To begin changing an unhappy marriage is to welcome an avalanche of feelings, questions, disappointments, even fears. The admission is like the last finger sliding from your death-grip on a steep cliff, with nothing below to catch you.
OK, so that’s a bit dramatic. But to the person finally mouthing the words, “I’m in an unhappy marriage,” that scenario may not be too far from the truth. After all, marriages don’t just rocket out of the “happiness atmosphere” and into the black hole of despair overnight. They inch their way along with a little neglect here, some acrimony there, a veneer of denial everywhere….
If you’ve reached the point where denial is no longer an option, you may wonder if changing an unhappy marriage is possible. And if you have come to this conclusion of unhappiness alone, you may feel you are the keeper of a deep, dark secret.
It’s unlikely that one spouse is miserable while the other is basking in bliss. But it’s not unrealistic to expect that the two come to their recognition of an unhappy marriage in different ways, at different times.
The things that accumulate to damage a marriage can be the very things that delay changing an unhappy marriage. Tension, miscommunication, betrayal, disappointment, exhaustion, illness, financial stress — it can all sink its teeth into what once seemed invincible.
Sadly, not dealing with issues as they arise — and not having healthy skills for how to deal with them — can slowly erode your marriage.
So where does that leave you once you have come clean and acknowledged that you are, in fact, in an unhappy marriage? What are your choices? And where do you even begin?
Let’s start on a hopeful note and finish on a positive one. Being in an unhappy marriage does not mean you have written the final chapter and are left only with “The End.” There are steps you can take toward your own happiness and the betterment of your marriage.
If your marriage is important to you — even if it isn’t fulfilling any of your original dreams — stay positive. Assuming you are not involved in an abusive marriage, your spouse is probably quietly lamenting the evaporation of happiness in your marriage, too.
The irony of that mutual loss is that there is a mutual space in which to work on your marriage.
Here are 7 tips for changing an unhappy marriage for the better.
1. Figure out the cause of your unhappiness.
The fact that you are married and unhappy doesn’t automatically convict your marriage. Take the time to really evaluate the cause of your unhappiness.
Are there perhaps internal factors joining forces with external factors? Can you pinpoint a time of onset? What was going on at that time? What has happened since? What kinds of stressors have been in your life since that point? When were you happy? And what differences can you point to between that time and now?
Being specific is important not only for knowing how to solve a problem, but for communicating without globalizing or blaming. If your goal is to revitalize your marriage, knowing exactly what you are dealing with will be a veritable compass for mapping solutions.
2. Stop causing further damage to your marriage.
Now. Just. Stop. Any behavior that contributes to an already large pool of negativity — just take your foot off the pedal and stop. Picking fights, emotional blackmail, sarcasm, blaming, victimizing, bad-mouthing — you can’t throw that train into reverse if you don’t stop it first.
This also means eliminating the urge to “act out” on your negative feelings, regardless of what your spouse does. You may want to save your marriage, but you first have to take responsibility for your role in it.
3. Talk with your spouse about your feelings.
“But that’s the problem! We don’t talk! And s/he won’t talk about feelings!”
As you read through these helpful tips, you will likely run up against several that sound like a complete disavowing of your experience. How can you talk about feelings when communication is your problem?
It’s important to remember that you are the one reading this. You are the one who has decided that changing an unhappy marriage is a priority. It is therefore within your power to initiate that change.
You may come away feeling as though you have just poured your heart out to a brick wall. But you will have taken the first step. And by doing so, you will have given your spouse vital information that calls for his/her response in some form.
You can do only your part in the best way you can. And opening up the lines of vulnerable, honest conversation is essential.
Be careful not to blame, but to focus on your feelings. “I feel sad. I miss us. I’m afraid. I’m lonely. I feel angry when I am left doing all the housework alone. I feel unimportant. I feel unappreciated.” These are all ways of expressing unhappiness without assigning blame.
4. Express your needs clearly — both of you.
Be clear about your needs — without blaming or demanding. Express the seriousness of the issues and the potential consequences if those needs aren’t met.
A word of caution: This is not a green light to march in with a list of “If you don’t…I will….” No one should feel threatened. Rather, you should both come away with a reality check on the importance of your relationship and the individuals who hold it together.
Changing an unhappy marriage is about both of you having your needs acknowledged, valued, and met as much as possible. It’s also about meeting the needs of the relationship itself.
“This is important to me because….I need to feel valued….I need to have some time for my hobbies….” You will set the tone for communication by how you express your needs…and then ask for your partner’s needs.
5. Let go of the need to always be right.
Having to be right all the time turns your marriage into a war zone. Someone always has to win, which means someone also has to lose. And that means one spouse is “up” while the other is “down.” And before you know it, your marriage is a “vertical” power struggle instead of a “horizontal” powerhouse.
Issues like power and control-submission are at the heart of depression in relationships. No marriage can be healthy when one spouse is lording over the other.
6. Be compassionate.
It can be so difficult to bite your tongue, let alone accept responsibility, when you’ve been stewing in anger and disappointment. But changing an unhappy marriage means stepping outside what has become your comfort zone. And that comfort zone may involve not being sensitive and compassionate toward the person you vowed to love and cherish.
Having compassion isn’t about capitulation. You are working to get your feelings out into the common ground of your marriage. And it has to be safe for both of you to do that.
Compassion says, “I am here to learn about you more deeply and lovingly than I ever have. I am here to grow. I am here to learn more about myself, even as I learn more about you. I love you, and I want to understand you, me and us better so that we can have a great marriage.”
7. Get a pro involved.
Why not? What do you have to lose by asking someone who deals with struggling marriages every day to help guide you? Finding an expert to help you learn how to communicate with one another in an elevated, mature way can be a huge asset.
Assuming you are both committed to changing an unhappy marriage to a thriving marriage, the “education” will be available where you seek it.
If you are in an unhappy marriage, there is no need to throw up your hands or throw in the towel.
Relationships are organic — always changing, always presenting new opportunities for growth. That’s what makes them exciting…and the optimal place in which to struggle out of the cocoon that keeps you stuck.
Whether or not you are successful in changing an unhappy marriage for the better is ultimately up to you. You are the one acknowledging your awareness of an unhappy marriage. You are the one wondering what you can do.
No one can make a marriage work alone, of course. But you are the one poised to take the first step.
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