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What to Do If You Find Yourself in an Unhappy Marriage

Written by Carol Morgan
Dr. Carol Morgan is the owner of HerSideHisSide.com, a communication professor, dating & relationship coach, TV personality, speaker, and author.
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Growing up, when we envisioned getting married, we probably thought about it as a fairy tale. You know, the white knight, the Cinderella moments, and then riding off into the sunset, living happily ever after.

But with the divorce rate as high as ever, it doesn’t seem like that fantasy is coming true for most people. Even if you are in a relatively happy marriage, it might not be as perfect as you had hoped.

Marriage is a huge commitment that takes up a significant portion of your life. Having someone to share the ups and downs of life with is a big part of what makes a marriage successful. However, things change drastically if love and companionship are missing in the marriage. Finding joy and contentment in an unhappy marriage is a formidable task. So, what can you do if you find yourself in an unhappy marriage?

Most Common Causes of an Unhappy Marriage

Regardless of whether your problems lead to divorce or you work through them effectively, most married couples have similar issues. So, let’s look at a few of the most common marriage problems couples face.

1. Division of Labor

Research shows that even when both spouses work outside the home, the woman is usually the one who does more of the housework and chores.

This creates more stress for her. But what’s even more stressful beyond these daily chores is called “psychological distress.”[1] In other words, women are expected to remember things like “Johnny has a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday” or “We have to go to Jane’s soccer game on Saturday at 2:00.”


While it’s not always the woman who does more of the work, a lack of balance with the division of labor can cause many issues.

2. Finances

Some people are spenders, others are savers. So, if you get a spender and a saver together in a marriage, you can see how that would become a problem.

Maybe growing and investing money is important to one person, but the other couldn’t care less about it. Fighting over money and how it is spent is one of the most common problems in marriages.

3. Children and Parenting Differences

Let’s face it—children can be stressful! The crying/sleepless babies, temper tantrums, and rebellious teenagers are not a lot of fun sometimes, regardless of how much you love your kids! And that can cause a lot of stress to a couple. Even differing parenting styles like how to punish a child can cause a rift in a married couple.

4. Personality Differences

If one person is an introvert and the other is an extrovert, then there may be constant tension regarding how often to socialize.

The extrovert might feel unloved that the introvert never wants to go to a party with them. But the introvert might feel rejected because the extrovert always wants to socialize with people other than their spouse. And this is just one aspect of personality differences that can cause marriage problems.


5. Values and Beliefs

As the saying goes, “a bird and a fish may love each other, but where will they live?” In other words, when two people have very different ways of looking at the world, it makes it difficult to understand each other.

And this may lead to problems in marriage including a difference in core values, religion, or belief systems.

6. Keeping Score

If someone feels like they are doing way more for the other person than they are for them, then it’s natural to keep score.

You think, “I work, and then I come home to cook and clean and take care of the kids. But all the while, Ben is just sitting on the couch, drinking his beer, not even noticing how stressed I am!” Then in your mind, you think you have racked up a lot more on the scoreboard than he has.

As a result, resentment builds up over time and it can ruin a marriage.

7. Unrealistic Expectations

We all have an idea of how we want other people to act. For example, maybe you think that when someone is married, they should have sex every day. But let’s face it, most couples are tired from work, kids, chores, etc. So, it doesn’t happen.

Maybe you think your wife should cook gourmet meals all the time, just like your mom did. Well, maybe she hates to cook! Putting unrealistic expectations on your spouse will just make you both frustrated and angry.

8. Selfishness

Many people are selfish to some extent. But when it comes at the price of a healthy marriage, then it’s a problem. You can’t always put your needs first.

You must put your partner’s needs at least equal to – or before – your own. Otherwise, resentment will keep building endlessly.


What to Do if You Find Yourself in an Unhappy Marriage?

Many people find themselves in a downright unhappy marriage. I know how that feels because I was in one once myself. I never thought I would be a person who got divorced, but it happened.

That’s not to say I didn’t try, I did. I really, really did. But sometimes, it’s simply not meant to be.

With that said, just because my marriage didn’t work out doesn’t mean that yours won’t.

Before you read through this list, I have to make one very important point. BOTH you and your spouse must be 100% invested in rebuilding the marriage. If only one person is, then it won’t work—that’s what happened to me. I feel like I tried everything I could, but he wasn’t really committed to working on things.

Even if both of you are mildly committed to working on things, that’s not the best scenario either because you both have to have your heart completely in it for any positive changes to occur.

Now, let’s take a look at what needs to be done to repair your marriage.

1. You Need to Prioritize Your Partner’s Needs

As I said, both people must be 100% committed to rebuilding the relationship. Also, it would help if you put your partner’s needs before or at least equal to yours. According to research, relationships tend to be healthier, and spouses feel there is equality.[2].

You see, this is what happened in my marriage. I felt like his needs were always his top priority, and he didn’t care about mine. Even though I tried to put him as a priority, it never worked in reverse and that was not okay with me.


2. If You Have Children, Keep Your Problems Away From Them

A lot of couples make the mistake of fighting in front of their children. That is the worst thing you can do! Not only does it make the children feel unsafe, but it also brings them into adult issues they should not be involved in. There are a lot of behavioral disorders that children can accumulate through parental disputes.[3].

Keep your marriage problems between the two of you, and whatever you do… do NOT involve your children!

3. Make a List of What Makes You Unhappy

Sometimes we go around with just a general feeling of unhappiness and don’t really know why. You know something is wrong, but you don’t always sit down with yourself and actually figure out the specifics of what it is.

So, if you haven’t done that – do it. What exactly are you unhappy about? What do you want to change that would make you happy?

Once you look at the list, you might find that some of your reasons are petty or insignificant. Maybe, maybe not. But at least you will know.

4. Make a List of You and Your Spouse’s Responsibilities

I know you want to place all the blame on your spouse and make everything their fault. But remember, it takes two to tango.

Relationships are not made or destroyed by only one person (usually). In my case, I know I grew more resentful of his lack of effort in the marriage. As I grew more resentful, I emotionally withdrew–I’m sure that wasn’t great for him either.


We all have a part in the state of the relationship. But sit down and write it down, so you are clear about your thoughts on that.

5. Talk to Your Spouse About Your Concerns

Now that you have everything clear in your head, you are ready to talk to your spouse. It won’t be an easy thing—they might not even want to talk. But it’s absolutely necessary.

You can’t change what you don’t recognize. Bring your lists that you just made above to the table and talk it out. The purpose of that list is not just to get your thoughts down on paper, but to have a clear path to your conversation. And you’ll have “evidence” in front of you, not just relying on your memory in the moment.

6. Try to Come Up With Compromises

After you voice your concerns, let your spouse voice theirs. I’m sure they have some complaints, just like you do. Maybe they just haven’t told you anything about it yet.

If they can’t come up with any in the moment, give them time to make their own list and then reconvene. You need to talk logically and rationally about these problems. Neither one of you should get defensive or overly emotional/aggressive because that will not work if you do.


Try to meet in the middle and come up with some compromises.

7. Write a Contract and Make Agreements

It might sound cheesy or even unnecessary, but once you have made some agreements and compromises, write them down. Pretend like it’s a legal, binding contract between the two of you.

For instance, the husband agrees to do “x, y, and z” to make necessary changes in the relationship. And the wife agrees to do “a, b, and c” to help change the relationship. Then keep checking in on these agreements to keep yourselves on track.

8. Wait to See How Well You Both Implement the Changes

Change is difficult for most people. Anyone who has ever gone on a diet and tried to go to the gym to lose weight knows this to be true. The same is true for ALL habits. So, give it some time and see how well these changes are going to go.

Typically, people are good with change initially, but then they start to slip back into their old ways again. So, wait and see how well you both will implement these changes.

9. If Nothing Changes, Re-Negotiate and Try Again

If, after some time, nothing changes to your satisfaction, then you should try again. Real change is long-term, so you must wait it out and keep trying.

Benjamin Karney, the co-director of the Relationship Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, highlights that marital relationships are very fickle. They can only last if the partners try to keep the relationship a priority.


10. Seek Therapy

At some point, you might need to seek out a marriage therapist to help you. Many people can’t do it alone, so they need a professional to help them. If you don’t think you can do tips numbers 3-9 on your own, you may just start with a therapist.

Some people are against therapy (which is sad), and others can’t afford it. So, the first part of my list was for those people. Remember, going to therapy is a sign of strength, not weakness.

11. Be Open to the Therapist’s Suggestions

My ex-husband and I tried therapy too. It didn’t work for us because he didn’t put in the effort. I don’t mean to sound like I’m blaming him – that’s just who he is. He’s a good person, but he didn’t know how to (or want to) make changes in himself that would make our marriage happier.

I followed all the therapist’s suggestions but noticed he wasn’t. So, if you find this happening to you, too, have another conversation with your spouse and try to get them to take it more seriously.

12. If It Doesn’t Work, Then Consider Other Arrangements

Sadly, sometimes you can try everything to make a marriage work, and it still doesn’t. That’s what happened to me. And that’s okay.

There is no shame in separation or divorce anymore. Moving on from a relationship is no easy feat. But no matter how hard it is, it’s something you need to do to live a better life.


I don’t see it as a “failure.” Instead, it’s a learning opportunity. I learned what doesn’t work for me in a marriage, and I also learned what to do differently next time—finding someone who I am naturally more compatible with.

Final Thoughts

Rebuilding a relationship after it has been damaged is not a simple task, but it is achievable. Maintaining a good relationship is easier if you don’t let it deteriorate in the first place.

When my marriage ended, it was very sad. And if yours does, it will be for you too. Or it could just be a relief (or both).

But if you do go your separate ways, at least you know in your heart that you did everything you could to save the marriage. Then you can look back and figure out how to move forward and do it better the next time – just like I did.


Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

What to Do If You Find Yourself in an Unhappy Marriage

A marriage is a lifelong commitment that demands a lot of time and energy.

One of the keys to a happy marriage is finding someone with whom to share the highs and lows of life.

A lack of love and connection in the relationship can drastically alter a marriage.

Various factors cause unhappiness in marriage; for instance, children and parental differences, personality differences, values, beliefs, keeping score, and having unrealistic expectations, etc.

It’s not easy to bring happiness and contentment back into an unhappy marriage, but it is achievable if you both are willing to do the work.

Featured photo credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem via unsplash.com


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