Lingering feelings of unhappiness in your marriage can add stress to your everyday life. Identifying and addressing those feelings may help improve your well-being — whether you stay or go.
Even people in the strongest, most well-matched unions may feel unhappy at some point. In fact, 2018 research suggests it’s common for happiness to decline in the initial years of marriage.
Potential causes for this decline in a long-term relationship include:
- mismatched sexual or emotional needs
- conflicting values
- a breakdown in communication
- trust issues
- differing parenting styles
- incompatibility in your personalities or lifestyles
Despite these difficulties, though, you might choose to stay in the partnership for a number of reasons.
For example, you may:
- have some concerns about divorce’s financial effects
- want to maintain a certain upbringing and lifestyle for your kids
- face pressure from your families to stay together
- fear being alone
What’s more, you may still love and care about your partner deeply, despite the challenges you’re currently facing. You might believe temporary unhappiness doesn’t automatically mean your relationship is damaged beyond repair and hold on to hope that things will get better.
In many partnerships, relationship quality does tend to improve for couples who stay together through a challenging period, though this can take some effort on both your parts.
Still, staying together isn’t the right option for everyone. Lasting unhappiness in your marriage can have a number of effects on your emotional and physical health, not to mention your overall quality of life.
Below, therapists offer insight into those consequences and guidance on how to move forward.
Here are some of the most common consequences of staying in an unhappy marriage, according to therapists.
1. Negative effects on your kids
You may believe remaining married will benefit your children, but “staying together for the kids” is far more likely to have a harmful impact on their development and well-being — especially if you can’t resolve conflict in a productive way.
- mental health symptoms, like anxiety and depression
- sleep problems
- academic challenges
- physical health concerns
- social and interpersonal difficulties
According to Leanna Stockard, a licensed marriage and family therapist at LifeStance Health, you may also unintentionally model problematic behavior to your children. For example, let’s say your children frequently observe you and your spouse yelling at each other or giving each other the silent treatment.
“This may impact their behavior in school, with friends, or even at home — and it may manifest itself in their future romantic relationships as they navigate through life,” Stockard says.
2. Increased stress
Prolonged stress can also cause changes in the structure of your brain that have a negative impact on your mental well-being.
Chronic stress can also affect your ability to sleep, says Kelly Neupert, a Chicago-based licensed psychotherapist in private practice. And though it might go without saying, a lack of quality sleep can
3. Increased conflict
Staying in an unhappy marriage may breed feelings of insecurity, resentment, or despair, Neupert says, which may then lead you and your partner to argue more frequently. More frequent conflict can increase those negative feelings, creating an emotionally draining cycle.
Getting stuck in this loop can decrease your overall quality of life, according to Neupert.
“Home might not feel like a comforting place anymore,” she says.
4. Decreased self-esteem
Low self-esteem can then play a part in unhelpful behaviors during conflict, like withdrawal or unwillingness to compromise. These patterns can take even more of a toll on self-esteem for you both.
If you feel less motivated to make changes in your life, you may be less likely to try to resolve relationship difficulties with your partner or decide to leave an unhealthy relationship.
Ultimately, this may diminish your quality of life and stifle your personal growth.
5. Less chance of finding happiness elsewhere
Staying with someone who is unable to meet your needs, unwilling to change, or simply incompatible with you can prevent you from finding a partner who’s a better fit.
Aside from the prospect of a more fulfilling romantic relationship, you may also miss out on the chance to pursue or nurture your passions.
Maybe you’ve always planned to travel the world, but your partner has no interest in joining you and doesn’t support you going alone. They say you shouldn’t want to leave them for so long, and your desire to travel has become a major point of tension in the relationship.
You know keeping your partner happy most likely means not fulfilling your dream. But you’re equally certain giving up on your goal will make you feel sad, regretful, and even resentful down the line.
How you handle an unhappy marriage largely depends on your specific circumstances.
If you and your partner are equally invested in making positive changes to improve the relationship, you may decide to explore ways to work through the rough patch together.
These strategies can get you started:
1. Talk about it
Stockard recommends starting with an open and honest conversation about what’s causing you to feel unhappy in the relationship. If you have trouble figuring out the root of the problems, Neupert suggests thinking back to the happiest time in your marriage. What was different then compared to now?
You might open the discussion by asking your partner how they feel about your relationship. Then, give them a chance to fully reply.
Borden recommends focusing on listening with empathy rather than judgment, and avoiding invalidating them by rolling your eyes or interrupting them, for example.
2. Get curious
Neupert emphasizes the importance of curiosity over criticism.
For example, if your partner says they don’t feel appreciated, your defensive instincts might prompt you to point out all the ways you show appreciation or why they shouldn’t feel that way.
But you’re more likely to have a productive conversation and reach a place of understanding if you can respond with something like:
- “That sounds like a terrible feeling. Can you share some specific times when you’ve felt unappreciated?”
- “I’m sorry you’ve been feeling that way. What would make you feel more appreciated?”
3. Highlight the positives
When it’s your turn to share, consider starting on a positive note by expressing some of the things you do value about your relationship before explaining what you feel is lacking.
Using “I” statements to express unmet needs can also help you avoid putting your partner on the defensive.
So, you might avoid saying something like:
“You never have time for me anymore. Why don’t you ever want to go on dates like we used to?”
And try instead:
“I love getting out of the house and doing things together, so I feel really disconnected from you when we can’t find the time for regular dates. Can we find a time that works for both of us to have a date night once a week?”
4. Make a commitment
It may also help to make specific commitments to each other so you know your expectations going forward, Neupert says.
Maybe you feel unhappy because you handle too many of the household responsibilities, and your partner feels unhappy because they’d like you to initiate sex more often.
These two issues may be interrelated: You both feel like you’re doing more work in one area of the relationship, which can cause resentment and leave you less motivated to meet each other’s needs.
As one potential solution, your partner might commit to performing specific household duties every week, and you might commit to making more effort to physically connect with them daily — even if it’s just giving them a spontaneous kiss, grabbing their hand, or giving them a hug.
5. Know when to move on
Not all partnerships last, and deciding to end your marriage doesn’t mean you’ve failed. People change over time, so you may no longer be compatible — and it’s OK to recognize this and move forward.
“As difficult as separation or divorce may be in the short term, in the long term, it may be more beneficial for everyone involved. This may give you, your children, and your partner an opportunity to create the lives you want,” Stockard says.
It could be time to consider parting ways if:
- you feel you have nothing left to give the relationship
- your partner abuses you or doesn’t treat you with respect
- they seem unwilling to compromise or work on improving your partnership
- you feel emotionally detached or indifferent toward your partner
- you’re concerned the dynamic in your relationship is damaging your kids’ well-being
You might fear the perception that getting a divorce means you’ve failed, Stockard says. Or, you might worry divorce will have negative effects on your children.
But Borden says it’s typically much better for kids to grow up with a civil co-parenting dynamic than to witness an unfulfilling or unhealthy relationship.
Support from an experienced marriage and family therapist could make a difference if:
- you’re not sure how to begin making beneficial changes in your marriage
- you’re finding it tough to overcome infidelity or another betrayal
- all of your disagreements keep escalating beyond your control
- you find it impossible to communicate effectively with each other
- you’re not sure whether you can reconcile your differences
“Couples therapy creates a dedicated space for busy couples to reconnect, be vulnerable, and hear and understand each other,” Neupert says.
Many people consider couples therapy a “last resort” option — but Borden and Stockard highly recommend seeking professional support earlier rather than later. Even if your relationship isn’t in distress but you think it has room to improve, counseling can help.
“It’s more difficult to repair a marriage where hurt feelings, resentment, anger, and disconnection have been building for years,” Borden says.
Contemplating divorce but not 100% certain it’s the right path to take?
A discernment counselor can help you explore your feelings about the marriage and guide you in figuring out whether you can still salvage your relationship.
According to Neupert, couples therapists can help you explore factors getting in the way of your happiness, such as:
- opposing communication and conflict styles
- a stressful job
- toxic family dynamics
- underlying mental or physical health concerns
If you believe health concerns — like depression, anxiety, an injury, a chronic illness, or anything else — may play a part in your dissatisfaction, Neupert recommends sharing your symptoms with a doctor or therapist.
For example, maybe it’s not just your relationship that leaves you unhappy. Maybe nothing in your life brings you much joy or pleasure. A doctor or mental health professional may recognize your anhedonia as a sign of depression and recommend treatment, which could help improve your relationship satisfaction.
Feeling unhappy in your marriage doesn’t mean your relationship is toxic or unfixable, and you can do a lot to address relationship dissatisfaction and improve your bond.
A good first step involves a candid and compassionate conversation with your partner about changes you can make together. If you feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start, a couples therapist can offer support in starting the conversation.
At the end of the day, this relationship may not meet your needs — but you still deserve to find love and happiness elsewhere.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.