Yes, it’s possible to feel unhappy in your marriage without even knowing what constitutes an unhappy marriage or relationship.
You and your spouse may struggle to communicate, or perhaps you don’t feel happy with them anymore or start to consider divorce. If so, you’ll likely begin to wonder how to fix a broken relationship.
Unless you’re living in extreme misery, living in an unhappy marriage can be like slowly putting on weight, one Twinkie at a time. Before you know it, you’re taking an inspecting look in the mirror, dusting off your scale, and wondering what the hell happened.
What constitutes an unhappy marriage?
The list is long – sometimes predictable, sometimes not. Some symptoms present in one or both partners, and some present in the dynamic between them.
But for all the cataloguing of signs and symptoms, the determination of unhappiness is left to those who experience it. And that means the unhappiness usually goes undetected unless it plays out under the watchful eye of a benevolent witness who knows what to look for.
What constitutes a happy marriage is never limited to just one thing. And what constitutes an unhappy marriage is never limited to just one thing.
People are often quick and thoughtless in asking those who divorce, “What caused it?” They want the check-a-box, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank answer – not the essay, let alone the book.
But the truth, as anyone who has ever struggled to come to terms with what constitutes an unhappy marriage knows, is written between the lines. It has a prologue in history and writes itself in the details whose significance grows to a point of an unavoidable impact.
Just like the insidious creeping of pounds, an unhappy marriage is usually the result of a slow accumulation of slights. Little annoyances, disappointments, bitterness, hurt, miscommunication – they all leave their sting.
In this way, even a technically faithful marriage can die under the weight of the little daily slights and misunderstandings. And the specific “circumstance” that curious onlookers seek as an indictment for an unhappy or broken marriage is really only a tipping point.
One of the blessings of marriage lies in its ability to help us grow and evolve in a stable and supportive environment. As ridiculous and naive as Jerry Maguire was in his three-word swoop to retrieve his estranged wife and marriage, he wasn’t all wrong.
“You complete me,” when read beyond the potential implications of a co-dependent or balance in an ‘opposites attract’ relationship, hints at the resolution of life issues in the context of intimacy. Within the vulnerability unique to marriage lies the opportunity to write resolving chapters to our own histories through love, trust, and honesty in a secure marriage.
The curse of marriage, however, lies in the misappropriation of that same vulnerability – when a spouse uses inside information as fodder for attack.
In order to reap the benefits of marriage, you have to push your chips to the middle of the table, trusting that your partner will do the same.
When there is a violation of that agreement of vulnerability and trust, the relationship becomes an unsafe place in which to bare your soul and get your needs met.
In a tragic twist of fate, the union that promised to serve as a platform for continued growth and development now becomes an agent that inflicts wounds. It also slows the healing of physical wounds and underlies a slew of physical, mental and emotional ailments.
People in unhappy marriages also often suffer from low self-esteem and may need more building up and assurance than a spouse is willing to provide. They may demand that all their needs be met by their spouse because they find it difficult to stand on their own two feet.
Here are nine huge red flags that you’re in an unhappy marriage and need to do something about it:
1. Your life goals are worlds apart
Marriage is hard work. Really hard work. Staying connected on the essential aspects of your relationship can easily take a back seat to its pragmatic demands.
People change their preferences. (Since when did you want to live in a yurt?) Their interests and ambitions evolve. (I’m sorry, you want to give up neurosurgery to run a non-profit?)
And if spouses aren’t staying connected through the subtle shifts, they will forget their common goals and drift apart.
2. Communication is strained or non-existent
In one way or another, everything comes down to communication. How you dish it up determines, in large part, how you get it back. Attributes like self-accountability and healthy boundaries are essential to effective communication.
When partners get lax with what and how they communicate, they set the stage for their marriage to erode. At the very least they risk waking up one day and not really knowing the person they married.
Constant put-downs, belittlement, and judgement are symptomatic of a marriage in the danger zone
3. You don’t feel heard and don’t listen to your spouse
The quality that gives marriage its power to help with personal growth and maturity lies in the hope of feeling heard. Truly, deeply, non-judgmentally heard. We all know the difference between someone hearing us at ear-level and hearing us at heart-level.
Active listening is a commitment of love, an extension of positive, supportive intention. And it is foundational to true intimacy and growth in a relationship.
If you want to be heard, you have to do the work of listening. Not listening or feeling heard is at the heart of what constitutes an unhappy marriage.
4. There’s a lot of criticism
Constant put-downs, belittlement, and judgement are symptomatic of a marriage in the danger zone.
Criticism (vs. constructive feedback) doesn’t come from a place of love. It tears down instead of building up. And underneath its expression is usually resentment or general disapproval or disappointment in your spouse of the marriage.
5. Your sexual intimacy decreases
This is really a contextual symptom, as every couple has its own comfort zone for style and frequency. What matters is that both partners are on the same page as to the frequency of sex. Problems arise when one or both partners withdraw sexually.
6. One of both of you has increased alcohol consumption
Heavy, increasing or addictive consumption of alcohol can quickly divide a marriage, especially if one spouse drinks heavily and the other doesn’t.
The slippery slope into verbal and physical abuse often starts with the use of alcohol (and drugs) to escape emotional pain. It’s always a red flag when alcohol goes from a moderated enjoyment to an avoidance crutch.
7. You fantasise about life without your spouse
When you stop dreaming about your future as a couple and start daydreaming about life as a single or with someone else, it’s time to push pause. Fantasising about life without your spouse often indicates susceptibility to or the early stages of an emotional affair.
8. You have an ’emotional spouse’ outside your marriage
In the quest to feel heard and validated at a heart-level, you may turn to someone outside your marriage who just seems to ‘get you’. “He listens to me. She makes me feel important and appreciated”.
Energy invested in the surrogate emotional spouse is energy that needs to be invested in your marriage if you are going to save it.
9. You don’t spend time together
Time is the only real commodity we have, and the choice to share it with another person is a statement of valuing that person and the relationship. When you stop spending time together – and stop enjoying time together – you make a different kind of value statement.
The list of what constitutes an unhappy marriage could go on and on. So many factors and entities come into play in every relationship.
If you are questioning the happiness in your marriage, you may get greater clarity by describing what a happy marriage looks like or would look like to you. How did you feel and communicate in the early days of your relationship? How do you want to feel and how do you want your marriage to look today and in the years ahead?
Are your expectations realistic or based on what your relationship was like in the infatuation stage?
Realising that your marriage has slowly “packed on the pounds” can be startling. And knowing what to do about it can be overwhelming.
Of all the well-intended advice given for people in unhappy relationships, one-piece anchors it all. Don’t wait to stop the runaway train. Recognising where you are is an enormous first step.
Reaching out for supportive, compassionate, sage guidance is the next vital step.
Dr. Jerry Duberstein is a couples’ therapist and his partner, Mary Ellen Goggin, is a relationship guide. They offer private couples’ retreats, couples’ counselling and coaching (telephone, Skype, or in-person) in Portsmouth, NH. To learn more, schedule a half-hour complimentary consultation.