Unhappily married: going through a rough patch or is it over?
Are you feeling unhappily married? Do you find yourselves going through a rough patch all too frequently? Are you wondering: is this a rough patch or is it over?
You’re not alone. Lots of people go through this. Nobody wants to be a statistic, but you are anyway: whichever option you choose, you’ll be – you are – a statistic of one sort or another.
You feel mixed about it.
On the one hand, you remember the good times. You know what you like(d) about them. You’ve got an idea of what you’d like it to be like.
On the other hand, there aren’t that many good times any more. You don’t feel close to them. If you’re really honest with yourself, you’re not feeling ‘it’ any more, and you’re wondering how much longer you can carry on in an unhappy marriage.
This article is a thorough – but incomplete – list of questions to help you see what’s going on. Lenses, if you like, to look through at your relationship, your partner, yourself, your kids.
From there, figure out what – if anything – you’d like to do about it.
I’m not going to tell you what to do.
I’m giving you questions to reflect upon. Find your own answers – or part answers – to these questions.
When you see things for yourself, clearly, the track ahead of you opens up.
Like a train waiting for a signal at the junction, you’re sitting, waiting to be told what to do.
But unless your partner goes to the signal box first, you’re going to have to choose for yourself.
Your partner might be the one stalling at the signals. That probably means they want the other track, not the one you’re aiming for. They may or may not be consciously aware that they want the other track – or they might not feel brave or certain enough yet to tell you. Share this article with them ;-)
How do you make up your mind which track to choose? At what point can you say with a clear mind, wholeheartedly, having given all other options a decent try: I want THIS track?
Hanging in indecision isn’t comfortable. The points on the track need to line up with one track or the other. Sitting in the middle leads only to derailment – or staying put.
Growth-oriented humans aren’t generally comfortable with staying put. It builds to a gentle pressure, then a firm one, uncomfortable but with an increasing urgency to act. Push the feelings down, if you like, but they come back with a vengeance. Or they pop out sideways into resentment, distraction or addiction habits, a roving eye, hands, or other body parts.
You might already know your answer, but you can’t yet back it up with a coherent explanation.
Is it over?
You keep asking yourself the same question “is this over?”
You give yourself the same answer each time, but you keep coming back to the original question like an unbearable itch you have to scratch.
You find it hard to trust your feelings. You talk yourself out of them. But the same feelings keep coming back, prompting the same questioning.
When you find the answer, the actual answer, and can back it up with reasons that satisfy your mind, the itch calms.
At this point, it doesn’t feel like ‘making a decision.’ It feels as though the decision is already made, waiting for you to recognise it.
Once you recognise your decision and feel clear about it, you can throw that signal lever and plough on down your chosen track.
Sometimes, the signal is thrown for you. Your partner crosses a red line. You cross one of their red lines.
It’s clear: the marriage is over.
But when it’s a gradual decline, a slow fade, a pile of embers glowing colder, how do you draw that line for yourself?
This article gives you questions to ask yourself in an unhappy marriage – perhaps questions to ask your partner – as a way of getting clear on these three questions:
- What’s the current state/historic progression of play?
- What’s the desired state/progression of play?
- Given who you both are, how you interact, your current personal growth trajectories, and what you individually want / don’t want: is it possible?
Put simply: where are you now, what track do you want to follow, and is that possible from here?
The more clearly you see things, the easier it is to discern the path forward, the easier to choose and throw the signal, if you need to.
Or stay sitting on the points. It’s really up to you.
What are you convincing yourself about?
You probably have thoughts that help you to ignore the reality of the situation. We all do this.
We distract ourselves with half-true thoughts that paper over the cracks, but never fill them.
These thoughts block us. They stop up seeing what’s really going on. They help us deny or hide what we’re feeling.
Which ones do you cover up the cracks with?
- They’ll come round, eventually.
- They love me/the kids really.
- I love them/the kids really, I’m just not feeling it (and haven’t for a while, if I’m honest).
- They do care for me/the kids, they just have a hard time showing it.
- It’ll get better when/after…
- It’s just a rough patch (check the stats: how’s the good patch:bad patch ratio looking?)
- We’ve just been busy with …. it’ll get better…
- They’re not great at… but they’ll come round / I don’t really mind / I can live with it.
- I’m not great at… but we’ve got this so far so it’s probably fine to carry on as I am (even though I know they don’t like it, have asked me to sort it out).
- I/They just need to…
- They’re just struggling with…
Convincing ourselves that ‘it’s ok really, it’ll pass’ is a clear sign you’re not comfortable to actually LOOK at the situation you’re in.
Sometimes, you just have to pull your brave boots on and wade on through.
You might not be in a place where you’re ready to do that yet. That’s ok. Sometimes we need to build up a head of steam and get traction before we can move. Focus on yourself, look after you, and come back to these questions when you’re ready for them.
But when you see these thoughts as the bad wallpaper over a structural failure, you know you need to rip them off and look at the actual underlying problem, not just apply fresh paper or paint to the cracks.
Are you in an abusive relationship?
Let’s check and hopefully rule out the obvious problem, first.
The opposite of abuse is respect. So:
- Is your partner caring towards you in what they do and say? They might claim “I care about you” but their actions are uncaring, unkind, or outright cruel.
- Are they respectful? In what they do and say? In how they do things and say things to you and about you?
As it’s always good to look in the mirror, some questions about you, too:
- Are you caring towards your partner?
- Are you respectful of them, of who they are, what they do, and what they need?
Uncaring, unkind behaviour, disrespectful behaviour and ways of talking, eat away at trust and safety.
While physical violence is the most obvious form of abuse, mental, financial and emotional abuse all damage partners and children.
Emotional Neglect – persistent non-attending to the emotional experience and needs of a human – is also incredibly hurtful and damaging to both adults and children. Dr Jonice Webb has some great resources for recognising and recovering from Emotional Neglect.
If you constantly feel on edge around your partner, it’s worth checking in with yourself about what kind of behaviour you experience from them – and whether that’s behaviour you want to continue accepting.
If you’ve lost intimacy with your partner and you’re in – or heading towards – a sexless marriage, check in on safety. Do you feel safe with them? Do they feel safe with you? Are you safe people for each other?
Intimacy requires safety. Whether physical, sexual, emotional, or mental intimacy, you need a basic level of safety and trust between you as a foundation for intimacy. When you feel safe, you can be intimate.
For more on safety, and how to access more of it, more of the time, Jacob Ernst has some fab resources on Routes to Safety.
When you don’t feel safe, you might still go through the motions of being intimate, but part of you is not involved. You hold back, on your guard, or dissociate.
If your partner is abusive, it’s up to them to change that.
Contrary to popular belief, although abusive behaviour is often done by people who’ve been through their own trauma, abusive behaviour isn’t stopped by sorting out their emotional health.
Abusive behaviour is rooted in beliefs that treating a partner badly is ok.
If your partner is abusive, ask yourself:
Do you want to be in a relationship with someone who believes it’s ok to harm you?
Lundy Bancroft’s “Why Does He Do That?” is an excellent, sobering read.
When a person is abusive, they put themselves outside of a ‘safe, secure relationship.’ They break the relationship by abusing you. They break the family by abusing you and/or your children. Divorce doesn’t break up a family – abuse does.
If you or they don’t – or won’t – stop the abuse, you risk following the usual painful trajectory of abusive relationships, or you get out and give yourself a chance to repair the damage and move on with your life.
If you recognise abuse in your behaviour, or in your partner’s behaviour, you can stop reading this article right here. You can’t fix an unhappy relationship with ongoing active abuse in it. You – or your partner – need to address and stop the abuse.
Why am I unhappily married?
Assuming that your relationship isn’t abusive, here are a few pointers to find the root(s) of the unhappiness in your unhappy marriage.
What kind of unhappy feelings have you got?
By looking at how you’re feeling, you can work out what you’re missing.
Feeling trapped in your marriage or partnership – looking for expansion, new experiences, assuming that you can’t change or leave it
Feeling stuck in your marriage or partnership – looking for growth, novelty, movement, action
Feeling uncared-for – looking for affection, kindness, care, concern, interest (does this fit an Emotional Neglect pattern?)
Feeling lonely – looking for connection, warmth
Feeling shut out – looking for inclusion, connection, shared activities, warmth
Feeling resentment – looking for fairness, balance, reciprocity
Feeling bored – looking for stimulation
Feeling ignored, unnoticed, or invisible – looking for recognition, acknowledgement, attention
Feeling unappreciated or taken for granted – looking for recognition, appreciation, connection, effort
Feeling distant – looking for connection and closeness – or you might already be withdrawing, readying for departure
Feeling overloaded – looking to re-apportion shared responsibilities
Whatever your type of unhappiness, you are likely to have unmet needs, wishes and longings in your relationship.
The questions and pointers in this article are intended to help you navigate your way towards knowing what you need, want and long for in a relationship, and then seeing how well you can find that with your current partner, and vice versa.
Let’s be honest here: some relationships do have a story arc that ends before death. You and your partner drift apart. One of you outgrows the other. Your priorities change. It happens. When it happens, how much does it matter to you?
Are you happy-enough, content-enough to stay in the status quo? Is the status quo static, or are you making a gradual descent into an unbearable situation?
How high are your discomfort levels – and how high do they need to be before you take action?
You can only swim when the water is deep enough. How deep does the floodwater in your relationship need to be?
You might be looking for the red line. The line that, once crossed, indicates “The End.” A severe-enough transgression. A total stepping out of order.
But what if it doesn’t come?
What if it’s a gradual slide of decay and decline?
Are you actually looking at a fuel gauge and the needle is firmly in the red? Do you pull off the highway and sort it out sooner? Do you wait til the red light comes on and the car conks out, leaving you stranded?
There are no right answers – there are only the answers that are right for you.
What do you long for? What’s missing?
Humans have needs, wants, wishes, desires, longings… Whatever you call them, we all have them. What yours are will be unique to you – though most humans share the same categories of needs, each human has a particular portfolio that fits them uniquely.
Not every partner will be able to meet every need, want, wish, desire, longing etc. of yours – and nor should they. Statistically, it’s just unlikely. You may need to broaden out your friendship circle – see this article on being Intelligent but lonely for more.
Every person has their own profile of what they consider
- Preferably not
- Absolutely not
in a relationship.
Start with yourself: look at what you would like, what you absolutely do not want, and everything in between.
Typically, we are about 3 years out of date with ourselves – sometimes much longer than that. Update your book of You.
Do as thorough a job as you need, and think through what you want with regard to:
- Physical: affection, intimacy, sex, solo & shared hobbies, your living space(s), how much time you spend together, how much time you spend apart; food, drink & substance habits
- Emotional: depth & breadth of emotional rapport, empathy, understanding, care, concern and kindness, respect and appreciation
- Intellectual: conversation types, shared interests, sharing different interests, supporting one another’s endeavours, acknowledging each other’s strengths and accommodating weaker points
- Social: broader social circles, close friendships, the web of extended family relationship, social activities – types and frequency
You can include qualities such as: fun, playfulness, seriousness, intensity, challenge, depth, integrity, honesty…
Go off piste and add in whatever’s important to you.
Now look at your relationship with your partner through this lens. Is the connection you have with your partner the kind you’d like to have with them?
Is your partner the kind of person who’d like to have that kind of connection with you?
Where you see the mismatches, can you get to what you’d like from where you are? Would they like to do that?
What do you need to help you get there?
Sometimes, admittedly, it’s not a lack of willing. It’s a non-possibility.
Highly sensitive people, highly gifted people have a depth to them that non-highly sensitive, non-highly-gifted people can’t do. If you’re highly sensitive, highly gifted and your partner isn’t – is this a fundamental and unfixable issue in your relationship?
“If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”
Are you compatible?
Trains run on parallel tracks. At times, further apart. At times, closer together. But when the tracks diverge, one train has to divert to stay together, or they head off in different directions.
Yes, you and your partner are now, metaphorically speaking for the purposes of this section of track, two trains, not one. All aboard!
What’s your gameplan? What’s your partner’s? How long do your tracks align for?
What’re your assumptions about the story arc? Do you have a mental model of til-death-do-us-part? What are your beliefs about marriage? About divorce?
Are you doomed to be unhappily married til the end? What dreams and aspirations do you have for yourself? For you and your partner together?
It’s worth pointing out the obvious:
Your marriage will, by default, be over one day.
Whether you or your partner choose to divorce, or they die before you do. If you die before they do, the marriage is over but you’re not around to find out what happens next…
What do you want to be doing in the next year? Five years? Ten years? Retirement? Individually? Together?
What are your priorities? What are your partner’s? How well do your priorities fit together?
When you’re both focused on a shared goal, be it an objective, vision, set of principles or something else, you inevitably move closer together. Also true that nothing brings people together like a common enemy.
What’s the pecking order for you and your partner when it comes to childcare, rest time, time together, time alone, leisure, hobbies and sports time, working hours, household running and upkeep?
How often do you prioritise yourself: what you want and need? How often do you prioritise your partner, what they want and need? How balanced does this feel to you? To them?
Is it workable?
Financial attitudes: how do you share or keep your finances separate? What do you spend money on? What won’t you spend money on? What are your habits? Theirs?
What’s your comfort zone? What do you like to do? How – and how often? Where are your limits? Prerequisites?
What does your partner want?
What do you do if it’s not enough for you? Are you drifting towards a sexless marriage – and is that a problem for you? Do you have sex but it only feels physical – the intimacy and connection isn’t there?
How do you live, day to day? Routine? Structure? Habits? Cleanliness? Tidiness? Activities?
How much time do you spend together? Alone? With other people?
Are your circumstances getting in the way – or are you hiding from your partner in your work, hobbies, housework, or elsewhere?
Parenting is a shared endeavour. How you approach that individually and as a team matters.
Are you a team? What kind of team?
Are you co-pilots? You can both do everything, you organise your piloting/parenting around one another, together and taking shifts so you both get parenting, working, rest and leisure time.
Are you in manager and crew roles? Does one of you take the lead, manage and organise everything, and the other one of you is the crew, following the instructions? Is that what you both want?
Do you have compatible ideas about how to raise your kids? From day-to-day family management, to longer terms goals and plans?
In the early years, there’s a massive adjustment shock. You both lose sleep, leisure time, rest time, social time. How do/did you balance it between you? How’s that working for you?
Is one of you getting a better deal, at the other’s expense? Do you care? Do they?
How well do you fit?
When you draw the Venn diagrams for you and your partner, what’s there? How do your worlds come together? What’s in the overlap? What’s not?
How big is the overlap – and is that enough for you?
What’s your preferred level of overlap? Your partner’s?
Are they interested in and respectful of the parts of your world that don’t overlap with theirs?
Have you drifted apart? Are you genuinely interested in re-engaging in their world? Are they interested in yours?
How people change
People change: at different rates, in different directions, with different experiences.
What are your attitudes towards personal growth and development?
Fixed mindset people tend to become more fixed as they travel through life. Less inclined to experiment. Unwilling to grow. Sticking to well-trodden paths.
Growth mindset people allow themselves to grow, their ideas to evolve, deepen and change. Their experience base widens.
Does this fixed/growth difference exist between you and your partner? Is one of you staying put, while the other expands, explores and grows?
Do you feel constricted (deliberately or accidentally) by your partner?
Most people, if not everyone, have unresolved issues floating around in their psyches. Sometimes insignificant. Sometimes highly significant.
- Growing up in a dysfunctional family
- Growing up with emotional neglect
- Previous traumatic experiences that are stuck in your system as PTSD or cPTSD
- Previous abusive relationships
- Abuse in your current relationship
- Unresolved griefs: your own parents separated, loss of a parent, close friend, pregnancy, child, former partner…
- Chronic stress from work
- Caretaking responsibilities outside the family
In a relationship, in an unhappy marriage, chances are one or both of you have issues going on under the surface that aren’t helping.
There’s no guarantee that fixing the underlying issues for each of you would bring you closer together. In fact, fixing the issues sometimes makes it clearer that separation is not only necessary, but the healthier option for you both.
There’s no obligation on you to sort your stuff out. No obligation to sort your marriage out, either. It’s up to you if you want it or not.
I help clients let go of emotional baggage. To read more, have a look at 1:1 consultations with me.
Here are a few of the typical issues in a marriage that get in the way of your connection:
Have you got unresolved ‘stuff’ together?
Do you resolve your conflicts with one another?
Do you avoid discussions to keep the (artificial) peace?
Are you acting out of alignment with your integrity? Your values? Is your partner?
If you’ve been putting up with stuff, you’re in tolerance-mode. Is your tolerance kindly and accepting? Or is your tolerance reluctant, resentful, and risking running towards hatred if left unchecked?
Unresolved stuff sits between you, silently taking up space that could be filled with authentic connection, keeping you unhappily married.
Counselling – individually and together – can help.
But: if you don’t go into the stuff that matters with your counsellor, it won’t work. When you take the car to the garage for repairs, you have to open the bonnet and let them have a good look everywhere. Same applies here.
Have you grieved the roads you didn’t take?
Do you have lingering regrets about not being single any more? About choices you made based on what your partner wanted to do, that you went along with? Guilt about them giving up some of their options to follow you? Have you started looking up any of your exes, or reconnecting with them?
Try finishing this sentence starting in as many different ways as you can:
- If it weren’t for my partner, I would be… I would have…
Identifying the experiences you’ve turned down can help shift feelings of grief, resentment, guilt and more, all of which get in the way of your connection with your partner.
Have you lost yourself in your relationship/parenting?
Have you forgotten who you are? What lights you up? What brings you alive?
It’s easy to slip into the role of ‘the good father’ or ‘the homemaking wife’ – but who are you when you’re not that role?
Forgetting who you are when you’re not being ‘a parent’ is part and parcel of empty nest syndrome: feeling totally disoriented when your adult kids leave home.
Yes, you’re a partner. You’re possibly a parent.
But first of all, you’re you. Have you forgotten that?
Has your partner changed – do you miss the old them?
Does your partner accept all of you?
Do you ever feel you need to tone down or hide parts of who you are? Do they outright reject parts of you – your hobbies, interests, talents, skills, qualities, habits, family, friends?
Do they cut you down to size (or try to)? Do you pre-emptively cut yourself down to size to avoid triggering their insecurities or the resultant sulking or anger that ensues?
If you compromise who you are to make yourself acceptable to them, your relationship is already compromised.
People are different from one another. It’s not necessarily the differences themselves that matter here – it’s how well you and your partner handle these differences.
For gifted and/or highly sensitive people with non-gifted or non-highly-sensitive partners, the differences can be quite pronounced. How gracefully do you handle the disparity? What about your partner?
If your partner wants you to compromise who you are, your relationship with them is already compromised. They don’t want to be married to you: they want a relationship with a compromised version of you.
If you’re compromising yourself, you’re not going to be happy.
Non-acknowledgement and the absence of appreciation hurt a person almost as badly as outright rejection.
Is that happening for you? For your partner?
Have you relied on external circumstances to keep you together?
When your relationship is held together by the people or activities around it – it’s easier to stay together. Like two narrowboats going along a canal, your connection with one another doesn’t need to be so strong.
You stay together as a matter of course. From time to time you wonder how, and you question your ‘connection’ with one another.
When your relationship is out on the open sea, however, your connection as individuals needs to be much stronger. There’s more scope for drift. Big waves push you together or apart. Storms, currents and tides all have their way with you both. Sometimes, you come together. Other times, the gulf widens.
Have your circumstances held you together? Pushed you apart? Is there a fundamentally strong connection between you, or has it waned with time? Was it ever there, or were you together because of circumstances that now no longer exist?
Staying together for the kids
It’s widely researched and agreed that for kids, the pecking order runs:
- Best case: safe & healthy family home with both parents
- Next best: separated parents. If only one household is safe & healthy, that’s enough
- Bad for the kids: family home with parents not getting on
- Totally worst case: abuse from one parent to another, or towards the kids, or both
If you’re looking at option 4: how much damage are you willing to sustain? To inflict? To allow your kids to be subjected to?
Perhaps the most difficult point is that choosing for option 1 runs the risk of option 3. Choosing option 2 rules out the possibility of option 1.
A question to bear in mind here is: given what I know of myself and my partner, is the first option likely?
If option 1 isn’t likely or possible, the second-best option becomes the best option by default.
How do you feel, reading this?
Staying together to have kids
The ticking clock keeps many people unhappily married. The fear of not meeting a partner before the clock runs out. Feeling guilty about leaving your partner because the clock is running out for them.
Splitting up and ruling out the chance of having kids through your own pregnancy – or leaving it so long your partner can’t bear kids – isn’t fun, for anyone.
If your partner is stalling on the points, neither choosing to have kids, nor choosing to close off that path, it’s tricky.
If you’re stalling on the points, not sure about committing to have kids or not, it’s tricky.
If you’re already unhappily married, how do you feel about bringing kids into an unhappy household?
Should I have an affair?
Your roving eye. Yes, that happens. Affairs are often the symptom of an unhappy marriage, not the cause.
This question brings into play your ethics, pragmatism, and a few other factors that, to be honest, deserve a whole article to themselves.
However, this does provide you with a useful battleground for a thought experiment.
If your ethics preclude an affair, yet your eyes are wandering, and you find yourself drawn to someone outside your partnership – and you haven’t agreed a poly / open relationship with your partner, or you’re contemplating having an affair – ask yourself these questions, as if you had to choose right now and stick with that answer:
- Would I rather be with my partner or the other person?
- Would I rather be with my partner or on my own?
If you find it hard to put yourself on the spot and answer questions like this, you might find it beneficial to work with a third party – a relationship counselor, coach, or me – to help you get a clear answer to your questions.
What are the options when you’re unhappily married?
There are always options. Choose the one(s) that fit you best – or don’t!
Sit on the points a while longer
Go on. I dare you ;-)
Waiting for your partner to decide? How long are you prepared to wait? How long have you waited already? What would it take for you to throw the lever? What are you afraid of?
You may need to sit in the discomfort longer to build up enough oomph to get you out of it. You’re on your own timetable – is it the one you want?
The together track
If you’re comfortable about staying together, but you’ve already been experiencing a lot of discomfort in your marriage, you may have your work cut out ahead of you.
If you identify signs of abuse in your marriage and you want to work on it, couples counselling is NOT recommended. Get support for yourself. Whoever is doing the abuse needs specialist support to help them stop. The odds of the abuse stopping, long-term, are slim.
Provided there’s no abuse in your marriage, enlist support from a professional. In the UK, for example, Relate do good work.
Work on your own stuff. Clear out the emotional baggage from previous relationships, childhood experiences, and other things stuffed to the back of the cupboard – find yourself someone who can help: me, for example.
Books and self-help videos are great – up to a point, that point being when there’s something in your blind spot and you need some expert eyes to help you see what’s there. You might also like to get support from someone to help speed things along.
The together-apart track
You might be really into each other, but living together drives one or both of you nuts. If you’re clear that this is what’s going on, living-apart-together is an option. Would you consider it? Can you make it work practically, financially, etc.?
Branching out on your own
When you’re clear that this part of your journey is over, you click the points into place and get ready to move forward on your chosen track.
Separation requires preparation, and negotiation, too.
There’s the legal and practicals to take care of, especially when kids are involved.
Your emotional world will have a few storms: brace yourself and go with the flow. Make yourself a safe haven for your kids.
You’ll have a lot to think about, and rethink, in terms of how you approach and engage with the world.
Socially, your shared web of connections will shift.
Energetically, you might find your dreamlife, energy connections, and energy affected by separation – even before you proceed.
It’ll challenge you. But you’ll grow through it – if you let yourself do that.
When a train terminates at a station, there’s a moment – even a long pause – before it becomes a new service.
Be you for a while, before you get hitched again!
I support people going through significant changes in their inner and outer lives. To find out more about my services, read here.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.
Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, neurodiversity training, mentoring & coaching for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.
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