You never question it when you feel it. When happiness lifts your spirits like a kite on a Mary Poppins breezy day, you run with it…sometimes down the aisle. But what about the flip side of that? What happens when you’re unhappy in marriage…and don’t know why?
Happiness is so fundamental to our sense of being that we Americans cherish it as constitutional. The pursuit of it, anyway.
We expect it for ourselves, and we wish it for our children.
Happiness, perhaps more than anything else, is a marker of life’s quality, its purpose, its “rightness.”
The enigma of happiness is that we are often more aware of its absence than we are of its presence.
When it’s there, we “go with the flow,” stay productive, and wonder why the rest of the world doesn’t see life in full spectrum.
But when it’s dormant or absent altogether, the colors fade in secrecy until we realize we’re seeing in shades of gray.
If you’re unhappy in marriage and don’t know why, you may relate to the way unhappiness creeps up on you.
Perhaps you’re asking questions like How did we get here? Who am I? Why don’t I feel any joy when I have so much?
Why don’t I feel connected to my spouse? Does this mean our marriage is over?
Is it me? Is it him? Is it her? Is it us?
And it’s that mystery of unhappiness — the wondering why and how and if — that is both friend and foe.
Foe because, let’s face it, it can be maddening and demoralizing to feel so out of control of your own life.
Friend because, if the source of your unhappiness were an obvious deal-breaker — abuse, neglect, unremorseful serial infidelity — you wouldn’t be curious.
And, without that curiosity as to why you are unhappy in marriage and don’t know why, there is little hope.
So let’s talk strategies for getting your kite off the ground.
Happiness, like all feelings and virtues, is rooted deep inside. So, like it or not, you’re going to have to start your search there.
Here are 5 strategies to consider if you are unhappy in your marriage and don’t know why:
Listen to your unhappiness.
Emotions may be inconvenient and even troublesome at times, especially if they aren’t expressed in a healthy, authentic way. But they are also (and always) messengers. These pesky informants let you know you are alive, that you are in relationship with the world and have responses to it.
You need to understand your unhappiness if you’re going to do anything about it. So make a list of all the areas in your life, and specifically your marriage, that are unsatisfying to you.
How do you wish those areas and connections were different? Do you have memories of those areas of your relationship being happy?
What are the specific emotions you feel as you make your list? Sadness? Anger? Fear?
Do you have secondary emotions like regret, hopelessness, resentment?
Explore your outside influences.
Your marriage, family, and home are your sanctuary. They are also the vulnerable recipients of your most raw feelings, reactions, and behaviors.
So, while you may feel the dissatisfaction in what should be your holy grail, consider possible antagonists to its well-being.
Are you and your spouse happy at work?
Are you exhausted from child-rearing and in need of some adult/couple/“me” time?
Do your outside family members meddle in your marriage or stir up strife?
Do you have unresolved issues from your childhood?
Is someone in your family dealing with a serious medical condition?
Are you living with unresolved grief?
All of these influences inevitably come to bear on that one treasure that needs the most care but often gets the least: your marriage.
Have a heartfelt conversation with your spouse.
Chances are, if you are unhappy in your marriage, so is your spouse. Even if it’s simply specific areas — sex, division of labor, communication — your relationship is synergistic.
Your words, actions, and feelings don’t exist in a vacuum. Your spouse may have no idea what you’re feeling and why (after all, you’re flummoxed, too).
Just as importantly, you may have no idea what your spouse is feeling and why.
The first step toward healing and happiness is honesty. And, if you expect your spouse to care about your happiness and satisfaction, you have to care about his or hers.
Just that expression of vulnerability and mutual desire to understand is an enormous step toward deeper intimacy…and happiness.
Revitalize your own life.
Sometimes life demands so much that you don’t realize the overdraft on your “personal account.” You give up one activity to support someone else’s. You study middle school math instead of reading a juicy novel. You stop working out because you have no energy at the end of the day.
And, little by little, “you” disappear. Your sense of self is lost somewhere between “nothing left to offer” and “why bother.”
So get a hobby. Take a weekend trip with a good friend. Try a new exercise class. The point is, if happiness is rooted inside, you have to cultivate it in your life.
Treat counseling as a positive adventure…because it is.
Just because an expert tells you to “look within” to discover the blocks to your unhappiness doesn’t mean the task is an easy DIY. You may want to stay in your unhappy marriage without getting divorced, but you still want to become a person satisfied with her own life. Happiness is an inside job.
You remember being happy, and you know the essentials are still there. But uncovering the roadblocks from all the rubble that is “life” can complicate and confuse the effort.
Consider working one-on-one with a therapist to excavate the sources of your unhappiness. Then you and your spouse can bring clarity and compassion to your conversation.
Hopefully you’ll realize that your marriage has so much life left in it. And you can treat yourselves to an amazing growth experience at a weekend marriage retreat that will accelerate your results.
Happiness may not be a given in life or marriage. But it is always available to you.
You don’t have to remain unhappy in marriage and not know why. Your life — and marriage — are waiting for you.
So is your happiness.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.