Woman sitting on the floor next to her bed crying about her miserable marriage

How To Improve A Miserable Marriage

When the sweetness of love turns sour and the freedom your heart once felt now feels like a cage, you have choices. Important choices. Life-defining choices. Do you throw in the towel and pray you get a second chance with someone new? Or do you learn how to improve a miserable marriage and pray you get a second chance with your spouse?

Being unhappy in your marriage is a subjective experience. There is no clear-cut definition for “just getting by” vs. “unhappy” vs. “miserable.”

But there are signs of an unhappy marriage — indications that can easily become a slowly swelling undercurrent of discontent.

Hindsight, of course, can be a bit arrogant in its omniscience. “I wish I had paid attention when (this) happened.” “I wish I had said something earlier about (that).”

Prevention is always preferred. But sometimes it takes a plunge into misery to realize what you’re missing and what you can have if you put in the sweat equity.

Whether your marriage is unhappy, unhealthy, or toxic (or some combination of the three), the time to take action is now.

Advice for how to improve a miserable marriage is, in many ways, the same advice for how to create and maintain a happy marriage. 

But there is one big difference — one action that has to happen if you’re going to end the misery.

Here are some tips for improving a miserable marriage, beginning with one non-negotiable:

  • Stop.

    Yes, stop. This is non-negotiable.It just makes sense that you can’t start heading in the right direction if you don’t stop going in the wrong direction.

    I know — it’s so common sense that it sounds ridiculous to say.

    But “common sense” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.”

    Marriage always has its predictable stages of growth and change. And it also has its normal share of ebbs and flows.

    But getting to the point of being miserable happens incrementally, one offence, one omission at a time.

    And this is what has to stop. The criticism, resentment, coldness, avoidance, sarcasm, blame — it all just needs to stop.

    If you have to bite your tongue, bite your tongue. If you are tempted to blurt out an insult, take a deep breath and count to ten.

    If you feel you are being baited into an argument, stop yourself, regardless of what your spouse does.

    You can’t get out of debt if you keep spending money you don’t have.

    You can’t start a healthy eating program if you reach for a candy bar every time a craving hits.

    And you can’t improve a miserable marriage if you keep doing the things that make you miserable.

  • Start.

    So what do you do with all that time and energy that used to be spent on behaviors you’ve now stopped?

    Turning a big ship around is a gradual process of pointing it in the desired direction and making incremental changes. It’s the same with behavior.

    Have you or your spouse been avoiding or withholding affection?

    If all you can think about is how unhappy you are, you may not realize how or when the affection stopped. And sex is probably the last thing on your mind.

    Start small. A hand on her lower back as you pass through the room. A kiss on his cheek while he works at the computer. A touch on the shoulder, a foot rub, a hug before leaving for the day.

    Whether “what’s missing” is physical affection or kindness in speech or contributions to chores at home, just start adding to the plus column

  • Get help early.

    If you knew how to do it all right, you wouldn’t be struggling to figure out how to improve a miserable marriage, right?

    This isn’t the time to lead with your pride. It’s the time to be wise and seek guidance that can help you both get to the root of your unhappiness.

    Counseling, coaching, marriage retreats — you have countless choices at your disposal. What matters is that you get help as soon as possible. Don’t be one of the average couples who wait six years before getting help

  • Take divorce off the table.

    You can’t work on growing closer if you’re keeping an exit strategy in your back pocket.

    Unless the thought of divorce is in response to things like abuse, addiction, criminal behavior, or serial infidelity, stop entertaining it.

    Life can always look greener on the other side of the fence, especially if you haven’t seen green in a long time.

    But you’re either going to learn how to improve a miserable marriage…or you’re going to use your misery as an excuse to leave.

    Until you have done everything in your power to save and revitalize your marriage, divorce shouldn’t be on the table.

  • Take a long look in the mirror.

    Nothing is more difficult when you’re angry, disappointed, and unhappy than taking personal responsibility for your contribution to the negativity.

    It’s so much easier to wait for the other person to take a positive step and/or apologize.

    But this single initiative — to examine your own role in the misery of your marriage — is a game-changer.

    If all you start with is one behavior that you know doesn’t reflect well on your character or love, change will happen.

    Are you critical? defensive? controlling? fiscally irresponsible? emotionally dismissive?

    Do you blame your spouse for everything? call your spouse names? yell? intimidate? ignore your spouse when they talk?

    Do you try to escape the misery of your relationship by drinking, gambling, fantasizing, working late?

    Marriage takes two — for the good and the bad. And you know what comes next: The only person you can control and change is yourself.

  • Add love back into the equation.

    You may feel like hostile roommates at the moment. But what that means is that both of you are hurting and not getting your needs met.

    Being in a miserable marriage implies that very little love is being expressed between you. And how sad is that, especially when you remember the love that started your marriage?

    What makes your spouse feel loved? valued? respected? appreciated? relaxed? special?

    Again, start small. A loving touch, a kind validation or expression of praise, a small but meaningful gift, an offer to do a chore so your spouse can rest.

    You can’t make a wrong choice if your intention is rooted in love.

  • Do something together on behalf of your marriage.

    Even if you are going to counseling together, you still need time together just being a couple.

    If you’re just not “feelin’ it” yet, schedule one night a week to put all negativity aside and just do something enjoyable. A movie, concert, sporting event.

    Volunteering together can be a positive, constructive way to step outside yourselves on behalf of others in need. And you just might come to realize that you make a great team that can accomplish great things together.

Love is such a precious commodity. And marriage is an extraordinary, exclusive way in which to express it.

But love doesn’t guarantee healthy communication. And how you communicate (or don’t) on all levels can mask the love that made you choose one another in the first place.

Learning how to improve a miserable marriage — and then conscientiously doing the work — can reveal the love that was always there. 

I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach. I help people, just like you, who are struggling with an unhappy or even miserable 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.

Dr. Karen Finn

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