how to fix an unhappy marriage

7 Tips On How To Fix An Unhappy Marriage & Make It Better

You know in your mind that marriage won’t always be wedding-day bliss. But it’s all but impossible to prepare your heart for the day when you may have to learn how to fix an unhappy marriage and make it better.

You know love goes through predictable stages. You know the strain children put on time and marriage. You know how sweet and admirable old couples are when they look as if they have been together forever…because they have.

And you know that everyone who has made it to an empty nest or a golden anniversary has weathered some storms.

But you may wonder if they were ever actually unhappy. Did they ever reach a critical point where they wondered how to fix an unhappy marriage? Did they ever come close to losing their marriages in order to make them better?

It may be of little comfort, but many, if not most, would probably say yes. They’ve navigated the bumps in the road. In the face of doubt, they took time and made the effort to fix an unhappy marriage and make it better.

Marriages can become unhappy for any number of reasons — misunderstanding, betrayal, neglect, miscommunication, the slow accumulation of small disappointments, not knowing how to talk through differences, the effect of childhood trauma, to name several. And you may not realize how unhappy you both are in your marriage, until you are fully immersed in the unhappiness. Until you’re afraid it’s too late.

But packing up and leaving is rarely the best option. And even when they despair ever regaining happiness and feel hopeless, the married couple can have  reasons to fix an unhappy marriage and for staying:

  • kids
  • fear of financial insecurity
  • fear of starting over
  • fear of being alone
  • poor health of one spouse or a child
  • religious reasons
  • the stigma of divorce

If divorce isn’t a desire or option, how can you fix an unhappy marriage? And if you can, how do you go the next step and actually make it better than it ever was?

You can probably guess that it’ll take a lot of time and work. But simply “putting in the time” isn’t going to get the job done. You will need a strategy, a support system, and a commitment to stick it out, even when progress is slow.

Here are 7 tips for how to fix an unhappy marriage and make it better.

  1. Stop causing damage.

It sounds so common-sense, but you can’t turn a train around unless you stop it first. You simply must stop the destructive, hurtful behavior and communication blunders.

Even while you learn how to do what is right, commit to stop doing what is wrong. Stop initiating arguments. Stop antagonizing. Stop blaming, accusing, whining, avoiding, fuming, yelling. Stop playing the victim. Just. Stop.

  1. Avoid the urge to act out. 

Negative feelings aren’t going to go “poof” just because you want to fix your marriage. They may even get more intense for a while, especially if you feel you are being the bigger person at first.

Remember that you first have to stop the bleeding — not create more — before healing can begin.

Find responsible ways to deal with the negative feelings that are already there…without causing new ones.

  1. Take inventory and make a list. 

This is an important exercise for both of you.

When did your unhappiness start? What was happening in your life when it started? What has happened since?

List what your spouse does that you don’t like. List what s/he doesn’t do that you need. List what you don’t like about your marriage and what you want it to look like.

Be honest about how unhappy you feel in your marriage and how that feeling is affecting you. How is your marital unhappiness affecting the other relationships and areas in your life — children, job, sex, health?

List your grievances by order of priority, then read them to one another. Commit ahead of time that you are both going to be compassionate and respectful, as your lists will be difficult to hear out loud.

And remember to actively listen to your spouse, just as you want your spouse to listen to you. Do your best to resist being defensive.

  1. Discuss your feelings clearly with your spouse. 

Talking about negative feelings requires tremendous self-control and self-accountability. This is not a free-for-all for blaming your spouse. It’s a vulnerable, potentially relationship-shifting time to take responsibility for your own contributions and to specifically ask for your needs to be understood.

Be clear, not wishy-washy. “I need to share more one-on-one time with you during the week….I need more validation for the work I do for our children….I need to feel sexually desired….I need more emotional connection in order to feel sexual….” 

These are not demands or threats. They are an expression of your needs, their seriousness, and the potential consequences if they are not met.

Remember that both of you will have your turn to share your feelings and needs. So if you want your spouse to respect you, be sure you show your spouse respect too.

  1. Prioritize, focus, and complete. 

Decide what the most important needs of the marriage are, and focus on those in order of priority until they are completed. Trying to “fix everything” all at once will only overwhelm you both and make it more difficult to fix an unhappy marriage.

  1. Detach if necessary. 

Detachment is not a way of ignoring your spouse, your marriage, or your problems. It is taking a time-out and letting go of the expectation that your spouse will change. It is a release of the need to control and always be right. It is a way of encouraging goodwill between you so that you can operate from a place of emotional calm.

Instead of beating an issue to death in an effort to be understood or get your way, you choose to let go of what doesn’t work. When you don’t know how to fix an unhappy marriage, detachment allows you to release what fuels that unhappiness.

When you practice detachment and you aren’t expecting your spouse to meet all your needs, the arguments will decrease. You will have the mental and emotional space to become more empowered and self-reliant.

And hopefully, in that context of calm, you and your spouse will start reaching out in love and genuine affection and be ready to productively fix your unhappy marriage.

  1. Consider a marriage retreat.

Why a marriage retreat? 

-Chances are that, by the time you recognize your unhappiness, you have been unhappy for a long time. The negative issues in your marriage have had a long time to fester and create a new normal. The walls between you and the toxicity in the atmosphere around you can impede progress. You may be unable to talk through your differences without explosive anger, hurt, and frustration, no matter how hard you try.

-You don’t have time to wait for one-hour-a-week-for-years to finally change things for the better.

 -A marriage retreat is a powerful and effective way for you and your spouse to take stock of your marriage and create a realistic vision of what it can be and learn how to bridge the gap.

-Research indicates that a marriage retreat has a better success rate than traditional weekly marriage counseling.

-You will escape the distractions of your everyday environment and focus only on your marriage.

-A happy marriage is possible.

-Your marriage is worth it.

Knowing how to fix an unhappy marriage from a position of unhappiness doesn’t come naturally. In the midst of unhappiness, it can be difficult to see any value in the relationship worth salvaging. As a matter of fact, the most natural feeling in that situation is often a desire to pack up and call it quits.

The fact that you are searching for answers to how to fix an unhappy marriage and make it better is a huge statement of commitment. And the fact that you then want to make it better shows that you still have enough faith in your marriage to have a vision for it.

Any couple with that kind of determination and hope already has the most important ingredients for restoring happiness.


Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats