Couple sitting apart on couch turned away from each other, husband with crossed arms, wife leaning on hand on arm of couch.5 Signs of an Emotionally Unhealthy Marriage.png

5 Signs Of An Emotionally Unhealthy Marriage

When it comes to recognizing an emotionally unhealthy marriage, the distinction is two-fold and requires significant self-awareness.

We all crave easy answers. It’s only natural. Put the writing on the wall. Administer a blood test. Take an X-ray. Let us see the problem so we can fix it. But emotions don’t lend themselves to such obviousness. And neither does an emotionally unhealthy marriage. While you may recognize specific signs as “not so good for the marriage,” you still may not see their emotional impact.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you undoubtedly recognize a lot of overlap in discussions of “not good” marriages. Words like unhappy, unhealthy, bad, toxic show up, often with common symptoms.

But hopefully you also take note of the distinctions that can be critical in helping you determine your next steps. Do you stay and work on your marriage? Is it safe to stay in your marriage? Is the marriage unhappy, or are you unhappy? Are you dealing with common issues that you can resolve if you commit to learning new communication skills?

When it comes to recognizing an emotionally unhealthy marriage, the distinction is two-fold: 

First, you need to recognize when a marriage is unhealthy. The dynamics that tether you and your spouse may not be conducive to a happy, healthy marriage, let alone to its longevity.

Second, you have to be willing to examine the emotional impact of your marriage and its dynamics. What is happening to the emotional component of your own life? To your spouse’s life? To your children’s lives? To the energy of the marriage itself?

Dealing with emotions is always challenging, largely because they’re not visible. Nor are they objectively quantifiable or even verifiable. They simply are. 

The key to accessing, analyzing, and accepting your emotions is self-awareness. But developing emotional self-awareness is difficult for some people to attain.

If you and your spouse are at different points on the self-awareness spectrum, you may not recognize an emotionally unhealthy marriage at the same time.

That doesn’t mean, however, that positive changes can’t be made as negative signs and behaviors are recognized.

Here are 5 signs of an emotionally unhealthy marriage:

  1. Unrealistic expectations.

    One of the great joys of getting married is planning a life vision that is unique to the two of you. You throw all your hopes and dreams onto the same table and somehow meld them into an exponentially greater destiny.

    The trouble begins when one or both of you silently and unilaterally create expectations for the other.

    I want to have a hot-looking wife even when our kids are grown. I want him to make a lot of money so we can have a nice lifestyle. I think she should have more ambition. I think he should be more sophisticated.

    Having unrealistic, let alone unspoken, expectations only leads to resentment on the part of the one with the expectations.

    And it can lead to confusion and diminished self-esteem on the part of the one who’s not living up to them.
  1. Losing yourself and your self-esteem.

    The line between “becoming one” and enmeshment may seem like a fine one. But it’s a line nonetheless.

    The danger in having a starry-eyed vision of your “couple oneness” is that it can cause you to lose sight of your own “oneness.”

    The happiest marriages – composed of happy people – are built on the stability of two individuals.

    Yes, you want to have common values and compatible goals. But it’s important to maintain your individual strengths and interests. Without them, your self-esteem will suffer. And a low self-esteem can lead to a long list of problems.
  1. Onset of depression.

    Depression can have an onset due to negative life circumstances like a dysfunctional childhood or an emotionally unhealthy marriage.

    If the spouse with depression came into the marriage already suffering with the mood disorder, the marriage will be at risk.

    Just as it is difficult to live with depression, it is also difficult to live with someone who has it. Everything is affected – decision-making, social interest, sex drive, physical health, energy level, enthusiasm for the future.

    However, if the depression arises as a result of dynamics in the marriage, there’s a good chance the cause is rooted in control dynamics.

    When one spouse seeks to control the other, the person in the one-down position is vulnerable to developing depression.
  1. Control issues.

    When one spouse seeks to control the other, the means and damage are pervasive.

    Control is the ultimate statement of a lack of trust. I don’t trust you with other people. I don’t trust you with money. I don’t trust you to make your own decisions. I don’t trust you to do anything right.

    The person being controlled eventually feels crippled, if not by direct control, then by crazy-making gaslighting.
  1. Criticism.

    Criticism is one of the four death blows to marriage. And for good reason.

    On the surface it doesn’t sound very different from complaining. Both are rooted in not liking something.

    But the difference between criticism and complaining is this:

    Complaints are natural occurrences. They focus on a specific incident and its effects. You did abc, and it affected me ‘this’ way. I really need xyz….

    Criticism, on the other hand, goes straight to the essence of the person. You always do abc, and you never do xyz. You make me feel (fill in the blank with a litany of negatives).

    Hearing your spouse complain or “call you out” on something may be tough to swallow. But knowing that the focus is on your behavior and not you allows you to make a choice…and, if warranted, an apology.

    Hearing criticism, however, feels like a character assassination. It’s a statement of disapproval that cuts to the core of who you are. Nothing you do is right because you’re not right.

    Eventually, criticism leads to defensiveness. If it grows into contempt, the counter is usually stonewalling. And all four are a death sentence to a marriage.

Anything that doesn’t uplift and strengthen a marriage has the potential to contribute to its demise.

And obviously anything that is damaging to a marriage will have emotional effects on those involved.

Safeguarding against an emotionally unhealthy marriage requires an awareness and understanding of emotions. Not always an easy task, especially for those who are careful to dodge any discussion of feelings.

However, if you can start with your emotions and work outward, you may find you save a lot of heartache…and make a lot of progress.

Dr. Karen Finn

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