Gray cement trashcan with a red heart painted on it.

Can An Unhappy Marriage Be Saved? This Is How You Can Tell

When the color in your marriage fades to shades of gray, is your marriage lost forever? When you and your spouse can’t even agree to disagree, can you ever find your way back to the same vision? Can an unhappy marriage be saved when the memory of happiness seems to have evaporated?

If all you want is a yes-or-no answer to the question of an unhappy marriage’s salvageability, you can stop reading here. The answer, of course, is yes.

But that assumes a black-and-white definition of “saving a marriage.”

If your goal is to keep your marriage certificate in one piece and your assets under one roof, you can “save” your marriage on sheer determination alone.

But marriage, like life expectancy, has evolved over the years. 

There was a time when roles were clear-cut and families were built around survival functionality. And most people didn’t live long enough to reap the benefits of a 401(k) or dream about a four-decade retirement.

Today, however, the expectations for marriage have evolved, deepened, and become more complex. People in love with love want the whole enchilada.

Lifestyle, children, security – those are just the basics. People want intimacy. Not just the obvious physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy, too.

They not only want, but expect, marriage to be a source of happiness. If nothing else, it shouldn’t threaten or diminish their happiness.

So asking the question Can an unhappy marriage be saved? has to take into consideration the very concept – and expectation – of happiness.

It also has to take into consideration the concept of unhappiness, both personal and relational. After all, being in a committed relationship can cause a lot of blurring of lines. What belongs to you? What belongs to your spouse? What belongs to the marriage? 

Unblurring the lines is an important part of evaluating the salvageability of your marriage. Otherwise, healthy boundaries bleed into blame and an inability to effect change. 

Accepting “yes” as a short-read answer to a question like Can an unhappy marriage be saved? will leave you none the wiser. So many factors play into the final verdict, including two very important questions: 

  • Should an unhappy marriage be saved?
  • Should this unhappy marriage be saved?

There are, for example, signs that a marriage can’t be saved. Things like physical/emotional/sexual/financial abuse, untreated addiction, constant criticism, financial irresponsibility, infidelity, and lack of intimacy top the list.

However, we all know of people who have stayed in marriages riddled with one or some of these examples. So it’s probably better to call them “signs that a marriage shouldn’t be saved.”

After all, sometimes people “don’t know any differently.” Either they have never been happy, and they perpetuated their norm by marrying someone equally unhappy…or the emergence into discontent was so slow they never recognized it.

Of course, if you embrace the broader meaning of marriage, then saving that marriage under these circumstances will most likely prove impossible.

The relationship between marriage and happiness is more far-reaching and determinative than simply being married and either happy or unhappy. Marital happiness has a direct relationship with the physical and mental health of those in the marriage.

This is one pragmatic reason that some people may believe an unhappy marriage is best resolved with a divorce. Is it worth the progressive deterioration in quality of life to stay in an unhappy marriage?

But what if you’re not so sure? What if you’re asking about the potential to save your marriage because you haven’t yet done the work to try and save it? 

What if, perhaps, what registers as unhappiness is the result of both of you getting lazy in your marriage? What if you feel the absence of joy in your life, but don’t know what an unhappy marriage looks like?

Knowing that something isn’t right but not knowing how to fix it isn’t in and of itself a failure. And it’s not an indication that you should throw in the towel.

When it comes to marriage, however, you’re dealing with three deciding entities: you, your spouse, and your marriage. And the third entity needs both the others to show up in order to survive.

Feeling unhappy is a difficult state in which to put forth your best effort, especially when your spouse may not be so motivated.

But, if your marriage hasn’t fallen into the death trap of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, there’s hope.

Perhaps your sex life has faded into memory. Perhaps your communication is awkward, agitated, or barely existent. Perhaps the two of you are working through an infidelity, or one of you fantasizes about a life without the other.

These are all typical players in an unhappy marriage.

But they don’t have to drop the final curtain on your marriage.

As difficult as it is when you’re “just not feeling it,” this is the moment for a fearless, honest reality check.

Do you believe there’s still love between the two of you? Do you both still want what’s best for one another, even if you don’t know how to make it happen?

Are you willing to look at yourself and your own contributions to the unhappiness in your marriage? Is your spouse willing to take the same risk?

Do you honestly believe that being alone or with someone else would change your state of unhappiness?

Are you willing and able to identify the negativity (even by omission) that you both bring to your marriage? It shows up not simply in what you say, but how you say it. It’s felt by what should be said but isn’t, what should be done but isn’t.

The acknowledgment of and accountability for negativity is critical for saving a marriage in its broadest, most fulfilling sense. 

Why? Because negativity has a way of devouring positivity. It’s not a 1:1 ratio of effect. In fact, it’s more like 5:1. 

What John Gottman calls the Magic Relationship Ratio is a 5:1 need for positive interactions and feelings for every negative interaction and feeling.

If communication is at the heart of your unhappiness, you may not even be aware of the amount of negativity flooding your relationship.

Likewise, you may not be aware of how “little” the positive additions need to be. 

Expressing curiosity, being interested, showing appreciation, looking for opportunities to agree, expressing affection. Sound familiar?

These are the infusions into a relationship that make it grow in the first place. And they were most likely natural and easy when you were dating.

They are also the infusions that make a relationship last.

This, then, is the time to become students of love again. This is the time to put love above ego, seek wise counsel from professionals, and learn the keys for fixing an unhappy marriage.

Can an unhappy marriage be saved? 

If the agony of knowing the work that lies ahead is exceeded by the knowledge of what must and can be done…

…well, you know the rest.

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 curious about 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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