Couple pausing in their bike ride along a beach to hold hands.

How To Prevent An Unhealthy Marriage

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So said Ben Franklin to his fellow fire-threatened Philadelphians in 1736. Fast forward almost three centuries to your marriage today, and the merit of this proverb is still about fire prevention. Want to know how to prevent an unhappy marriage? Learn how to create a healthy one.

Prevention, at its most basic level, is about awareness. You can’t stop something from happening unless you know what to look for.

Not only do you need to know what you want to stop in its tracks. You need to know what you want to pass through.

Simply put, your ‘no’ needs to be balanced by a ‘yes.’

But first…

When is a marriage unhealthy? Is “unhealthy” really that definable, or does it exist on a spectrum of relevance?

A little of both, actually.

There are, for example, several signs that are undeniably unhealthy.

We frequently talk about John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – because they are so accurately predictive of a marriage’s demise. 

By the time these relationship destroyers are playing a leading role in your life, your marriage has passed through unhealthy to toxic.

And is, at least statistically, most likely doomed.

But what about that spectrum of relevance? Surely marriage doesn’t go from happy to doomed without warning.

The events, stresses, and triggers of life – and, more importantly, your responses to them – are all hints along the way. 

They are also invitations to pay attention and make adjustments to stay on course.

In this way, the very stressors that challenge your marriage are opportunities to learn how to prevent an unhealthy marriage.

Every relationship passes through stages. Even a new job has a honeymoon phase, followed by a get-down-to-business phase. 

But how often does the start-up hype become a disillusionment to the work ahead? And how often does the expectation for start-up perfection create negativity, disappointment, contention, and even resignation down the line?

Marriage is really no different in that regard.

More than any other helpful, must-do tip, it’s self-awareness that can improve your relationship the most.

Knowing yourself means recognizing, acknowledging, naming, and accepting your own thoughts, feelings, sensations, needs, and desires – before they become behaviors.

After all, you can’t prevent, let alone change, something you don’t recognize or acknowledge. 

It’s the hiding behind a veil of unawareness that leads to blame, lack of self-accountability, and ultimately a life of victimhood and resentment.

As you read the following list of signs of an unhealthy marriage, think about the ones you didn’t see coming.

  • Sex has gone by the wayside and/or is no longer a satisfying, connecting experience.
  • You and your spouse don’t talk about anything outside of work, kids, bills, and home management.
  • You and your spouse bicker and fight all the time – or don’t fight at all.
  • Your physical health is suffering.
  • You stop taking care of yourself.
  • You have stopped dreaming and looking forward to things – individually and as a couple.
  • You start fantasizing about life without your spouse, possibly even with someone else.
  • You don’t make time for one another and don’t prioritize your marriage as an entity.
  • You and your spouse criticize more than you praise and validate.
  • You don’t listen and/or don’t feel heard.
  • Your kids are acting out and/or are doing poorly in school.
  • You and/or your spouse start drinking more or finding other means of escape.
  • You intentionally avoid communication, especially about the relationship itself.

As tragic as it all sounds, every one of these symptoms can (and usually does) creep up on unassuming spouses.

And it’s so easy to enter that slippery slope!

Want to fix an unhealthy marriage and get that loving feeling back? Your best bet is to focus on how to prevent an unhealthy marriage in the first place.

Here are some “ounces of prevention” to help you prevent an unhealthy marriage:

  • Talk about the likely (and potentially unforeseen) challenges of marriage before your wedding and throughout your marriage.
  • Embrace a positive, even grateful attitude about sources of self- and relationship-improvement: therapy, coaching, classes, retreats, support/activity groups.
  • Remember to nurture your individuality and unique interests and talents. Carving out time for “just you” will not only feed your soul, it will fuel your spouse’s attraction and longing for you.
  • Make healthy communication your top and constant priority. And commit to learning new and more effective communication skills on an ongoing basis.
  • Replace criticism with a complaint to shift the focus from blame to a feeling and need that you own. “When you ignored me at the party, I felt lonely and unimportant” will inspire a far different response than “You always abandon me when we go out!”
  • Make your marriage a “non-negotiable” in your life. Put date nights and other occasions for togetherness on your calendar as a stronghold for your routine, and plan everything else around them.
  • If your faith is important to you, nurture it and turn to it, both individually and collectively, as a source of strength and guidance for your relationship.
  • Turn “sacrifice” (not self-martyrdom) into a fun adventure. What can I do today that will surprise and benefit my spouse, even if it inconveniences me?
  • Take divorce off the table.
  • Show physical affection, and not just in the bedroom. Touch when you talk. Hold hands in public. Add a few seconds to your welcome-home hug and kiss. Pat one another on the tush or place your hand on one another’s back as you pass by.
  • Make time for sex, even if you have to schedule it. If the idea of planning for sex seems unromantic, use that awkwardness as motivation to create a romantic, fun, playful experience.
  • Play together. Play as a couple, play as a family. And keep “play” ahead of winning.
  • Travel together. Even if you travel as a family, create getaways for just you and your spouse.
  • Say “I love you” several times a day.
  • Say “I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” and “I forgive you” with humility and sincerity…and without reservation.

Chances are you didn’t take your vows thinking about how to prevent an unhealthy marriage.

You thought about all the proactive, loving things you would do to bring about your vision for a happy marriage and life.

And that…that…is your ounce of prevention.

Dr. Karen Finn

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