Woman laying on bed feeling depressed about her unhappy marriage.

Can You Save An Unhappy Marriage?

Can you save an unhappy marriage? 

You can forgo a lot of reading with this simple yes. 

Should you save an unhappy marriage?

Flip a coin, and you’ll find arguments (and merit) on both sides.

How do you save an unhappy marriage?

Here is where your reading begins.

I’ve written on this topic before, of course. And the heart of my message beats the same.

But today we’re going to focus on the possibility — even the probability — of saving an unhappy marriage.

It’s a nuance, of course, but an important one.

Why? Because, when you’re the one struggling, you want help that meets you down in the trenches. You don’t want a top 10-list poster of “just do’s” to tape to your bathroom mirror.

Somehow, when you feel validated at the core of your emotional experience, you can much more easily drop your guard and work toward a solution.

It’s as if the need to defend all that makes your situation uniquely unlivable softens because you have been heard and understood.

So let’s start there.

I see you. I hear you. I feel you. And I know that saving your unhappy marriage is going to ask of you a strength and determination you may not think you have.

And, when I answer “yes” to your question Can you save an unhappy marriage? my yes acknowledges the challenges involved.

It also acknowledges the remarkable fortitude you bring to the table. You wouldn’t even ask about the possibility of healing your marriage if you weren’t clinging to hope and a willingness to work.

And that, my reader, is the magic, irreplaceable component to the work ahead. Without it, there is no saving an unhappy marriage.

There would be no reason to.

The unfortunate reality for most couples stuck in chronic discontent is that they can’t see a way out.

There may be the tried-and-true, ongoing relationship fights that never get resolved.

There may also be a steady regression in attentiveness to the marriage — a slow boil that no one notices because it “just happens.”

Life gets in the way. Kids consume whatever energy they can get. And parents are often content to sneak away from their marital needs by focusing on other legitimized responsibilities like children and work.

The relationship that was once consecrated as indissoluble begins to fizzle.

Ironically, the love may still be there. But, if an inexplicable, seemingly unresolvable unhappiness is also there, couples often resign themselves to an assumed reality that love is not enough.

Sadly, what’s usually “not enough” are the communication skills being used to both create and resolve conflict.

On the flip side, even the way in which love and positivity are expressed (or not) can be problematic.

Do you or your spouse, for example, make assumptions about what the other knows or feels? Do you take one another for granted, forgetting (or neglecting) the little things that affirm a sense of being appreciated?

These things happen — sometimes because of what you’ve learned and sometimes because of what you’ve forgotten.

They also happen because you may have never known another way.

And, tragically, this is the point where many couples go from “Can you save an unhappy marriage?” to a resigning “no.”

It’s as if they have entered a corn-maze and can’t, for the life of them, find the exit. They go back and forth over territory they know is useless — too afraid, tired, or frustrated to risk a new strategy.

And yet, they know going in that there is a way out. And, if they had a map in their pockets, they would know exactly how to find it.

But, when they’re in the maze, all they see are walls closing in on them. And they all look the same. Frustration mounts, the madness builds, and the joy of navigating life’s challenges (or a corn-maze) together disappears.

All because they didn’t know how to find their way out.

It’s important, of course, to make an honest assessment of the source(s) of unhappiness.

Happy and unhappy are such broad and subjective terms. And even their commercialized interpretations can infiltrate your personal and relational expectations for happiness in your life.

Are you unhappy with your individual accomplishments or pursuits? Are you unhappy with your spouse’s behaviors? Your lifestyle? Your job? Your sex life?

Is there a chance that one of you suffers from an underlying depression that puts a gray cast over everything? Or that there are physical considerations like fatigue, sleep-deprivation, or an illness?

Are you unhappy because your life and marriage seem to be in a rut? Nothing is new or exciting? You’ve stopped dreaming new dreams? You’ve succumbed to the mundane without keeping it in check?

Are you unhappy because you and/or your spouse has unrealistic expectations of the other and your marriage?

Did one or both of you grow up in a family that didn’t model healthy communication?

While premarital counseling is an ideal way to set a couple up to succeed from the beginning of marriage, it’s not the norm. Most couples will decide to wing it on the assurances of love and intention alone. And they’ll add another six years from the onset of problems before getting help.

Saving an unhappy marriage has to start with the presumption that the marriage should be saved. Marriages that involve physical or emotional abuse, criminal behavior, active addictions, or financial misconduct, for example, may not be worth saving.

Also, if one partner wants to save the marriage but the other doesn’t, it may not be possible to save the marriage. (In this case, sometimes a structured separation — no contact, no visiting, no sex, no outside dating — can bring the marriage’s worth into focus.)

But, what if you both came to a marriage weekend retreat, even as “a last-ditch effort,” and asked again, “Can our unhappy marriage be saved?”

This is the expression of mutual commitment, tenderly wrapped in vulnerability and openness to learning, that can save your marriage.

The process is humbling. Absolutely. For every moment of finger-pointing, there is a long night of introspection. And self-accountability becomes the substitution for blame.

You save your unhappy marriage by remembering what genuine happiness felt like…and how you want it to feel.

You save it by going into the crevices of feelings, needs, and longings — your own and one another’s — together.

You save it by learning a new way of languaging your lives toward the goal of happiness and mutual satisfaction.

And you save it by learning to ask for directions — even in a corn-maze — before the sun goes down.

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, contact her here.

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