are you in an unhappy marriage

Are You In An Unhappy Marriage?

If a confidential survey asked, “Are you in a happy marriage?” would you have an immediate answer? What if it asked, “Are you in an unhappy marriage?” Would you be able to answer “yes” or “no” confidently…and explain your answers?

Sometimes the middle ground sounds something like, “Sure, we’re happy….Well, we’re not unnnhappy….”

If you’re married and are given pause by this hypothetical, do you think you would know how to arrive at a confident answer? And do you think your spouse would have the same response to the questions “Are you in a happy marriage?” and “Are you in an unhappy marriage?”

Take a moment to consider your mindset when you and your spouse began dating, and then planning your wedding, honeymoon, and family. When you thought about your partner and your relationship, was there a subconscious backdrop of sunny skies, flowery fields, and sappy love songs?

And when you thought about yourself in the context of your relationship, did you feel energized, self-assured…even invincible?

Were you even aware of differences in values, personality traits, and communication styles? Did they matter or make you reconsider?

Or were you utterly amazed that the Universe had dropped at your doorstep the person who would complete your sentences (and maybe even you) for the rest of your life?

Fast-forward a stack of calendars into your marriage and ask the same questions. What’s your subconscious screensaver when you think about your marriage? Is it blue skies over a white-sand beach? Or you caught in a downpour with no umbrella?

If you were answering questions while under hypnosis, what would you hear yourself say in response to “Are you in an unhappy marriage?”

Knowing how to recognize the signs of what makes a good marriage or a bad marriage is the first step in the direction of marital happiness.

Are you in an unhappy marriage? Here’s how to know for sure.

  • Low self-esteem, chronic anxiety, or depression.

People in unhappy marriages are more prone to these negative emotional states and have a higher rate of illness.

Marriage may not necessarily be the cause of these conditions, but the presence of low self-esteem, chronic anxiety, or depression can create dissatisfaction in a marriage. Regardless of which comes first, the interplay between them is cause for concern and skillful handling if the goal is a satisfying and sustainable marriage.

  • Lack of intimacy and visible affection.

Physical intimacy distinguishes romantic relationships from all others. If you are no longer having sex, or if one of you feels rejected sexually, more profound issues are likely brewing under the surface. A couple’s sexual relationship often mirrors the quality of a couple’s emotional connection and relationship satisfaction.

Also, the lack of other signs of affection that connect happy couples often signals a level of disconnection.

Unless you both feel content in a marriage without sex or affection, your answer to the question, Are you in an unhappy marriage? is likely “yes.”

  • The annoyances are adding up.

Those little “oddities” that were once endearing (or at least tolerable) are now triggering emotional reactions like exasperation and disgust. Eating habits, personal appearance, housekeeping styles — everything gets noticed and runs through the filter of criticism.

When couples don’t deal with more significant and the “real” issues, they rear their ugly heads in unexpected ways. Remember, it wasn’t the visible mass of ice that was the Titanic’s demise. It was the unforgiving monolith under the water’s surface.

  • No one feels heard, and no one listens.

Listening is the most potent way to show love. When a partner listens, we feel valued and appreciated. Listening comes to some more easily than others. The good news: it is a skill that can be learned and improved with practice.

True listening requires a person to be fully present and free of distractions. It involves taking in not only the words, but the cadence, tone, facial expression, emotion, and body language.  Listening in this way is a generous act that calls on a person to put him/herself aside for the moment and try to step into the shoes of the speaker. When a person brings empathy and compassion to the table, the likelihood of successful communication is significantly enhanced.

Too often married people start to hear what they expect instead of the message conveyed. Or they are silently rehearsing what they’ll say when it’s their turn to speak. When talking goes on automatic pilot, the lifeblood of the relationship has stopped flowing.

  • You’ve stopped fighting.

The thought of fighting with a spouse often conjures a feeling of dread, especially for those who grew up in homes without good models of conflict resolution.

Contrary to popular belief, fights can lead to greater intimacy if the couple can talk through the problem in the fight’s aftermath and then repair the damage strategically. And that’s where communication skills like listening play a vital role.

Couples who don’t fight often withdraw which leads to emotional disconnection that can be more difficult to heal than the problems of couples that disagree often.

  • You’re replacing your partner.

Instead of meeting your relationship challenges with your spouse, you turn to friends to distract, vent and avoid.

  • The Four Horsemen come riding in.

    These big relationship destroyers can quickly help you answer the question, “Are you in an unhappy marriage?” They are the escalating signs of untended issues, and, if left unaddressed, become the great predictors of divorce.

    • criticism and blame
    • defensiveness and refusal to accept responsibility
    • contempt/sarcasm/superiority
    • stonewalling/emotional shutdown
  • Fantasizing about life without your spouse.

Imagining a happy life without your spouse is a form of psychological detachment. It essentially numbs you to your discontent and deprives the relationship of the emotional input necessary to fix the problem. Such fantasy escape is an early step to “sliding out painlessly.”

  • Emotional and physical affairs.

Technology has complicated the definition of “affair,” as it blurs a lot of lines that would otherwise define personal motive and accountability.

Thanks to cell phones, social media and a myriad of dating apps, emotional affairs can happen right at the dinner table.

Sexual infidelity takes more effort, of course, but is usually the offshoot of emotional affairs. In many cases, both speak to unmet and uncommunicated needs within the marriage. The presence of affairs often points to a “yes” answer to the question, “Are you in an unhappy marriage?”

  • Divergent lives.

You may have worldviews, values, dreams, and goals that conflict in significant ways. The life you imagined on your wedding day may no longer feel like it’s “happily ever after.” You no longer feel like a team rowing in the same direction. 

It may dawn on you that you may want very different things, and have strikingly different values and perspectives on important issues, and you haven’t broached the subject of your differences.

If you aren’t talking about your thoughts, hopes, and dreams along the way and reconciling your differences to benefit the marriage, then your separate trajectories will likely turn into diverging paths that no longer intersect. You could feel happy as an individual, but the answer to the question, “Are You In An Unhappy Marriage” is a likely “Yes,” unless, of course, the concept of living different lives fits in with your definition of marital happiness.

  • Abuse.

If there is verbal, emotional, sexual and/or physical abuse in a relationship, the question of “happiness” takes a back seat to the issue of safety. Let’s face it: The answer to the question, “Are You In An Unhappy Marriage?” is an unqualified “Yes.”

A victim of abuse is often so demoralized and emotionally depleted that s/he is too busy surviving to attend to conceptual marital happiness. This is where the help of professionals who specialize in domestic violence is needed.

There is never just “one” reason, one culprit, for the erosion of happiness in a marriage. The danger in not being aware of potential offenders, however, is that you can convince yourself of the normalcy of mediocrity.

Marriage, in its optimal form, can be a safe place for us to grow and evolve. We all have past experiences and issues in need of healing. In a marriage based on friendship, nurturing, tenderness, empathy, and compassion, we have a better shot at becoming our best selves, flaws and all. Together.

One of the key predictors that a couple will stay together is their ability to talk through their problems to a resolution that works for both people. Also key is understanding that there are times a couple can’t resolve conflict without the help of an objective professional to help them navigate the bumps.


If you find you keep having the same arguments repeatedly and feel frustrated, we have helped many couples talk through difficult issues that threatened to derail their marriage. We can help you too. Feel free to contact us for a free consultation. It might be the best call you ever made.


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