5 signs of an unhappy or toxic marriage (and how to save it)

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Ups and downs aside, many marriages are simply unhappy — and some are toxic.

How do you know whether yours — or the marriage of someone you know — is unhappy? If so, what can you do? Read on to hear what experts say about how to save a marriage, when to get divorced, as well as people who have fallen out of, and back into love.

What are the signs of an unhappy marriage?

Here is what therapists, psychologists and relationship experts say about unhappy marriages and relationships:

4 signs of an unhappy marriage

“When couples ask me whether it's time to call it quits in their relationship I let them know that that's a really personal decision, and the research on couples therapy suggests that the severity of the problem that couples bring to couples counseling doesn't predict whether that couple will stay together or part ways,” says Heather Z. Lyons, PhD, a therapist based in Baltimore. That said, couples' therapists have what is known as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that identifies married couples that are not just unhappy, but headed for a breakup:

  • Defensiveness
  • Attempts to shut down communication — stonewalling
  • Contempt or looking down on your partner — snarky mean comments, eye-rolling
  • Criticism — seeing your partner's mistakes or annoying behaviors as character flaws rather than fixable problems.

“Couples therapists can target these behaviors to help couples change them in an attempt to preserve their relationship.” Lyons says. “Or, when left untreated these behaviors will erode a relationship.”

Is fighting a sign of an unhappy marriage or relationship? Not necessarily, says Angela Amias, a licensed couples therapist located in Iowa City, Iowa. “Most of us believe that fighting frequently is a sign your relationship is in trouble, and this can be true if fights happen in ways that cause harm to the relationship because one or both people are using tactics that hurt the other person,” Amias says.

“However, when couples avoid talking about difficult issues in the relationship, in an attempt to avoid fighting, the relationship starts to ‘dry up’ and the couple can find themselves with less and less to say to each other, the spark in the relationship flickers out, and the relationship goes cold. People will often tell me they’ve fallen out of love.”

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Just because it was a toxic marriage does not mean it has to be a toxic divorce. Learn more about ways to divorce with low conflicct:

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What does it feel like to fall out of love?

“When you are lonelier with them sitting right next to you in the same room than when they’re not around.” — Casey

“When I realized the idea of us not being together anymore felt like relief.” — Susanne

“After the fact I realized I was more anxious than comfortable in their company.” — Jasmine

“I honestly didn't care if he cheated again, I just didn't wanted to know about it.” — Kristen

“My realization came during a family trip. Like a bolt of lightning, I had the revelation that I'd spent the last 10 years trying to converse with, entertain, and engage with someone who did not want to converse with me, was not entertained by me, and had no interest in engaging with me. I'd been working my butt off for nothing. It was never going to get better. — Trish

“I knew I had fallen out of love when 1) I could not look him in the eye 2) I had a negative physical reaction to him being near me let alone touching me.” — Amy

“I think love is a verb. So to me, you chose love. You chose that person. Everyday. If you don’t nurture the relationship (by neglect or for valid reason) you can lose feelings.” — Sue

“When I stopped caring about his well-being.When doing anything for his benefit felt like a chore rather than an act of caring.” — Nicole

“When I looked at him and realized I had zero respect for him as a human being.” — Nicole

“Apathy is the opposite of love.Most people think that hate is the opposite of love. But hate is still loaded with passion.Apathy.That’s when you know you’re done… when you don’t care.”

“I wish I had paid attention to the fact that it was getting harder and harder to find a card for special occasions that I could give. I couldn’t give an untrue card, and I wasn’t feeling/believing most of the things any of them said.” — Chelsea

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Lori is content to be in love with her ex — but in a new way: “Even after learning about his affair, my love didn't stop. We divorced 9 years ago, we both had lots of growing to do. We are good co-parents, and both have supportive partners now. The love between us will always be there, we have kids together, we have a history together, but our love is not romantic love anymore, just real soul-to-soul-lives-intertwined kind of love. I don't think it was ever a fall out of, or into love, it's growth within myself and allowing a peaceful state of new love.”

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Is it normal for couples to fall out of love?

“The initial honeymoon phase won’t come back. But you can build mature love if you both want it,” says divorced mom Carolyn Barry.

Can you fall back in love after falling out of love?

“Yes, you can fall back into love,” says Wyatt Fisher, PhD, a licensed psychologist specializing in marriage counseling in Boulder, Colo., and author of Total Marriage Refresh: 6 Steps to Marital Satisfaction. “The first step is to work through all areas of resentment in the relationship. The second step is to build back friendship and affection. The third step is to build back your sexual connection.”

What are the signs of a toxic marriage?

How do you spot a toxic relationship? Toxic and unhappy marriages are different.

4 signs of a toxic marriage

Lynda Smith, PhD, LCPC, LPCC, LPT, and board-certified sex therapist has identified the ‘4 As' of a toxic relationship.

  • Adultery — emotional, physical, financial cheating
  • Addiction — drugs, alcohol, porn, gambling, spending
  • Abuse — physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial
  • Agendas

“Couples struggling with the 4 A's are more likely to lead to divorce than the non-4 As, which include: lack of communication, growing apart, and boredom,” said Smith, who practices out of Boise, Idaho. “While some signs of a toxic relationship are obvious, others can be harder to detect: disrespect, gaslighting, controlling behavior, lacking empathy, selfishness.”

For the couples involved, a toxic relatioship feels isolating and fearful, says Dr. Emily Stone, PhD, LMFT-S. “A toxic marriage will be one where one or both partners do not feel safe to be able to communicate wants or needs without repercussions. Those repercussions might be emotional, physical or mental. In a toxic marriage, one or both partners do not feel like they can have a life or relationships outside of the marriage.”

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FAQ: How do you deal with a toxic marriage?

Can a toxic marriage be saved?

Brent Crowson, a licensed professional counselor in San Antonio, Texas, believes unhappy marriages and relationships can be saved if both partners are committed to making changes. However, toxic relationships should end, he said. “And if there is abuse, get out.”

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How do I deal with a toxic husband or wife?

What do you do when you are unhappy in your marriage or you’re in a toxic marriage?

First, if your relationship is dangerous, get out.

In a toxic marriage one or both partners never turn towards one another to have needs met — they only turn outwards — which makes healing difficult, says Stone. “Often, in a toxic relationship and in an unhappy marriage there is a dance that has been created between the partners. Each partner knows his or her steps. Changing the dance steps, which are ingrained into their ways of relating can be incredibly challenging for both.”

Stone's advice:

“Do not deal with a toxic marriage alone. Get help. You do not have to
navigate these decisions or changes on your own. If your partner will not go to couples counseling with you, then you can go on your own and get support from a therapist for your own healing.

For Dani, the relationship flipped from unhappy to dangerous: “It was when he finally tried to hit me after years of wall punching and the like. The love snapped like a rubber band and hell no, in this case, it ain't coming back,” she says. “I ran like hell.”

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What do you do when you are unhappy in your marriage or you’re in a toxic marriage?

Tips and recommendations for unhappy marriages

How to help an unhappy relationship:

  1. “Carefully and with the assistance of a professional therapist,” says Lynda Smith. Get our ratings of top online therapy sites.
  2. Rachel Sommer, Ph.D., clinical sexologist, and co-founder of My Sex Toy Guide, shares this advice: “Through my years of practice, I have witnessed numerous couples work together to get the spark back in a broken relationship:”
    • Partners must spend some time away from each other, using this time to reflect on what they need from the relationship and, most importantly, the things that must be done differently moving forward.
    • Focus on spending more ‘silly’ time together. Both partners need to be vulnerable together and show their most authentic and pristine selves.
    • Be creative and com up with new ways to surprise each other and make the relationshi exciting, even more than before.

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Is it normal to be unhappy in marriage?

Dr. Fran Walfish, PhD, a Los Angeles based family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, says unhappiness in marriages is common and normal.

“Many of us have strong uncomplimentary opinions and we sometimes, intentionally or not, communicate these thoughts and ideas to others,” Walfish says. These messages, just like relationship styles, get handed down from generation after generation, so if you are a negative or critical person, know that your style and your messages will likely carry through to your partner (and children, grandchildren and beyond). Even the most kind, patient, and loving person slips into a negative statement once in a while.

What to do when your husband or wife says they're done

When to seek marriage counseling

Seek marriage counseling before you think you need it — even before you are married!

“Couples should seek therapy long before they think they need it. Many of the big issues started small and then grew in size due to them being ignored, overlooked and unresolved. Start early!” says therapist Lynda Smith.

Is divorce better than an unhappy marriage?

This is a very personal question that only you can answer, and of course you are still married so you do not know. I have met only a few people who say they regret their divorces, but some do. Some research suggests that unhappy couples become happy if they stick it out. A 2002 study found that two-thirds of unhappy adults who stayed together were happy five years later.

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Should I try marriage counseling before divorce?

Yes, marriage and couples counseling can help unhappy and even toxic relationships. “If one partner is not open to therapy then it is often best to separate or depart from the marriage,” Smith says. “Both partners must be involved an on board. It may also take some strategizing based on the degree of toxicity. Obviously deciding to end your marriage is a personal decision. However, your marriage may be worth saving if both parties agree to put in the effort and implement therapeutic recommendations.”

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What can I do to keep my marriage alive? 5 tips for how to stay married

Walfish urges spouses to examine their early ideas about marriage and relationships, and focus on communication skills.

Dr. Walfish's marriage rules:

  1. Be aware of your own issues. Be accountable and own up to your part of the problem.
  2. Don’t react immediately. Cool off first. Listen carefully without interrupting to understand what doesn’t feel good to your partner and with genuine interest.
  3. If you have a complaint or criticism, present it like an oreo cookie couched between two positive statements so he will be more receptive and less defensive.
  4. Stick to the topic. Don’t bring in a laundry list of complaints about things that happened 10 years ago.
  5. Use humor. Laughing can diffuse the intensity of an argument, keep perspective and help lighten up the moment.

How do you know if your marriage is worth saving?

When both parties agree that neither of them is the problem, but rather the problem is the problem, says Brett Crowson, who hosts a weekend marriage retreat in which he teaches married couples deeper communication techniques and conflict resolution strategies. “In other words, not only are both parties willing to save the marriage but are each willing to see the other as a teammate willing and capable to help solve the problems that are affecting the marriage. I tell my couples: ‘Problems don’t cause divorce, people cause divorce. Fix the problem, stop fixing the person.'”

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How to save your marriage prevent divorce

1. Try couples therapy. BetterHelp offers Wealthysinglemommy readers a 10% discount, and is rated A+ with the BBB.

2. Treat a marriage like a divorce. Family law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen shares out three ways that thinking about marital decisions through the lens of divorce can help marriages and relationships. Have hard conversations about fair exchange in marriage:

  • What each partner has contributed?
  • What you are owed?
  • What have you have sacrificed?
  • There is no such thing as free child care.

Bottom line: When to call it quits in a marriage?

“Many women I’ve counseled cannot afford the legal fees to get a divorce. It’s sad. These women are stuck in unhappy and toxic and abusive relationships with no legal help. So, it’s not as easy as an “either-or” question,” Crowson says.

First, know that any physically abusive relationship is not ok and to LEAVE IMMEDIATELY and worry about divorce later. Outside of all that, in situations of an unhappy marriage, I tell my clients that divorce always brings with it new types of pain and problems, so she must decide which pain is more tolerable. An unhappy marriage can be fixed with hard work from both parties.”

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Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.

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