unhappy marriage relationship

8 Strategies You Can Use To Fix Your Unhappy Marriage Relationship

If you take your eye off the prize, the demands of daily life can hijack your happiness — and before you know it — you’re in an unhappy marriage relationship. 

Most often it happens without warning. The thrill of infatuation gives way to the regularity of daily routine. That is normal. But then gradually a combination of work, family obligations, children, finances and the ups-and-downs of daily life conspire to drain a relationship of its vitality. Before long you’re living in an unhappy marriage relationship.

Does an unhappy marriage relationship today mean it’s forever doomed and you need to resign yourself to divorce or suffer in silence?

The answer to this question is a qualified “no” — you have choices besides splitting up or grinning and bearing your unhappy marriage relationship. Of course, emotional and physical abuse are clear-cut grounds for divorce, but there are other more common causes of failed marriages.

All relationships go through stages.

Even the strongest marriages weather storms and endure periods of unhappiness and discontent. Researchers tell us that relationships go through five stages:  infatuation; power struggle; reflection and re-evaluation; transformation and commitment; and acceptance and reconciliation.

Knowing the current stage of your relationship can be enlightening. Early on it’s not unusual for couples to cling to the infatuation stage as the set point of what they expect in their relationship. They use this stage as a measuring rod for their marital satisfaction, even for years later, and wonder why they feel unhappy.

The power struggle stage is fraught with disharmony and thoughts of divorce. Some couples get stuck here. When the bloom comes off the rose, differences emerge that are often over-looked or ignored in the innocent days of new love.

Couples without good communication and conflict resolution skills can’t resolve these differences. Incomplete passage through the power struggle stage often results in couples splitting-up or cementing an unhappy relationship riddled with conflict. So it’s the best time to seek outside help before it’s too late.

Happy marriages are as happy as the people in them.

Over a lifetime people have happier periods than others, independent of their romantic relationship. Relationship happiness fluctuates too. A foundation built on positive relational characteristics helps during times of flux. Couples in long-lasting marriages tend to be more positive than negative, spend time talking at least 5 hours each week, share experiences together, and make time for physical intimacy.

A 2002 study found that two-thirds of adults in unhappy marriage relationships who stayed together were happy five years later. They also found that those who divorced were no happier, on average than those who stayed together. In other words, most people who are unhappily married—or cohabiting—end up happy if they stay at it.

So how do you shore up a shaky foundation and give your marriage enough heft to withstand the natural ebb and flow of relational happiness? 

  8 strategies you can use to fix an unhappy marriage relationship.

1.  Compare apples to apples.

The oft-quoted statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce means that at least 50% of marriages last. Recent studies tell us that a surprising number of people are still in love after 20 years of marriage. And long-term love offers comfort, stability, and contentment that new love lacks.

In fact, brain scans of people in happy long-term relationships show the same activation in areas associated with reward, motivation, and desire as those experiencing new love. Even better, long-term romantic love stimulates regions of the brain that quell anxiety and pain. A long-term marriage like a well-worn slipper offers a combination of happiness and calmness.

Evolve your thinking by updating your notions about marriage. Focus on the benefits of long-term marriage and don’t be fooled by the misconception that the roller coaster infatuation stage could ever last forever. For one thing, your nervous system would short out and not only because of the unpaid bills.

Naturally, if you’re feeling bored with your humdrum marriage because it lacks romance and excitement, the markers of the earlier smitten days won’t stack up well against a 20-year marriage with three kids under its belt. Many couples don’t see they’re using the wrong metrics, by comparing apples with oranges.

Don’t sell short the virtues of mature love and understand this crucial point: relationships go through stages, happiness fluctuates, and there’s nothing better than a sustained and loving relationship.

2.  Be hopeful.

When you’re in a bad place, you can’t imagine life getting better. But remember you felt the same in reverse when you were in love. You couldn’t imagine that things could ever go bad. Yet they did. Unhappiness is rarely permanent. Your marriage can and will get better.

3.  Be kind and generous (and expect the same in return).

Simple acts of kindness go a long way to create happiness in a relationship. Science says that lasting relationships come down to two things: kindness and generosity.

The dictionary defines kindness as the quality of being friendly, generous, helpful, caring, gentle, and considerate. Sounds easy enough, right? You’d think so until you spend enough time with couples in crisis where kindness is absent and contempt, criticism, and conflict prevail.

Here are some specific ways to display kindness in your relationship:

-Be attentive.

It’s easy to tell when a spouse needs some attention. Turning to them and offering attention is a display of kindness. Stop what you’re doing and focus on them. Compliment them, pat them on the back for a job well done, or sit close when they’ve had a bad day.

-Don’t criticize

Who better knows your faults and flaws than your partner? Berating your partner is an easy and deadly habit.

Criticism poisons and creates unhappy marriage relationships. For reasons not entirely known, some people confuse a marriage license with a license to berate and demean their partner.  They criticize everything from dishwasher loading capability to body fat ratios to chewing technique and bed-making skills.

It is an act of kindness to refrain from criticism, and instead focus on the good in your partner. You married him/her, right? It may be time to recall the reasons why you fell in love in the first place.

– Touch

Touching is the universal language of kindness. A gentle touch on the shoulder during a hard time or hug after a long day reminds us we are cared for.

Touch soothes tension, diffuses anger, and calms. Everyday touch like holding hands, giving unexpected kisses, or a tender look demonstrates your love and care for each other.

– Be quick to forgive.

To forgive is to be kind. It means letting go of grudges and being willing to reconcile after a fight because you choose to love your partner and you choose them over your anger.

All of us make mistakes. Chances are your partner already feels bad enough for their small transgressions and don’t need to be reminded of their occasional short-comings. No one wants to live with a warden.

Forgiveness means releasing your hold on your negative emotions to make room for positivity, the bread and butter of good relationships.

4.  Build goodwill.

Dr. John Gottman, world-renowned for his 40 years of breakthrough research of marital satisfaction, compares a relationship to an emotional bank account and offers a strategy for promoting positivity in relationships. 

The bank account represents the positive and negative balance in your relationship. Best couples maintain high balances while couples who break up are often in the red.

You make deposits when you show partner you care for or support them. You make withdrawals when you have a negative interaction. A negative interaction occurs when you criticize or demean your partner, have a short fuse, or you ignore or turn away from your partner when they try to engage you in positive interaction.

The simple takeaway: Do five nice things every day and recognize when your partner does them for you. Withdrawals and deposits don’t have equal weight. Thus, the 5:1 ratio. Save up the small daily deposits for when you need to cash in on your goodwill, after a negative interaction. 

 5.  Be a best friend.

Everyone wants a best friend. When a couple gets caught up in the roles they play in life and marriage, they can unwittingly trigger the negative cycle of an unhappy marriage relationship. Chances are you didn’t marry a breadwinner, cook, house cleaner, or a lawnmower. You married a person you felt close to who had qualities you found attractive.

Over the years they lose sight of the person behind the roles, and their complaints focus on a partner’s failure to keep the well-oiled machine at peak operation.

Research shows that couples that stay best friends are less likely to divorce despite marital problems. Unlike many unhappy spouses, people cut their best friends slack and give them the benefit of the doubt. You can count on your best friend to have your back, be loyal, listen, support you emotionally, help you out of a jam, offer a shoulder to cry on, be thoughtful, reliable and accept you as you are, despite and sometimes because of your flaws.

Can your partner count on you to do the same? Want to transform an unhappy marriage relationship? Start by treating your partner as you would your best friend.

6.  Promote the positive cycle of sex and physical affection.

Sex and daily physical affection play a powerful role in marital happiness. Researchers have found that physical intimacy is beneficial beyond its obvious physiological and hedonistic effects. Sex and physical affection also promote a positive and strong bond between couples. In other words, moments of love and affection beget sex and sex begets affection.

Decades of research support the notion that scheduling sex is a very good idea. Busy couples often put sex on their to-do-lists. Though some argue that scheduled sex reduces physical intimacy to chore status, others say it elevates sex to a priority item. Without setting aside the time, it just wouldn’t happen.

Rather than relegate sex to a priority lower than say, time at the gym, couples that schedule sex report sex happens more often. Also, planning can amplify pleasure through anticipation, tension, and excitement, often unforeseen benefits.

7.  Be grateful. 

Grateful couples are happy couples. Researchers in the field of positive psychology have discovered that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness and optimism. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, stay healthy, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. Simple acts of gratitude can transform an unhappy marriage relationship.

 Research by Sara Algoe and colleagues found that grateful couples feel more satisfied in their relationship and closer to each other. Moreover, grateful couples are more likely to stay in their relationships according to the research of Aime M. Gordon, Ph.D. a social-personality psychologist at the University of California. San Francisco.

— Thank your partner for something every day. It can be for completing a chore, for making you happy, for marrying you, or for their sense of humor or their generous spirit.

— Thank them and be grateful for what they do, and even more importantly, for who they are.

— Compliment, acknowledge, and affirm and you may be surprised you’re partner will do the same. People are hungry to be seen, heard, and know that they matter.

— Thank them for doing chores even if the chore is their job and you expect them to do it. The point is to show that you notice and appreciate them and the mundane tasks may even feel easier.

8.  Talk through your problems together.

Couples that stay together are often experts at hashing out their differences —and every couple has them— while remaining kind.  Couples in unhappy marriage relationships often sweep problems under the rug and ignore the elephant in the room. Stifling hurt, anger, and disappointment don’t work as an effective strategy in the long haul.  Rather it leads to angry outbursts, withdrawal, and bitter resentment, the very things that lead to unhappy marriage relationships.

Strong couples don’t let problems go unresolved. If they get stuck and can’t talk them through, they reach out for the help of an objective professional. They also learn and practice good communication and conflict resolution skills.


Don’t wait until it’s too late or too hard before you try to turn around your unhappy marriage relationship.  The longer negativity hangs around, the wider the chasm that results, and the harder it is to build a bridge.

Be proactive and start using these strategies and you’ll notice tiny shifts. Before you know it, you’ll slowly move out of your unhappy marriage relationship. Soon you’ll have joined the ranks of successful couples basking in the warmth and calm of a loving, lasting relationship.

 We help couples get unstuck and transform unhappy marriage relationships. We can help you transform yours too. Call us for a free consult to explore our marriage counseling retreat.

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