What do you do when you want to fix your marriage and your spouse doesn’t think there’s a problem? Or maybe sees the problem but refuses to work on it?

This is a really tough situation to be in where you are really worried about your marriage but your spouse isn’t on board – for whatever reason – with doing anything about fixing it.

This is actually not an uncommon situation. In fact, the research shows that it is a common marital situation for an unhappy spouse to be married to a spouse that is not unhappy. Yes, that is a lot of “un’s” to keep track of! It turns out though that unhappy spouses are much more common than unhappy marriages.

So, you are not the only person out there going through this! In fact, we’ve been through it too. There was a period of time where Caleb was just dragging himself through life – in a cloud of mild depression all the time. I was the unhappy, concerned spouse. Thankfully, Caleb was able to come out of that and we re-engaged, but it was not a happy time for me when he couldn’t see that anything was wrong.

The Problem of Unhappy Spouses

In 2002, Waite et al completed an extensive study of unhappy spouses using the National Survey of Families and Households. They looked at 645 spouses in the USA who had rated their marriages as unhappy and then re-interviewed them again five years later.

They found that, “while Americans usually talk about unhappy marriages…unhappy spouses were far more common. Only about a quarter of unhappy spouses were married to a spouse who also reported being unhappily married.”[i] The implication being that ¾ of unhappy spouses are married to spouses who are satisfied with their marriages.

If you are the unhappy spouse, could you do us a favour and send us a note on our Get In Touch page? We’d love to hear what it’s been like for you – and I promise, if you write to us, we’ll write you back!

The statistics also showed that unhappy spouses are more likely to experience symptoms of depression, have lower levels of global happiness, a lower sense of personal mastery, and lower self-esteem than happy spouses. It’s not an easy situation to be in.

I think the most challenging part of being unhappy is the powerlessness associated with it. Like when you’re at someone’s house and their picture isn’t hanging straight but you can’t touch it – only 1000x worse! You can see what needs to be done. You can feel it in your gut. But you can’t change it!

But be encouraged – there is hope for you and your marriage!

Hope for Unhappy Spouses

The study mentioned above actually looked at the difference between unhappy spouses who decided to stay married and unhappy spouses who decided to get a divorce. They made a couple of important discoveries.

First, “unhappy spouses who divorced or separated actually showed a somewhat higher number of depressive symptoms, compared to unhappily married spouses who stayed married.” Perhaps their most important finding was this: “Two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later.[ii]

This gives so much hope! If you’re an unhappy spouse who decides to stay committed, over time you will most likely come to a happier place in your relationship!

What are the reasons for this? Obviously, if you’re reading this, you want to be in that two out of three people, so let’s look at some of the common situations that lead to unhappy spouses and how unhappy spouses found happiness in each type of situation.

Three Common Causes of Unhappy Spouses

  1. Outside Stressors: Things such as illness, unemployment, depression, financial problems, problems with kids, etc… This was the most common story given by spouses who were interviewed. Their marriage became unhappy because of outside situations that could not be controlled. These are major issues that can insert themselves into our lives at any time.
  2. Husband Behaving Badly: These issues included infidelity, alcoholism, fighting, cussing, abuse, etc. The researchers stated they were surprised that “among the spouses interviewed who saw marital unhappiness as caused primarily by bad behaviour, very few husbands and no wives saw the wife’s behaviour as chiefly to blame.”[iii]
  3. Chronic Conflict, Poor Communication, and Emotional Neglect: This often included husbands who thought their wives were unhappy “for no reason” and wives who felt misunderstood and never heard by their husbands. It often included fighting all the time over small issues.

A note to husbands from Caleb: I just want to challenge you guys on this one. Maybe you think your wife is unhappy for no reason, or you can’t figure out what that reason is. I get that. You can either look at that as a problem, or you can look at it as an opportunity to demonstrate curiosity. Remember, nothing comes out of a vacuum. You might be a great guy, but there is a reason why she is unhappy. If you can’t figure out why, give me a call. This is why marriage therapists exist: first to create understanding and second to help you repair and create something that is really great!

These three reasons are the most common causes – not all the reasons, just the common ones: outside stressors, husband behaving badly, and/or chronic conflict, poor communication or just plain simple emotional neglect.

What Unhappy Spouses Should Do to Move Forward

From their research, Waite et al. found that unhappy spouses moved into happier places through several different strategies that often corresponded to the reason behind their unhappy marriage.[iv]

Waiting it Out

Some unhappy spouses were happier five years later due to time simply passing. The researchers named this strategy The Marital Endurance Ethic. These individuals did not work on their unhappy marriages, but instead, they endured them. With the passage of time, problems of life tend to get better, which improves the happiness of the married people in them.

Good ol’ fashioned grit and stickability! This is where commitment comes in.

Waiting it out is often a strategy that seems to work best when spouses are unhappy due to outside circumstances. Over time, as the circumstances are figured out, and each spouse remains committed to the marriage, these spouses find themselves happier a few years later.

So, don’t toss your marriage out because you’re experiencing unhappiness – especially when the cause of the unhappiness is not initially the marriage relationship itself.

Solving Problems and Getting Help

Some unhappy spouses were happier five years later due to finding active ways to fix the problem and enlisting personal and professional help. The researchers called this The Marital Work Ethic. This strategy seemed to work best in situations when husbands were behaving badly, which could likely apply to wives behaving badly as well.

When issues were more serious such as infidelity, alcoholism, or abuse, spouses responded by seeking to improve communication, consulting counselors, separating for a time, or consulting divorce attorneys. They took serious steps that aligned with the serious nature of the problem they were seeing.

Another study, from 2015, show that both marital and individual counseling can be helpful when a wife is unhappy in the marriage and considering divorce.

They interviewed women who had considered divorce, but in the end, decided to remain married. They looked at the counseling process these women went through and found that all of the women interviewed reported that going to counseling helped them make decisions about their marriage and how to move forward.

Some of these women attended both marital and individual counseling and felt that the individual sessions were more helpful for their marriages. Even if a spouse is not willing to go to marriage counseling, individual counseling could be helpful to the spouse and to the marriage as a whole.[v]

Our only advice on this is to make sure you are talking to a marriage therapist and not an individual therapist. Marriage therapy is a specialty in the field of counseling. Humans are as complex emotionally as they are physically. You would go to a specialist if you had a particular medical issue: you should do the same for a relational issue like marriage.

So there’s another effective strategy – get help.

Remember, on average each spouse loses 70% of their net worth when they divorce – and that’s not even considering the emotional cost to you and your children. So, if you think counselling is expensive you’re not thinking about it right.

For the folks that we’ve walked beside as they went through a divorce, not one of them would identify it as an ideal solution. Don’t buy into the way it is pitched as an easy out by Hollywood. It is not an easy out.

Finding Personal Satisfaction

Not Happy?

If you’re an unhappy spouse in this tough place, this PDF of 10 ways for an unhappy spouse to find personal satisfaction will help you. 

Some unhappy spouses were happier five years later due to “finding alternative ways to improve their own happiness and build a good and happy life despite a mediocre marriage.”[vi] Waite et al. termed this The Personal Happiness Ethic.

This strategy was often used it the face of chronic communication problems and emotional neglect – spouses who shared stories of these problems often didn’t show a huge turn around in their marriage, but the individual spouse who was unhappy would find ways to live with the behaviors they disagreed with and find happiness in places other than their marriage.

This is such a key point. Sometimes we choose to stake our happiness on something that we can’t control. Choosing to stake your personal happiness on someone you can’t control: your spouse, your kids, your boss — is a strategy that is guaranteed to fail. Don’t choose that. Nobody other than God should be everything to you. And He will never let you down.

There are ways you can work, as an unhappy spouse, to deal with issues. We often have this belief that disagreeing with our spouse is automatically destructive. That’s a belief – not a fact.

Duncan (2004) researched this Destructive Disagreement Belief (the irrational belief that disagreeing with a romantic partner is automatically destructive). He worked with 150 undergraduates and had them call to mind the rational belief that disagreement is not destructive while they experienced a disagreement.

His research showed that believing that disagreement is NOT destructive can actually reduce relationship dissatisfaction during disagreements. So, even if you can’t stop the unpleasantness, you can shift your beliefs around certain interactions. When you do that, you may be able to find a happier ethic to live by.[vii]

This strategy might give an unhappy spouse the space to move on past disagreements and find satisfaction in other areas of life. Who knows where that may lead!

If you are an unhappy spouse, my heart goes out to you. I hope the one great message you get from this article is that you CAN do something. There IS hope, and you can find joy in other ways, despite your situation.

[i] Linda J. Waite et al., “Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages.” (Institute for American Values, 2002), http://americanvalues.org/catalog/pdfs/does_divroce_make_people_happy.pdf.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Erica J. W. Kanewischer and Steven M. Harris, “Deciding Not to Un-Do the ‘I Do:’ Therapy Experiences of Women Who Consider Divorce but Decide to Remain Married,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 41, no. 3 (July 2015): 367–80.

[vi] Waite et al., “Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages.”

[vii] Duncan Cramer, “Effect of the Destructive Disagreement Belief on Relationship Satisfaction with a Romantic Partner or Closest Friend,” Psychology and Psychotherapy 77 (March 2004): 121–33.

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