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 or in an unhealthy 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.