Can you fix an unhappy marriage? Yes, you can.

Can You Fix An Unhappy Marriage? Yes, And Here’s How

How can you fix an unhappy marriage if you don’t even feel any happiness worth fighting for?

Unfortunately, most couples wait too long before getting help — an average of six years according to marriage expert John Gottman. By the time many couples find their way onto the therapist’s couch, they have already made up their minds — even secretly — to divorce.

Commitment matters

But there are those couples — and sometimes even just “half” of those couples — who are committed to staying in their marriages. They haven’t fallen out of love, but rather, they grapple with the question if and how they can repair their marital problems.

The answer to the question that leaves people feeling helpless, “Can you save an unhappy marriage?” is a definite but measured yes. Marriage recovery takes commitment and diligence and has its highest chance if both partners are equally committed, despite their current unhappiness.

But what if only one partner is determined to save the marriage? What if the other partner sees the crescendo of discontent as a sign of finality?

According to divorce mediator Joe Dillon, mediation isn’t even possible if both spouses aren’t on the same page about divorcing.

Love alone might not be enough

What he came to realize is that many of his call-and-disappear “clients” are more flummoxed about how to save their marriages. Because their unhappiness clouds their vision but doesn’t necessarily erode their love, they assume they have no choice but to divorce. They start to believe that love doesn’t always translate into happiness.

In other words, while they once believed love would prevail, these in-love couples feel confused and hopeless when they conclude that love just isn’t enough. Of course, the despair often comes from a lack of awareness about the reality of marriage and education about strategies to turn around marital unhappiness.

Saving an unhappy marriage teeters on the balance beam of awareness as much as it relies on the strength of a couple’s love or resolve to save their marriage. And that may be where the element of timing can be either precarious or redemptive.

Signs you need help

Gottman discovered four markers of relationship failure. Their 93% predictive accuracy has made them a staple of marriage counseling and earned them a portentous moniker. The four horsemen of relationships, according to Gottman, are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. And they are not so removed from the foreboding Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

So, “Can you save an unhappy marriage?” Again, the answer is yes. If you’re committed to the effort, you will have to prepare your mind and heart for the work ahead. Because it will be a lot of hard work.  You will need to step up and be persistent and consistent, every day. During the process, it’ll help to keep your eye on the prize – a happy, stable marriage capable of withstanding the test of time – and believe in your love to pull you through. 

Can you save an unhappy marriage? If ‘yes’ is your goal, then concentrate your efforts on the following tips.

Recognize that love changes over time.

If you are in the majority of couples who pledge eternal commitment while still basking in romance, you may feel blindsided when the fairy dust fizzles, and power struggles sneak in. Moving out of infatuation to more realistic stages is a natural, even healthy part of relationships. You’ll navigate the bumps more smoothly with common sense, patience, and by talking through your problems.

Ideally, premarital counseling would prepare you by spotting potential pitfalls and teaching conflict-resolution skills. But if like most people you are a few or decidedly more years into your marriage and wondering how your grandparents lasted through wars, famine and more children than dollars, it doesn’t mean you are destined for an unhappy life.

Love changes over time. And your response to that change will determine if love evolves or erodes.

Resume a “best friends” mindset.

Marriage recovery requires putting your spouse first. Remember that you were — and are — best friends.

Even if you don’t feel that way at the moment, posturing yourself with that mindset and “practicing” its thoughts, words and behaviors will restore and fortify that feeling over time.

It’s a commitment, to be sure. It may even feel unnatural, especially if one or more of those four horsemen has already entered the corral.

Lead with personal accountability and responsibility.

Every relationship is a reflection of two lives (and the lives that have influenced them). People choose each other for reasons they often don’t fully understand. Joined together they do their best to navigate through life without having a sturdy roadmap or learning skills that are critical for relationship success. 

No one partner is fully accountable for the success or failure of a relationship, so blaming is a waste of energy, time, and potential recovery.

Ask yourself, “How am I responsible?” Get into the practice of taking this inward look when even the small scuffles arise, as the significant conflicts are always an accumulation of untended fender-benders. Recognize your contribution, identify and name it, and take action to correct it.

Especially where trust is an issue, the only way to rebuild it is to intentionally and consistently prove your trustworthiness through personal accountability and responsibility.

Work on yourself. 

Even if both of you are committed to saving your marriage, you may progress at different paces and in different ways. When you don’t have those “magic chemicals” bathing your brains and telling you the other person is “perfectly imperfect…and maybe just perfect,” self-focus can be challenging. You will naturally be tempted to point out what the other person is or isn’t doing while you are doing your part to save your marriage.

The constancy of your work has to be on cleaning up your side of the street, no matter what your partner does. It involves keeping the focus on yourself, instead of pointing your finger at your spouse. The guaranteed win then becomes your own maturation through insight, wisdom, self-control, and tenacity in your commitment. Your partner will be a witness — even if silent — to your efforts and changes.

In the long run, you will have given your marriage a much higher chance of survival. And no matter what, you will be improving yourself – a win-win.

Re-learn how to communicate 

Can you fix an unhappy marriage? That depends in large part on whether you are willing to improve your communication. Everything comes down to communication — even how you talk yourself. Who hasn’t engaged in negative self-talk?

No one goes on a first date and says, “Let’s start off with a conflict and see how we do resolving it.”

But conflict inevitably arises, and after the honeymoon phase has long passed, people get more inclined to dig in their heels and want their own way. Listening can turn superficial, sarcasm at the ready, and the willingness to be compassionately present to a partner’s reality can diminish over time. Sometimes it was never there, to begin with.

Learn and practice how to listen effectively — to both your spouse and yourself. A marriage/relationship therapist can give you invaluable skills for how to communicate feelings without blame and how to listen with your heart.

Central to the practice of healthy communication is self-containment, as well as a feeling of love and respect for the person sitting across from you trying to share his/her reality.

Love and praise specifically.

Think about how easy it is to criticize. Most of us can do it down to the final shame-slinging detail. Negative emotions and responses like defensiveness and contempt result from a spouse feeling judged, unappreciated, and taken for granted.

Now think about how you dole out praise.  Are you stingy with compliments? Are they generalized? Sporadic? Making a personal commitment to reverse those tendencies will work wonders for the feeling content of your marriage.

Look for opportunities to praise and thank your spouse. Positive affirmation will help dull the edge that starts to sharpen as happiness wanes. Acknowledging your spouse for the seemingly small things, where most people feel unrecognized, will go a long way to diffuse negativity. “I really appreciate the extra time you take to fold my clothes the way you know I like them” does more for shaping behavior and warming a heart than “Great! You did the laundry.”

Bring in the experts.

It’s ironic that most of us value the merits of education, especially as it relates to a profession, but run out of the classroom when it involves personal growth. “I don’t need therapy!” is an all-too-common way of backing out of relationship work.

Sometimes it’s fear of being vulnerable or held accountable. Sometimes it’s a misguided fear of appearing weak (especially for men). Many people harbor misconceptions about therapy or see it as proof of relationship failure. But an experienced marriage/relationship therapist can be an ideal adjunct to work that, by its very nature, can get heated and off-track.

If you knew how to “fix” your relationship issues on your own, wouldn’t you have done so by now? If you had all the necessary skills for healthy communication, would you be name-calling, blaming, and avoiding one another? Instead of waiting those six years, why not stay ahead of the curve and fortify your marriage with an education in what truly matters most?

All relationships have natural ebbs and flows. It takes little more than lack of attention, however, to shift that rhythm toward permanent loss of what was supposed to last forever.

Fixing an unhappy marriage and finding happiness again is possible. But if you are still wondering, “Can you save your unhappy marriage?” you may need to dig deep and answer another question first. This question is: Is saving your marriage important to you?

If your answer to that question is yes, and you’re ready to explore how to fix an unhappy marriage, reach out for a complimentary call. We’ve helped many couples fix an unhappy marriage and move forward to a better life together.


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