Profile of an unhappy woman.

8 Things To Consider If You’ve Been In An Unhappy Marriage For Years

You’re enough of a realist to expect some down days, occasional heated arguments, and I’ll-lose-my-mind-if-I-don’t-get-some-alone-time pinings for a solo vacay. None would be on your favorites list, but none would qualify your marriage as “unhappy,” either. Being in an unhappy marriage, let alone an unhappy marriage for years, takes a different toll.

Believe it or not, fighting isn’t necessarily a bad thing in marriage. It’s why and how you battle things out that matter. Couples that understand this aren’t afraid of a little heat because they know it can help bring about positive change.

And, in a happy, healthy marriage, “fighting” doesn’t imply a loss of respect or compassion. There are still rules, and spouses abide by them to protect their marriage.

But this isn’t what an unhappy marriage looks like. If you’ve been in an unhappy marriage for years, you may not remember the last fight you and your spouse had. Or you may not remember the last fight that had any rules of engagement.

Perhaps you’ve been miserable for so long that you’ve finally reached a breaking point. You don’t even recognize the couple that blissfully exchanged I-do’s a lifetime ago. But you don’t know what to do or where to start to make the break.

Perhaps your unhappiness is only just beginning to announce itself, even though it has been hanging around for years. Now you’re faced with the reality of your unhappiness, as well as the reality that you’ve been living in denial all these years. It’s a tough swallow.

Either way, you have a lot to think about because you can no longer pretend you aren’t aware. And you’re not the only one in this marriage or family, so there are other lives to consider, too.

First, it’s important to recognize the signs of an unhappy marriage. It’s also imperative to be able to distinguish “unhappy” from “unhealthy” and “toxic.”

If your relationship is abusive or unsafe in any way, please get help immediately.

Here are some of the signs of an unhappy marriage:

  • You avoid time with one another.
  • You’re not having sex anymore.
  • You turn toward other people instead of toward one another.
  • You’re irritated by everything your spouse says and does.
  • You don’t share the same vision for the future.
  • One or both of you are constantly criticizing the other.
  • You start fantasizing about life without your spouse.
  • You have physical and/or mental symptoms.

Do any of these sound painfully familiar? If so, it’s time to do some soul-searching.

Here are 8 things to consider if you’ve been in an unhappy marriage for years:

  1. How is your marriage affecting your health?

    Your constant upset stomach, lack of appetite, migraines, anxiety, and insomnia aren’t just coincidence. There is a proven link between an unhappy marriage and health.

    If the communication in your marriage has deteriorated to the point where you’re walking on eggshells, your body is going to register the discontent. You will be at an increased risk of depression, and stress hormones will start a cascade of health problems.

    Ask yourself if working on the health of your marriage will help restore your own health. No matter what, your personal health has to be a non-negotiable.

  1. Why are you unhappy?

    This question, obvious as it sounds, isn’t always easy for people to answer. It requires you to come face-to-face with emotions – to recognize them, name them, and feel them.

    And sometimes that process is best facilitated with the help of a professional.

    There are proven links between marital dissatisfaction and depression. But knowing whether marital conflict is causing the depression or depression is causing marital discontent is important for knowing how to go forward.

    In the latter case, for example, an undiagnosed mood disorder can put tremendous strain on a marriage and the affected person’s spouse. The situation then feeds upon itself, often masking its origin.

    Most importantly, having an understanding of why you are unhappy will give direction and purpose to your remedy.

  1. Does your spouse know why you’re unhappy?

    Doing your own work to understand your unhappiness is essential if you expect your spouse to understand and be compassionate. No one gets a free pass on the expectation that his/her spouse is a mind-reader.

    The two of you inevitably feed off one another’s energy. So holding things in will draw either a parallel response or an opposite response. But neither will facilitate the happiness for which you long.

  1. Is your spouse unhappy, too?

    Chances are, if you’ve been in an unhappy marriage for years, your spouse has been unhappy, too. Whether one of you is depressed and the other is feeling the effects or your communication is unhealthy, marriage isn’t lived in isolation.

    If you want to save your marriage, you have to care about your spouse’s emotions as much as you do your own.

  1. Do you have children living at home?

    Just as your emotions affect your spouse, they also affect your children. If your unhappiness has you asking, “Is my marriage worth saving?” your children will necessarily be a big consideration.

    Whether you stay in your marriage or leave, you have difficult work ahead of you. And sometimes children are the sobering factor that makes the decision for you.

  1. Have you worked on changing yourself?

    Unless you’re content to just throw in the towel on your marriage, your first step needs to be in the direction of a mirror. Nothing in your life is going to change until you change.

    That doesn’t mean that you’re the cause of all the unhappiness in your marriage. It simply means that your life and your perception of happiness aren’t going to change until you change.

    Even if all you did was change your expectations of your spouse, for example, you will have redirected your criteria for happiness.

    No matter what direction your marriage takes, you will always be responsible for yourself. By diving deep into your own emotions and issues, you will be in a healthier place to embrace those of your spouse.

  1. What do you really want?

    When you’ve “existed” in an unhappy marriage for years, you may have lost any sense of what you want. Time loses relevance. Dreams lose their passion. And “happy” doesn’t even have a definition in your dictionary.

    If you knew that your marriage could be saved – even if you didn’t know how – would you want to save it? Do you still have a warm place in your heart for that couple that said “I do” once upon a time? Is the idea of remaining an intact family important to you? If you and your spouse still respect and admire one another underneath it all, do you want to build on that?

    Knowing that divorce isn’t the easy start-over you might wish for, is there a path to happiness within your marriage?

  1. How long are you willing to wait?

    You may have felt breathless when you first realized that you’ve been unhappy for many years. The idea that you have wasted valuable, irrevocable time can be a deafening blow.

    But now you have to consider another investment of time. The difference is that now you are living with awareness.

    The question is, are you willing to put in the time and effort, knowing that your spouse may not be on the same timeline?

    Only you can answer this. But, if you both have a genuine yearning to restore your marriage, you can, with help, learn to work as a team on behalf of it.

At the heart of intimacy is the ability to heal life’s wounds. But the vulnerability required for healing is shared with the ability to hurt. Marriage, therefore, has an equal potential for pain as it does for healing…an equal potential for unhappiness as for happiness.

Living in an unhappy marriage, let alone for years on end, is an unfortunate misuse, if not a waste, of intimacy. But, by its very nature, intimacy can be called into healing action again by the power of intention.

If you can be vulnerable enough with yourself regarding your unhappiness, you can help reawaken the vulnerability – and happiness – in your marriage.

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