No couple gets married looking forward to being unhappy in their marriage. But no couple avoids times in marriage where one or both spouses feel unsatisfied, restless, lonely, or just plain unhappy. Does that mean they’ve fallen out of love? Should they doubt their commitment? What should an unhappy couple do about their unhappiness?
At the outset, we should say that the advice below is intended for couples feeling unhappy in an otherwise functional and mutual relationship — where the dissatisfaction ranges from “mild” disconnections and disillusionment to more serious instances of working through resentment, deep hurt, damaging habits or addictions, etc. This advice is not intended for anyone experiencing abuse or domestic violence in their relationship, for whom safety is of paramount importance.
Proactively seek out help
The best piece of marriage advice we’ve ever received was that married couples aren’t meant to go it alone. Marriage may be between two people, but those two need the help and community of others to thrive. It’s a dangerous temptation to think that we should white-knuckle it through challenges and never share vulnerably with others (especially for the sake of appearing to “have it all together”).
All marriages need the ongoing support and friendship of other couples committed to making their marriages last. And many couples (us included) benefit at times from professional counseling, like when they feel especially “stuck” in a relationship deadlock, or are dealing with residual trauma, addiction, etc.
It can’t be emphasized enough that there is no shame in going to therapy as a couple (or alone). In contrast, being willing to seek help to get through a rough patch shows tremendous humility and courage — and is an investment in a happier future together.
Realize that things can get better
In one fascinating — and very encouraging! — study, 10,000 couples were asked to rate their marriages on a scale of “life in hell” to “heaven on earth.” Then researchers returned to them five years later to ask them to evaluate their marital quality again.
Of the couples who initially rated their marriages as “life in hell,” 81 percent were still together five years later, and — most encouragingly — the majority said they were now happy. The same study found that of the couples who had ended up divorcing, fewer said their happiness level improved.
Difficult circumstances change, and people can grow. Moving forward into a happier marriage isn’t always easy and takes some effort, but it is certainly possible.
Take baby steps forward — and celebrate them
When you enter a rough patch in your marriage, it can feel overwhelming. Some people in particular find it easy to fixate on every little way a relationship needs to change: he doesn’t listen well; she spends too much; he doesn’t get along with my family; she’s too focused on the kids; and so on. Especially if issues have been avoided for a while, attempting to change things can feel like facing a tsunami.
It can help to together choose one small thing to work on — and then celebrate progress in that one area. It might be working intentionally on active listening skills (as awkward as that may feel), or it might be building in one-on-one attention rituals to feel more connected.
Despite not being able to improve everything all at once, marriage is for the long haul, and we can celebrate even tiny-seeming ways we embrace change for the sake of our beloved.
Beware of over-prioritizing emotions
No doubt, our emotional well-being is important. But consider that many things in life other than marriage are not always fun or happy: our jobs, keeping up a household, paying down debt, maintaining long-term friendships, etc. All of these situations have their bursts of buoyant joy, but also their times of drudgery. And all these commitments remain valuable and worthwhile even when we’re not “feeling it.”
In those times of feeling unhappy in marriage, or maybe when we’re just not feeling much of anything toward our spouse, it can help to remember that the commitment to our marriage is still worthwhile. Put another way, love can still be expressed and received without “warm fuzzies.” In fact, love can be all the nobler if it’s done when we aren’t feeling particularly affectionate toward the other person (a phenomenon any parent can attest to as well).
We can strive to kindle and rekindle happy feelings in our marriage — what a true joy those times are! — without idolizing the feeling of happiness, or sacrificing good things in its pursuit.
Think of your kids
Finally, we propose that for married couples with children, perhaps the best reason to stick it out through rough patches is for the sake of your children. There is ample evidence of the damaging effects divorce has on children, long into the future — and that includes children from both low-conflict marriages and high-conflict marriages.
It can be tempting to think, “My kids will be happier if I’m happier”; or, “I want them to see a better relationship than this one.” But any couple considering calling it quits should take the time to read testimonies of now-adult children of divorce to see the perhaps-surprising ways that losing out on a unified family can impact children for years to come.
There’s a nuance here we don’t want to oversimplify — our advice is not simply to white-knuckle years of misery “for the sake of the children”; again, with the right support, most struggling marriages can find a new, happier stage. But if the relationship’s future is in question, don’t make a decision without honestly apprising the effects divorce would have on the children involved.
Lean on your vows
It takes courage to invest in a commitment that does not seem to be nourishing you in return. But you shared vows at your wedding for this very reason — those promises can be just the nudge you need to reach toward each other in stormy weather.
And know that you’re not alone. God is love, and participates in our lives when we commit ourselves to one another in love. Invite God’s help in your struggle — God is faithful and will be a source of strength.