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

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Ups and downs aside, many marriages are simply unhappy.

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:

5 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 a relationship red flag? 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.”

Just because it was an unhappy marriage does not mean it has to be in divorce. Learn more about ways to divorce with low conflict:

Read our list of the 2022 best online divorce papers services, including our No. 1 pick, 3 Step Divorce which has a flat fee, a $50 rebate and an A+ BBB rating.

15 signs your spouse is ready to leave you

What do you do when you are unhappy in your 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.

Should wives stay thin for their husbands?

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 it better to divorce than stay unhappily married?

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.

Should I try marriage counseling before divorce?

Yes, marriage and couples counseling can help unhappy 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.”

The ‘Big 4’ signs of a toxic marriage: When should you leave one?

Why stay married? What are the benefits?

There is plenty of research that shows that people who are married fare better in important ways vs those who are divorced or never-married:

  • Married people have 5x more sex than single people, according to the Indiana University researchers
  • Marriage makes people happier and that they continue to be more satisfied years into the marriage, according to a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies — though the gap in happiness between married and single people is small and not guaranteed
  • Studies find that married people tend to be healthier and live longer than those who are single, separated, divorced, or widowed, and have better mental health, fewer health conditions, and recover faster from illness. However, researchers not that healthy people tend to stay married (illness causes relationship stress), and most research is done in the United States, where insurance is more affordable for married people.
    Note that research finds that people in “very happy” marriages, vs. those who were “not too happy” are twice as likely to report poor health and have much higher mortality rates. 
  • Married people have more money than single people. This one is easy to understand: You share a single home, utilities, insurance benefits and even savings like renting a single hotel room vs separate ones on vacation add up to significant financial efficiencies for most couples. This leads to more wealth accumulation, more likelihood of having health insurance, qualifying for better mortgages and other loans, and make the financial part of life easier.
    That said, disagreements over money is often cited as the No. 1 reason for divorce, so …

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.

What if I have an unhappy marriage with kids?

If you are unhappy and your kids still live at home, educate yourself about the true effects of divorce on children, which will lead you to these steps:

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.'”

How to divorce a narcissist

How to save your marriage prevent divorce

1. Try couples therapy. BetterHelp offers Wealthysinglemommy readers a 20% discount, and is rated A+ with the BBB. Read about my experience with BetterHelp.

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.

What if I have an unhappy marriage and can’t leave?

If you can't leave because you think you can't afford it, here is some advice for building your own financial independence, especially for SAH moms: How SAHMs can afford to divorce.

If you can't leave because you are in an abusive situation, you can find local and national confidential, immediate help at:

TheHotline.com for live chat help, and other resources
Call 800.799.SAFE (7233)
Text, START, or 88788

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 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.”

Should I get divorced? What to consider.

Parental alienation — how to recognize abuse

Who gets to call themselves a ‘single mom'?

What are the signs of an unhappy marriage?

Here is what therapists, psychologists and relationship experts say about unhappy marriages and relationships: defensiveness, stonewalling, looking down on your partner, and criticism.

What do you do when you are unhappy in your marriage?

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.

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.

Is it better to divorce than stay unhappily married?

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.

Should I try marriage counseling before divorce?

Yes, marriage and couples counseling can help unhappy relationships.

What can I do to keep my marriage alive?

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

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.

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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