Love doesn’t guarantee happiness. And an unhappy marriage doesn’t necessarily equate to an absence of love. (Strange the way reality can annihilate a good fairytale.) Contrary as it may seem, it is possible to have an unhappy marriage but still love your spouse.
The question, of course, is what to do when love and marital happiness don’t dwell in the same heart.
Trying to bring your happiness into balance with the steadfastness of your love isn’t a black-and-white, formulaic process. There are too many factors and nuances to consider for it to be that simple.
By the time you acknowledge feeling unhappy in your marriage, your relationship has probably been simmering on “get by” for some time.
And that’s not necessarily an indication of a doomed marriage. All long-term relationships, particularly marriages, go through stages.
Flutters may be fun and infatuating, but they’re not sustainable. At some point you have to return to normalcy and, as the saying goes, feed the children.
Knowing what to do when you have an unhappy marriage but still love your spouse is influenced as well by your spouse.
Does s/he feel unhappy but still love you? Are you both committed to your love but unsure of how to make it a source of happiness?
If and when you find yourself frozen between your unhappiness and love, you really have three choices.
You can continue as you are, deepening your discontent but standing by your vows and the love that brought you to your union.
You can surrender your love to the unhappiness and leave the relationship.
Or you can work to transform your unhappiness into happiness and a satisfaction that reflects the love that has never died.
If your unhappiness is not the consequence of abuse or unlivable conditions, and you both still love one another, you have a lot worth saving.
But where do you even start? If you’re unhappy in your marriage and don’t know why, how do you know what to work on?
First things first. And that means getting to the truth of your unhappiness.
Why are you unhappy? Why is your marriage unhappy?
Is your spouse unhappy, too?
And do either of you know what’s on the other one’s heart?
In the 1950’s, Toyota devised a method of problem-solving called “The 5 Whys.”
It may have uncovered the root problem on assembly lines 60 years ago. But The 5 Whys can be used to uncover all kinds of root problems, including relationship problems.
The process is conceptually simple. You start by asking “why” a problem is happening. And you continue asking “why” for each subsequent answer until you have gone through the question-and-answer five times.
How can this help you when you’re in an unhappy marriage but still love one another?
Here’s an example:
Why are we unhappy in our marriage?
Because we’ve grown apart.
Why have we grown apart?
Because we never talk anymore.
Why do we never talk anymore?
Because we’re so busy and tired.
Why are we so busy and tired?
Because we work all the time.
Why do we work all the time?
So we can afford the things that will make us happy.
By taking a “What’s under that?” approach, you can methodically and specifically chisel away at the big issue. Eventually you will have an “aha” moment that reveals, layers deep, the source or sources of your unhappiness.
In the example above, the couple might come to realize that what they thought would make them happy is actually costing them their happiness.
And, if they were to dig a little deeper, they might come to a loving, longing kernel of truth: “I miss US!”
“Unhappy” is a pretty broad moniker for a potentially large set of feelings. And, if you’re not careful, it could easily become a license for blaming your spouse or assuming you’re in a bad marriage.
During our private marriage retreats, for example, we carefully, compassionately, and thoroughly examine the discontent that spouses bring to the weekend.
And you know one of the most common reasons that’s buried under that dangerous, broad-scoped word “unhappy”?
It is incredibly easy, even natural, to believe you know all there is to know about someone you have been with for years. “His favorite food is…she always wants…we always vote ‘this’ way…he thinks…she thinks…I’ve heard that story a gazillion times….”
And therein lies the danger to an otherwise great marriage.
Getting to know someone in detail is how you establish and grow in intimacy.
But assuming those details never change and therefore need to be learned only once is short-sighted. It boxes in your spouse (who also boxes in you), and it limits the growth of your marriage.
So, once you have gained insight into the root of your unhappiness, it’s time to do something about it.
It’s time to get to know one another again — to see one another with fresh, curious, inquisitive eyes.
The beauty and benefit of doing that after years of marriage is that you can experience “newness” in the context of foundational familiarity. You can use your love and commitment to venture forth with new questions and discoveries.
You might be surprised to learn that your Europe-fantasizing spouse now really wants to go on an African safari. Or that your partner who has always gravitated toward traditional styles is aching to splash your home with bright colors and a touch of modern.
More importantly, you may come to learn that what once made your partner feel loved and valued has changed over the years. Here you have been doing what you have always done, but it hasn’t had the same effect it had in the beginning.
Now you will be armed with new information and a fresh perspective. You will come to realize the obvious: that you have both been evolving — little by little, experience by experience.
And you will realize that, not only is there much to discover and discuss, but there is much for which to be happy.
If you have an unhappy marriage but still love your spouse, you have a remarkable opportunity for exponential, life-changing growth in your relationship.
Your willingness to listen with your heart, to forgive, and to accept personal responsibility can revitalize your marriage.
And simply restoring it to its place of priority can quickly reverse the answers to your five questions.
“Why are we happy in our marriage? Because we put it first.”
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, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.