How To Survive An Unhealthy Marriage While Working To Make It Better

Sad man sitting in the dark contemplating how to survive his unhealthy marriage.

What do you do when it’s all falling apart and you feel as if trying to save your marriage is an uphill climb? What if you’re not fighting just the blues or boredom, but something more inherently problematic? Do you know how to survive an unhealthy marriage while also working to make it better?

Every couple wants the sizzle to last, even though they know that a certain amount of monotony will sneak in. That’s just the nature of familiarity and the price of being with one person for the rest of your life. 

All those crazy, sleep-depriving, romance-obsessed hormones have done their job. And, predictably, they eventually take leave and give way to sustainability. (Thank God!)

Before diving into tips for how to survive an unhealthy marriage, a few distinctions are in order

Just as with photography, the gray scale can make transitions in relationships so nuanced that you barely notice them. Even black and white have degrees of intensity, often noticeable only in direct comparison.

So, what’s the point of applying the science of art to the science (and art) of marriage?

If you’re going to work on making your marriage better, it’s important to recognize what needs work…and why

You don’t need to know exactly what the final edition will look like, as even that will constantly evolve.

You don’t even need to know all the details of how your marriage got to where it is.

But you do need to know where you are at this moment.

Recognizing and acknowledging your own feelings, behaviors, reactions, and choices will help you zero in on that gray scale.

Are you unhappy? Bored? Tired? Frustrated? 

Have you and your spouse stopped talking about anything but kids, work, and weather?

Do you exhale a big sigh of relief when one of you has to go on a business trip?

Do you and your spouse bicker, fuss, criticize, blame, and fight instead of cooperating and collaborating on mutual goals?

Has sex fallen into a bygone era?

Are any of the three Toxic A’s — affairs, addiction, excessive anger — present?

These are important questions that will help you determine if your marriage is unhealthy or toxic — or simply needing some spring cleaning and TLC.

Telling you how to survive an unhealthy marriage while also working to make it better is going to focus on (no surprise) you.

Click your heels together three times and repeat after me: “The only person I can control is myself. The only person I can control is myself….”

Does that mean you can’t talk about all those maddening, hurtful, selfish things your spouse does that are (obviously) at the root of all your problems?

Hell no.

What it does mean is that how you talk about them matters. 

And, more importantly, what you recognize in yourself — and how you change what needs to be changed — matters most of all.

This is about “survival,” right? And survival is about getting from point A to point A-½ with more hope than you had half a step ago.

It’s also about getting down to essentials: knowing what to let go of, what to keep, and what to seek.

And the easiest place to start is with “stop.” Stop anything that’s destructive, inflammatory, unkind, sarcastic, avoidant, aggressive (even passively), critical.

Behave as if everything you do is about how to survive an unhealthy marriage…even if you don’t stay married. 

Your goal may be to survive with your marriage intact, but, again, all you can control is yourself. 

So how do you want you to look/feel/behave as a relationship partner? If you were designing your ideal relationship, what would your contribution look like, regardless of your partner’s contribution?

Think back to when you were falling in love with your spouse.

How did you communicate? It was probably pretty easy and gratifying, wasn’t it?

You listened attentively. You weren’t threatened by a difference of opinion/feeling/need, but instead reflected upon the different viewpoint.

You likely accepted responsibility — both for initiating kind and loving gestures and for assuming responsibility when you were wrong.

You infused your relationship with far more positive than negative feelings and interactions.

You made time for your partner, even when it wasn’t convenient, because you wanted to be together. You also knew that quality time together was essential to the strength of your relationship.

You sought cooperative solutions. You intuitively recognized when your partner’s happiness or well-being was more important than having your own way. And you knew that compromise usually got you far more than what you wanted in the first place.

You probably also took good care of yourself, knowing that how you presented yourself was a gift to both your partner and yourself.

Before you assume that surviving your unhealthy marriage is all about you…well, you would be right.

And your spouse’s survival is all about him or her.

The point is, you have a choice at every juncture in your life. Every interaction is a fork in the road — a point of decision about what kind of person you are going to be. How do you want to feel about yourself and the power of your own choices to influence the quality of your life?

Only when you are holding up your own end of the deal will you be able to discern the salvageability of any relationship. 

And the big takeaway in that message is how incredibly powerful you are. You can effect change for the better, just as you can affect your marriage for the worse.

By committing to your own self-awareness and -improvement and communicating your concerns in a healthy way with your spouse, survival becomes possible.

And, assuming your spouse also wants to restore your marriage, survival goes from possible to probable. You can, believe it or not, fix an unhealthy marriage and get that loving feeling back.

The days of first falling in love may be over. Children, grandchildren, mortgages, losses, seeing one another at your worst — the challenges and mundane of life aren’t very infatuating.

But falling in love again — in a renewed, mature, sustainable way — is both possible and necessary. And, in the long run, it’s the key for how to survive an unhealthy marriage together.

I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach who helps people, just like you, who are struggling with an unhappy marriage. 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 ideas for what to do about your unhappy marriage? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Unhappy Marriage.

Is It Possible To Be Too Self-Aware?

Dog with his head tilted to the side in a questioning manner.

Surely the world would be a kinder, gentler, happier place if more people worked on their self-awareness. And yet, for those already well-versed in the attribute, their struggle isn’t about being self-aware. It’s about being too self-aware.

Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? Like having too much money, intelligence…or chocolate. How can too much of a good thing be a not-so-good thing?

Let’s start with the basics: What is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is an ongoing process of recognizing, acknowledging, and understanding yourself, both internally and externally. 

Internal self-awareness is a bit like sliding down the rabbit hole and observing your own inner thoughts and feelings. You become an objective observer of your subjective self.

“Wow! Two years ago I wouldn’t have had that opinion.” 

“I feel nauseous and weak every time I reach for the phone to call (whomever).” 

“Why am I judging this person whom I don’t even know?”

“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have my same political beliefs.”

Internal self-awareness, in and of itself, bears no judgment. It recognizes, collects information, and pauses to acknowledge physical, mental, and emotional messages.

It then uses that information to shape or refine thoughts and behaviors.

External self-awareness, on the other hand, is like sitting in your own audience and observing yourself. 

It’s the awareness that compels you to adhere to social norms. It says, in essence, 

“I’m not the only person in the world, or even in this room.”

“My thoughts and opinions aren’t the only ones that exist.”

“I’m in church, so I need to be quiet and reverent.”

*I wonder what others see in me when I am around them.”

“I wonder if the audience can tell how nervous I am.”

*I need to mind my manners at this party.”

External self-awareness can lead you to soften the expression of harsh thoughts when you’re in the company of mixed viewpoints.

It can also guide you to choose your wardrobe according to the setting and guest list of a venue.

Most importantly, external self-awareness is built on your curiosity about how others see you, while internal self-awareness is about how you see you.

How then, is it possible to be too self-aware if awareness is such a good thing? After all, we all know people who seem to have no sense of themselves or their effect on others, and it can be maddening.

Again, another distinction….

Enter evaluation.

Self-evaluation is often confused with self-awareness.

While self-awareness is about attention to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, self-evaluation assigns value and judgment to them. 

For example, you might feel embarrassed about a mistake you made.

If you’re practicing self-awareness, you acknowledge your mistake and take action to correct it. “Ahh, lesson learned. I have some apologies — and then some corrections — to make. Glad I found out now.”

If you’re being self-evaluative, you might do one or more of the following:

  • Call yourself derogatory names.
  • Lie about the mistake.
  • Avoid anyone who knows about your mistake.

You may even become less willing to take risks out of fear of making another mistake.

Whether the context is internal or external, micromanaging your self-awareness under a microscope of evaluative scrutiny can be counter-productive.

Being “too self-aware” internally can lead to stress and anxiety.

Your mind ends up spinning itself into a downward spiral of self-criticism, insecurity, self-doubt, and disapproval. You question everything you think and feel against a backdrop of unworthiness and inferiority.

Locked inside the vault of your own mind, you can imagine how carried away that process can become.

Being “too self-aware” externally can lead to social anxiety and such lack of confidence in public that you isolate or appear socially awkward.

Social anxiety disorder (SAD), also called social phobia, takes external self-awareness to an extreme. The sufferer has so much anxiety over everyday interactions — so much fear of being embarrassed or judged — that they withdraw from life.

How tragic.

Somewhere in the process of gaining perceptions, perspective gets lost.

When babies begin to develop internal self-awareness — “I’m hungry, I’m cold, I’m tired, I want…” they are developing survival skills. They are recognizing themselves as thinking, feeling, interactive entities in a larger context of influence.

As they mature, their thoughts evolve from “survival” to more complex, relational, and abstract. 

Some people never examine the connection between their thoughts and feelings and the behaviors and consequences that come from them and their expression.

Having too little self-awareness is not only damaging, but potentially dangerous.

But having too much self-awareness, if that is even possible, can rob you of a healthy life. 

It’s the self-consciousness that reflects unrealistic truths about your interior life and external presence. You assume inferiority and extreme scrutiny and judgment, so the world becomes a hostile place — even in your own mind.

The part of self-awareness that is missing in these extreme cases is acceptance.

Acceptance is the difference between “I made a mistake” and “I am a mistake.”

It’s what empowers you to process your awareness into better behavior.

It’s what makes you use all those “notes to self” as a catalyst to living a more enlightened, productive, socially- (and self-) responsible life.

And it’s what helps you construct enough boundaries to be able to say, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.”

Self-awareness is a perpetual personal journey and exploration of who you are, why you do the things you do, and how you can become more of who you truly want to be. 

In that sense, you can’t be “too self-aware.”

What matters is whether and how you use what you learn to become the highest fulfillment of yourself. 

Awareness, even when difficult, exists to propel you forward. Embrace it as the messenger it is.

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.

Looking for more information about how you better know and accept yourself? You’ll find what you’re looking for in How To Be More Self-Aware.