So what if you are in a marriage that you are totally committed to but really not enjoying or appreciating. You are unhappy but it is quite a stable situation. And you aren’t leaving. How can you make the most of this situation? We’ll look at how folks find themselves in a spot like this and how to make the most of it.
Long Term Unhappy Marriages
Let’s start by looking at what we mean by “unhappy” in this situation. Overall marital quality is a combination of marital satisfaction and marital stability[i]. Using these two dimensions you can categorize marriages into four groups:
- High satisfaction, high stability
- High satisfaction, low stability
- Low satisfaction, high stability
- Low satisfaction, low stability
Long term unhappy marriages fall into the third category: low in satisfaction but high in stability.
Why Do People Stay?
There are various reasons people may choose to stay in an unhappy marriage, divided into “reasons for staying” and “barriers to leaving” (from Heaton & Albrecht, 1991)
Reasons to Stay
- Economic: you may be financially much better off even if you aren’t happy in the marriage
- Familiarity: even if you aren’t truly happy in your marriage, after many years together you may appreciate the stability and routine of life
Beliefthat marriage is sacred: your religious commitment to marriage may keep you there.
Barriers to Leaving
- Fear of being single or not being able to find another spouse
- Stigma around divorce
- Inability or doubts about your ability to fend for yourself (e.g., if your spouse is the main earner or handles important household issues and you don’t know how you’d cope without them)
- Not wanting to distress your children by separating (even adult children).
Growing Your Marriage by Growing Yourself
Once again we’ve created a bonus worksheet for our much-appreciated supporters. This week’s worksheet complements this episode by stepping you through two very important areas to consider in a situation like this. First of all, we help you search for the positive reasons for staying. This subtle shift can make a huge difference in your marital satisfaction all by itself. But then we also ask you to consider how you might challenge yourself to grow in a situation like this. Again, this is a positive reframe that will help you make shifts within yourself. And we have often seen that when this happens, your marriage will often shift to a better place as well. So if you are feeling hopeless and looking for a place to start, you’ll definitely want to get this worksheet. You can get it by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
How To Make The Most of It
Find Positive Reasons to Stay
This first point is to do with a change in your mindset, rather than trying to change your circumstances. A research study from 2004[ii] interviewed unhappy couples about why they stay together. They found that couples whose only reasons to stay together were barriers to leaving were much more likely to end up divorced.
So you need to try and find positive reasons to stay together, rather than thinking you have no choice. For example, wanting to stay in the marriage because you believe that God values your marriage and values your efforts to stay together is a better way of thinking about things than only staying together because you believe divorce is sinful. That’s putting a more positive slant on the reason for staying. This slight shift can have a big impact.
It’s Better Than Divorce
Couples may be able to take comfort from the fact that staying together is often better for you than divorce. A research study from 2002[iii] found that, even in unhappily married couples, divorce generally did not increase their levels of happiness or life satisfaction. So sticking together and working on issues is often the best thing to do.
Couples in an unhappy marriage often end up withdrawing away from each other. This leads to a breakdown in communication that can ultimately make divorce much more likely[iv].
Our recommendation is that you try to keep talking and engaging with each other even if you are unhappy. Even if you cannot manage to be develop a lot of closeness, just remaining friendly and respectful will make the situation much more bearable[v].
Accept Who Your Spouse Is
Spouses in long-term unhappy marriages should try to accept the person their spouse is, rather than trying to change them or remaining bitter about what they wish their spouse was like.
Trying to change who your spouse is often ends in resentment and conflict. On the other hand accepting and supporting who they are can improve how you relate to them, as well as freeing you from the “responsibility” of who they are and what they do.
Another effective strategy is instead of trying to change your spouse, work on developing yourself as a person.
Finding ways to increase your own happiness, competence and self-worth will mean that these qualities will be reflected into your marriage too[vi]. For example, people in long term unhappy marriages are often insecurely attached, and struggling with anxiety and low self-worth[vii].
So working through these issues in individual counselling or mastering new communication skills to improve your self-confidence will make you a stronger, happier person. And this will naturally make your marriage stronger and happier too. This is great because it’s something you can work on personally, even if your spouse is totally uninterested, and it will still benefit you and the marriage.
There’s Always Hope
Finally, we just want to sow a little hope into this situation. Research shows that even in marriages that have been unhappy for a long time, there is still hope that things can turn around. A study from 2002[viii] surveyed 645 couples who rated their marriages as unhappy and continued to track them for the next 5 years. The found that two out of three couples who rated themselves as unhappy at the start of the study ended up describing their marriages as happy after five years.
It’s also helpful to consider the possibility that this may just be a season of life. It is easy to lose hope, but many marriages do have dry seasons and with commitment and investment those marriages can return to a happier place.
As always, if you would like help with any of these things as an individual or as a couple, do feel free to reach out to us through our website at only you forever dot com and we’d be glad to connect you with one of our experienced marriage counsellors.
[i] Tim B. Heaton and Stan L. Albrecht, “Stable Unhappy Marriages,” Journal of Marriage and Family 53, no. 3 (1991): 747–58, https://doi.org/10.2307/352748.
[ii] Denise Previti and Paul R. Amato, “Why Stay Married? Rewards, Barriers, and Marital Stability,” Journal of Marriage and Family 65, no. 3 (August 2003): 561–73.
[iii] Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially (Crown/Archetype, 2002).
[iv] Eli J. Finkel et al., “A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time,” Psychological Science 24, no. 8 (August 1, 2013): 1595–1601, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612474938.
[v] Michelle Farris, “How to Survive in an Unhappy Marriage and Thrive,” World of Psychology, September 21, 2017, https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-survive-in-an-unhappy-marriage-and-thrive/.
[vii] Joanne Davila and Thomas N. Bradbury, “Attachment Insecurity and the Distinction between Unhappy Spouses Who Do and Do Not Divorce,” Journal of Family Psychology 15, no. 3 (September 2001): 371–93, https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3126.96.36.1991.
[viii] Waite and Gallagher, The Case for Marriage.