in your marriage by imagining a life where everything is fresh, easy, and even romantic.
Your fantasy may or may not involve another partner. But, if it does, you may already be considering or entering an emotional affair with someone outside your marriage.
And that can be the start of a slippery slope.
But it is always a sign that something isn’t right on the homefront. And, before you just throw in the towel, pay attention to how you (and your spouse) are feeling, and take action.
How is the marriage itself affected when it is unhealthy?
Here is where you may notice the most tell-tale signs of an unhealthy marriage.
The challenge with problems that exist between you and your spouse is the tendency to blame and procrastinate.
You’re feeling badly because she did (fill in the blank).
You don’t want to have sex because he doesn’t (fill in the blank).
You don’t share your feelings because s/he “should just know.” Or “s/he never used to be this way.”
The absence or infrequency of sex, for example, is a huge red flag. You’re either having it or you’re not. It’s either gratifying or it’s not.
But one thing’s for sure: Sex is that intimate distinction between romantic love and all other love. When it’s healthy, it has physical, emotional, and relational benefits.
And, when it disappears, all three areas suffer from the loss.
When is a marriage unhealthy in terms of conflict?
When it comes to fighting, too much, too little, and the absence of rules of engagement are all potential indicators of an unhealthy marriage.
You didn’t commit to a lifetime with your partner with anticipation of fighting all the time.
Likewise, you have always known — with your head, anyway — that marriage involves tough times and sometimes tough disagreements.
But how often are you disagreeing compared to the times you’re sharing common values, viewpoints, and visions?
And how do you engage in those disagreements? Do you hear yourself starting every sentence with “You always/never do/don’t”? Or “You make me feel (fill in your own negative emotion)”?
Perhaps you’re on the receiving end of that communication style.
And perhaps you are both equally guilty and don’t have a clue how not to do it.
If and when you notice that one or both of you are avoiding the other, your marriage is undoubtedly crying for help.
You fell in love with the person with whom you most enjoyed sharing your time and soul. This person was the first you wanted to shower with good news and take comfort in with bad news.
You knew that this was the person with whom you could get through anything. And gosh darn it, nobody else in the world made you laugh or smile so much!
But now you may be seeking the company of friends (or potential emotional affair partners) instead of spending time with your spouse.
Date night may be a thing of the past.
And the responsibilities of home life may have fallen into the category of too-mundane-to-endure.
While the list of signs of an unhappy or unhealthy marriage is long, there is a group of signs that should always give you pause.
Relationship discussions regularly reference the research of John Gottman. And for good reason.
His Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have served as accurate predictors of a marriage’s demise or survivability.
If you notice a pattern of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and/or stonewalling in your relationship, it’s time to get help…
…that is, if you want to fix an unhealthy marriage and get that lovin’ feeling back.
The simple act of asking When is a marriage unhealthy? is not an indication of doom. If your curiosity is born out of love and commitment, it may be the doorway to renewal and greater happiness.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach who helps people, just like you, who are unhappily married. For immediate help, 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 information about how to live a happy and healthy life? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Building A Happy Life
When the unexpected comes knocking (and it always will), how do you greet it? As an anxiety-inducing uh-oh that needs to be circumvented or eradicated altogether? Or as an opportunity to increase self-awareness and problem-solving skills?
This whole concept of self-awareness may conjure up images of escaping to Walden Pond with an Oprah’s Book Club bestseller. New Age-y, impractical, midlife-enlightenment stuff that makes eyes roll and guests leave the dinner table before dessert.
But not so fast….
While any term preceded by “self-“ may sound like a topic for another day, no prefix is more conducive to a vibrant life with healthy relationships.
And the foundation of all these “selfies” is self-awareness.
Life, in its broadest sense, is about lessons. And those lessons grow out of our perceptions of and responses to the events life presents to us.
As you develop self-awareness, you also develop communication and relationship skills — genuine, sustainable, transferable skills.
And, as you increase self-awareness, you also develop leadership skills that can improve every area of your life.
Think about a favorite teacher, boss, or project lead. Why was that specific person chosen for that specific position? And what made him/her so good at it?
Chances are your answers will include qualities like compassion, empathy, self-control, integrity, and the ability to handle unexpected events and emergencies.
Self-awareness refers to your ability to identify, understand, and manage your emotions. Only then can you do the same for others.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is having emotions that you can’t identify, understand, or manage. Your feelings have you, not the other way around.
If you operate at this level, you’re likely to live in fear of anything that is unpredictable or unexpected.
It’s uncomfortable to have emotions you don’t recognize. It’s like having a stranger in your home…and he’s not planning on leaving.
You have to make the choice, usually subconsciously, that you are going to block out your feelings. As they consume you from the inside out, you busy your life from the outside in. Comfy, cozy denial.
But you won’t really be comfortable, despite your rehearsed ability to maintain a certain amount of numbness in your status quo.
Chances are you will experience heightened anxiety, and not just about one issue. Everything becomes cause for anxiety.
Living with generalized anxiety disorder disrupts every aspect of life, whether or not the sufferer is aware.
The quest to keep life orderly, predictable, and under control leads to a fear-based existence that is anything but under control.
And all that because of those emotions that don’t get named, let alone embraced and listened to.
Back to those life lessons….
You know the saying, “Be careful what you ask for.” Scream to the universe, “Give me patience!” and guess what the universe is going to provide?
The opportunity to demonstrate patience.
After all, how will you ever know you have it if you can’t put it into practice?
And so it is with unexpected events and the opportunity to increase self-awareness.
Once you decide to see the universe as a benevolent teacher, you will realize that everything in your life is there for your good.
You want to become better at your job?
You want to have a happier love relationship?
You want to feel comfortable having difficult conversations?
You want to learn how to speak effectively to different viewpoints?
You want to be the person that others trust in a crisis?
You want to be the person that others confide in?
You want to stop being afraid of “what might happen if” and start living life more fully, courageously, confidently?
Then guess where the journey begins.
Yes, the yellow brick road starts with your foot on the starting point of self-awareness. And life is paved with opportunities to keep it growing.
But that means meeting the unexpected, befriending it, and allowing it to journey with you.
What presents as a brainless scarecrow becomes a prodding of your curiosity and your quest for greater knowledge.
And what would knowledge be without the heart and courage to apply it?
Each unexpected encounter is a wake-up call to the traveler who wants a meaningful journey.
As each encounter, each unexpected event, is welcomed without fear, you learn more about yourself.
What do I need to learn? What has kept me from learning it until now?
What am I so afraid of? What’s the worst that can happen? Do I not trust myself to handle whatever comes my way? Why or why not?
And what do I need to love more unconditionally within myself so that I can love others more unconditionally?
As you increase self-awareness, often without fanfare, your life begins to open, expand, blossom.
Living with anxiety is like looking through a high-powered zoom lens. What’s in the foreground is in sharp, isolated focus. But the periphery and background are blurred because of the narrow field of vision created by the lens.
Self-awareness, on the other hand, is like a wide-angle lens that brings everything into focus. You see left to right, front to back. There is no need to obsess about one subject in the foreground, unless a situation calls for that kind of focus.
The challenge, of course, is in the process of recognition and identification.
Something happens that makes your stomach feel queasy and makes you want to run away. It triggers an eerie, visceral remembrance, and you just don’t want to go there.
And yet, your inability — or downright refusal — to invite the feeling to your consciousness for exploration puts a little more of your life under lock and key.
You admire your colleague who somehow manages to survey the situation and ultimately bring it to a creative resolution.
Why can’t I be like that?
Oh, but you can!
There are plenty of ways to increase self-awareness. The key is to set the intention and then “slow down the moment” to ask what it wants to teach you.
That promotion you want? Observe those in upper positions and ask yourself what they do well that you struggle with. Perhaps ask to interview one of them so you can become better at your job. (Bonus points.)
Those difficult conversations with combative topics? Take a listening approach for a while. Listen for things you may not have considered before.
And listen for expressions that make you feel uneasy or threatened. Is it really the topic that turns you off? Or is it the way people express their thoughts and opinions in your presence?
Do you recognize yourself in that uneasiness? Or do you recognize a communication flaw in your relationships — one that your own personal growth could help to remedy?
Those “what if’s” you’re always so afraid of? Take on one challenge with the mindset that whether you succeed or fail is really a neutral outcome. You’re taking it on to learn, to grow, and to shrink the monster that has been lurking in your imagination.
How did you feel about committing to something new or uncomfortable? How did you feel after you completed it?
Give the feeling(s) a name — happy, sad, exhilarated, embarrassed. And meditate on where those responses originated in your life…and if and where they still belong.
When your life is mired in predictability, you don’t have the motivation to stretch outside your Netflix-and-chill comfort zone. Auto-pilot takes so much less effort.
But it also keeps your life in the basement, sequestered far below the penthouse where the view and the party are.
Say thank you to the benevolent universe. And trust the unexpected events it sends you as messengers charged with leading you to your highest self.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn and I’m a life coach. Schedule a 30-minute private consultation for support in increasing self-awareness and becoming more you despite all that’s happening in your life right now.