Saving an unhappy marriage takes tremendous commit & a willingness to work hard on your own issues.
The bliss of “dating/engagement/wedding” is hardly a trustworthy predictor of a marriage’s success post-Honeymoon Phase. Saving an unhappy marriage may not be on a wedding-day radar, but it sometimes becomes the unexpected goal not too far into the marriage.
Anyone who has ever aspired to grow-old-together love has witnessed at least one iconic couple so interwoven at a soul level that the partners are veritably “one.” They speak and move in unison, respond with impeccable timing, and somehow, inexplicably, look alike.
The deeply-entrenched love of elderly couples who have been together almost their entire lives can be so inextricable that the spouses can’t live without one another. Literally. The stories of spouses dying within months, weeks, even hours of one another are so poignantly common that they have their own name: the widowhood effect.
Whether these beacons of hope are grandparents, friends or movie characters, their mastery of commitment gives witnesses pause to consider their “tricks.”
Were they always this happy? Did they ever fall on tough times? Did they ever get bored or angry with one another? And did they ever have to worry about saving an unhappy marriage?
Relationships are organic in the sense that they are always in motion. Even stagnancy bears an undertow of change. Love relationships course through different forms of love. Many are to be expected – the giddy stage of romance, the power-struggle stage, the sunset years.
Most couples, however, commit during the romantic stage of love when they are marinating in matchmaking brain chemicals and hormones. They see all that is perfect and possible, and brush off the negatives like dandruff off a shoulder.
Give them a couple years, however, and that chemistry starts to wane. Suddenly reality sets in, and, even if the spouses aren’t incompatible, they don’t “recognize” their relationship. It doesn’t look or feel as it did early in their relationship.
They have power struggles, and the discomfort is often mistaken for unhappiness and/or boredom. They fight to “get back to where they once were” instead of embracing the course of love and working together to keep it vital.
Suddenly they are second-guessing their decision to marry and wondering if it is worth saving an unhappy marriage. Because they don’t recognize where they are in their relationship, they may be convinced there is nothing to do to save the marriage. And not having the “feeling of being in love” can cast a dread on the prospect of working on their commitment.
Some couples, of course, allow years to go by while negative emotions fester and morph into contempt, criticism and defensiveness. According to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years before seeking help for their issues. Perhaps one or both partners believes they shouldn’t (or don’t) need help at all.
So the big question is: Is saving an unhappy marriage possible? And if so, how?
The answer is a cautious “yes.” The caution is because the success of saving a marriage is contingent on the commitment of the partners to...well...save their commitment. Surprisingly, if even one person in the relationship is committed to growth, change and working together, there can be great hope for the marriage.
Here are 7 strategies for saving an unhappy marriage:
- Seek help early.
Don’t wait for those negative emotions and behaviors to take root. It is far easier to guide couples in developing compassionate communication skills than it is to untangle resentment that has had plenty of time to deepen.
- Learn to listen.
This is so important no matter how silly it sounds. It is so easy when falling in love to hear what you want to hear, and to move forward in the spirit of everything being rosy.
But too often people don’t know how to truly listen – to themselves or to their spouses. They get lost in blame and a need to be right, and fail to hear with their hearts.
Everyone has triggers, fears, and painful memories. By learning to communicate those deeper realities with responsible expression and compassionate reception, intimacy and love grow. Too many relationships are lost simply because people don’t feel heard.
- Prioritize your marriage.
Saving an unhappy marriage takes work. And making that investment can seem like a contradiction in terms if one or both of you is really.
But if you are committed to making your marriage work, you will need to infuse it with dedicated time and energy. Even ten minutes a day that are completely devoted to emotionally connecting with your spouse can work wonders. Remember the power of listening discussed above.
- Replace the “divorce” mindset with a “marriage” mindset.
This is a decision that you are going to choose your thoughts.
Remember that you didn’t get to this place overnight, and you’re not going to get out of it overnight, either. Take the time to rediscover the reasons you got married in the first place. And repeat them and expand on them...over and over. As you work from this commitment mindset, you will likely discover new reasons to add to the list.
- Work on yourself with no expectations of your spouse.
Yes, the objective here is for both spouses to be committed to the recovery of the marriage. But your work can’t be contingent on your spouse’s. That may seem like a big risk – and it is. “What if I do xyz, and s/he doesn’t do her/his part?” Yep. Could happen. Or maybe you won’t both evolve or “get it” at the same time.
But if the character and behavior traits you are working on are all positive traits, how can you lose? And if you start growing and demonstrating the results, your spouse may take notice and begin to change, as well. Either way...do your own work.
- Take responsibility.
This can be so difficult, especially if your spouse has done something that you believe is more egregious than anything you have done. But relationships are always a common ground where two people come to work out their lives by learning, struggling and growing.
There is always responsibility on both sides. Owning up to yours will help to diffuse defensiveness on the other side while sharpening your self-awareness and -accountability. That goes for the little things as well as the big things.
- Be transparent and accountable.
Leave your pride at the door. Transparency and accountability require self-reflection and an examination of your thoughts, behaviors and intentions. There is no room for convenient omissions of details and information.
Your goal needs to be bringing you and your spouse onto the same page. Your intentions, therefore, need to be pure and for the good of the relationship. Your personal commitment to this – especially if you have violated your spouse’s trust – will speak volumes about your commitment to the good of your relationship going forward.
Saving an unhappy marriage is a commitment to a lot of hard work. But assuming that the marriage is not abusive and you can still see through the clouds of misery to the memory of loving light coming through, there is hope.
Seeking help for saving an unhappy marriage can help define areas that need work, while giving you tools for working on them. It’s amazing how the “impossible” becomes “possible” when problems are identified and a plan of action is made to overcome them.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach helping people just like you who are looking for advice and support about how best to handle an unhappy marriage. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. And, if you're ready, you can take the first step toward working with me as your personal coach by scheduling a private consultation.