Does your marriage exhibit one or more of the typical symptoms of an unhappy marriage?
It’s normal to wonder about the viability of your marriage when you’re not as happy as you’d like. And the wondering can be both frightening and confusing. “Are we really that unhappy?” “What does an unhappy marriage look like?” “Is this salvageable?” “Is it me?” “Is it him?” “Is it her?” “Maybe all marriages get to be ho-hum. We can’t expect to be truly happy forever, right?”
It’s not unusual for couples to spend years in an unhappy marriage before it dawns on them to ask, “What does an unhappy marriage look like?”
Yes, there are the obvious betrayals — infidelity, abuse, addiction — but symptomatically even these don’t guarantee divorce. The truth is, there is never just “one” reason, one symptom, that causes a person to choose divorce.
Unhappy marriages grow insidiously from a lack of correction of harmful — even if subtle — behaviors and choices. And happy marriages taken for granted and left undernourished can render their partners asking, “How did we get here?”
The very thing that makes romantic love so exclusive and unique is the same thing that can be its undoing. Intimacy involves vulnerability. And that kind of exposure means that another person has power to both heal…and hurt. That is an awesome gift of trust…and an awesome responsibility.
So what does an unhappy marriage look like? Are there specific qualities that are always present? Every marriage, happy or unhappy, is unique.
But if you’re in an unhappy marriage, you will undoubtedly recognize at least some of the following:
- You’re not having sex anymore, and there is a lack of visible affection. Remember, intimacy, both physical and emotional, is what separates romantic love relationships from all other relationships.
- You have nothing meaningful to say to one another. Your conversations revolve around the pragmatics of running a home, taking care of kids, going to work and paying bills.
- One or both of you are having an emotional affair. Your spouse should be your primary confidante for communication about both happy and difficult matters. If you are reaching out first to a friend — especially of your spouse’s gender — you may be emotionally detaching from your marriage.
- You are playing the blame game. Arguments should be about communication and improvement of the relationship. They should never be about inflicting pain. Use of blaming language — “You always,” “You make me feel,” “It’s your fault,” etc. — inevitably incites counter-blame and hurt feelings.
- You are physically in one another’s presence, but there is no real engagement. You have essentially disconnected and become roommates who simply accept the fact that you live together.
- You distract from your own feelings by focusing on the needs and problems of others. And most commonly the “others” are your children. Yes, your children do deserve to have your attention and love, but not to the exclusion of spending time with your spouse and fixing what’s wrong in your marriage.
- You are delaying or avoiding getting help to fix things in your marriage. You know things aren’t right, but you continue sweeping the problems under the rug and won’t examine your relationship in the context of the question, “What does an unhappy marriage look like?” The result is that you don’t get the timely help you need to turn things around.
- You fantasize about a life without your spouse. Your daydreams of happiness don’t include your spouse. This psychological detachment is a way of convincing yourself you really don’t care so that there is less pain when the final separation happens.
- Your lives have different directions. If you are not communicating, you can’t align your goals. If you aren’t regularly communicating about the things that are most important to each of you, you’ll eventually begin noticing conflicting differences in your perspectives toward life and your goals. Your faith and politics may suddenly be starkly misaligned. Your ideas for the future of your marriage and family may not resemble anything you co-created in the early days of your marriage. And differences like these can be at the root of a miserable marriage.
- You have separate lives. Even couples with children and heavy workloads can create and maintain intimacy with healthy, ongoing communication. If you and your spouse aren’t making the effort, however, to understand each other’s work and interests, the intimacy required for a happy marriage will quickly erode.
- You have needs not satisfied by your partner. These needs could be sexual, emotional, physical, or spiritual. And when they go unmet you look for ways to satisfy them. You could address them all yourself, or you could look to someone else. And if you look to someone else to address your unmet needs, you’re definitely dealing with an unhappy marriage and could even be on the slippery slope toward divorce.
- You or your spouse have unreasonable expectations and/or make unrealistic comparisons. Do either of you have unreasonable expectations that the other simply can’t meet? Do either of you make comparisons to “happy couples” and other marriages in an effort to apply pressure or guilt?
- You have stopped fighting. Obviously, there is a fine line between healthy fighting and fighting all the time. But fights have the potential to lead to greater intimacy if they are processed and repaired with commitment and compassion.If you have stopped fighting, it is often a sign you’ve stopped caring.
- You don’t feel heard, respected or valued. Listening — true listening — is the greatest tool in building intimacy. When couples truly care about one another, it shows in how they communicate, and especially in how they listen. Conversations, even arguments, have little to do with the topics themselves, and everything to do with listening for the underlying emotions and feelings.
- You feel controlled by your spouse or your spouse feels controlled by you. For example, one spouse may impose financial control over the other, limiting that person’s freedom and inclusion in decision-making regarding money.
- Ego and superiority issues that leave one or both spouses feeling disrespected instead of part of a team.
If you truly believe you are better than your spouse, then you aren’t in a happy marriage.
- No interest in spending quality time together. Date nights have gone by the wayside, and there is no interest in creating opportunities for connection, much less romance.
- Infidelity. Many marriages survive infidelity, but their success comes from uncompromising commitment to repair the marriage and the issues that led to the infidelity.If you or your spouse is unfaithful, and you want to fix the unhappiness in your marriage you’re both looking at a lot of work to save your marriage from infidelity.
- Abuse. Abuse in a relationship involves deeper issues and requires specialized professional help for both the victim and perpetrator. There can never be true intimacy when one person lords over another through abuse, intimidation or control. And abuse is one of the issues that often necessitates divorce.
- Addictions. As with abuse, addictions involve deeper issues and require specialized professional help. Addictions require an enabling environment in order to survive, and both the addiction and enabling are blocks to intimacy. Yes, addictions that remain untreated despite requests to do so are another issue that often necessitates divorce.
- Your relationship is riddled with criticism, blame, defensiveness, contempt, sarcasm and/or emotional shut-down.
If these behaviors are the norm in your marriage, you have reached a critical point. Behaviors like these are definitely at the root of many unhappy marriages. And if left unchecked, they can lead to the annihilation of your marriage.
We started this article asking, “What does an unhappy marriage look like?” You may recognize one of the above symptoms, or you may recognize many. And there are certainly others you may be able to identify, that aren’t on this list.
The questions for you to consider now are: What would your marriage look and feel like if it were happy? And if it doesn’t look and feel that way, what are you going to do to address the problems and choose a direction for your life?
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. I help people make deal with unhappy marriages and choose a direction forward. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. And, if you’re ready, you can take the first step toward working with me as your personal coach by scheduling a private consultation.