Dr. Vance Whippo
Marriage is beautiful. The coming together of two souls, two lives, two bodies, and two minds, into one lifelong relationship is one of the mysteries that still confront us in daily life. But it is also hard.
When you love someone, that often requires setting aside your desires to be present for them and meet their needs. Taking someone else’s opinion and feelings into consideration in every decision you make can fray even the best of nerves, and it strains our hearts that delight in being safe and getting what they want. The union is beautiful and mysterious, but it is also hard because neither we nor our spouse are perfect people.
In the book The Mystery of Marriage by Mike Mason, the author had this to say regarding marriage – “A marriage, or a marriage partner, may be compared to a great tree growing right up through the center of one’s living room. It is something that is just there, and it is huge, and everything has been built around it, and wherever one happens to be going – to the fridge, to bed, to the bathroom, or out the front door – the tree must be considered. It cannot be gone through; it must respectfully be gone around. It is somehow bigger and stronger than oneself. True, it could be chopped down, but not without tearing the house apart. And certainly, it is beautiful, unique, exotic; but also, let’s face it, it is at times an enormous inconvenience.”
A marriage can be just that – a mass of contradictions, a beautiful but messy whole that somehow keeps going. But what do you do when the “messy” becomes more prevalent than the “beauty”? What do you do when that great tree growing in your living room becomes more of an inconvenience than the beautiful, unique, and exotic thing that you’d want it to be?
Dealing with an unhappy marriage
If your marriage has taken a turn for the worst, there are a few things you can do to address the situation. What follows are some ideas of things to do, and things to avoid doing that may simply exacerbate the situation. We’ll start with a few of the things not to do if your marriage feels unhappy and has lost its spark.
Don’t seek solace outside the marriage. Off the bat, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look for help from people besides your spouse. Rather, what it means is that you shouldn’t try to fill the gaps in your marriage with another person.
Your marriage may be unhappy because your spouse isn’t satisfying you sexually, or you’re finding an emotional disconnect in the relationship, or they simply aren’t communicative or supportive enough. One mistake that people knowingly or unconsciously make is in trying and fill that gap with a person who meets those needs.
It may be a co-worker, a friend, or even a complete stranger, but the point is that finding a surrogate to meet the needs that your spouse should meet is not a good move. It creates more problems for you right now and down the line.
Don’t compensate by using any bad habits. In line with the above point, there are good and healthy ways of dealing with frustration and unhappiness, but there are also unhealthy ways of dealing with it too. One example of a bad habit you can pick up to deal with marital unhappiness is to turn to alcohol or another substance to help you cope.
For other people, they may turn to work and invest themselves heavily in their career to distract themselves from the situation at home. Even using the excuse of putting everything into the children, though this is a good thing, only delays addressing the tree or elephant in the room.
This is one way of kicking the can down the road or hoping that if you distract yourself long enough, the problem will magically resolve itself. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Not only will the problem remain, but it may actually grow, and you may be introducing another problem you have to deal with sooner or later.
Don’t hold onto resentment. In any marriage, people say and do things that hurt, anger, or frustrate their partner. Any one of those things, if they are not resolved and dealt with through honest conversation and a good dose of forgiveness, can fester, and become resentment.
Resentment poisons a relationship because what your partner does gets viewed through that prism of resentment, and the frustration just grows and grows. Forgiving your partner is one way to begin letting go of the resentment that undermines the health of a relationship.
Forgiving your spouse isn’t saying that what they did was okay, or that they shouldn’t be accountable and make amends for whatever hurt they caused. Forgiveness is letting go of the hurt and the negative thoughts and feelings their actions caused. Forgiveness is as much for you as it is about the other person.
Don’t check out of the marriage. Another temptation is to simply check out and not be bothered to put any effort into resolving things. You might not use alcohol or drugs or an affair to deal with whatever is lacking in your relationship, but you might just decide to be emotionally absent from it.
You might pick up exercise or a new hobby that keeps you out of the house, and so on. In and of themselves, these things aren’t bad, but they allow you to effectively unhitch yourself from the problem. If the unhappiness in your marriage is a longstanding issue, checking out may seem like the best, least destructive way to deal with things, but it can merely exacerbate the situation.
Marriages can be complex things, and the issues that plague them aren’t always easy to break down and resolve. Avoiding the points listed above may help to position you to at least not make the situation more complex. Below are a few things to attempt to try and resolve the situation.
Engage. Instead of checking out, the way to address an unhappy marriage is to engage and prepare to put in some serious elbow grease to work on yourself and your marriage. Leaning in when you’re feeling unhappy is in some ways counterintuitive, and it is certainly something that leaves you vulnerable.
Remember that relationships work when each side is providing for the other’s needs. It is about “Their” needs not yours. When the other is taking care of our needs we aren;t thinking about our own.
However, pulling back may only serve to increase the emotional and physical distance between you and your spouse. Engaging may include things such as talking with your spouse about what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Sometimes, people are unaware of what their spouses are going through, or they may be aware, but they need to be called out on their selfishness.
Either way, it is better to be open and communicate. You can’t assume that your spouse knows what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Being open about that will help you to be on the same page. Another key aspect of leaning in is doing the hard work of identifying precisely what is making your marriage unhappy.
Identifying the problem goes a long way to finding the appropriate remedy for it. Unhappiness in marriage stems from a variety of sources, and part of engagement is understanding that our hearts can mislead us. Some unhappiness meets us because we compare ourselves and our spouse to other people, or because we want what we cannot legitimately have. By celebrating what we do have, we can address some of the unhappiness that flows from discontentment.
Be willing to forgive. We pointed out earlier how resentment is an emotional response that can poison a relationship, and the antidote to that poison is forgiveness. Forgiveness is undoubtedly hard – especially forgiving slights that happen every day.
Our capacity to forgive can be stretched to breaking point, and we need God’s grace to enable us to forgive and not hold things against others. While forgiveness doesn’t resolve the situation, it does release you from the anger that can stand in the way of solutions.
Seek counseling. With every marriage, there are nuances and specificities that no generic article can ever hope to cover, and that’s why seeking the help of a therapist with experience in marriage and family therapy is so vital – they can address the specifics of your situation and help you develop the tools you need to turn your marriage around.
Not only is it a safe space to process your frustrations, hopes, fears, and so on, but marriage counseling can help you to identify any unhelpful patterns of behavior or speech in your marriage that are undermining its health, and give you new ways of speaking and being with one another.
Through marriage counseling, a couple can honestly assess their relationship and the commitment it requires to make it work, equipping them to make healthy and wise decisions for their future.
God meant marriages to be beautiful, wondrous expressions of love and commitment, but they can also be messy difficult things. No two marriages are the same, and the difficulties facing each are unique to that couple. Unhappiness for any number of reasons can be a reality in any marriage, and there are healthy ways of addressing it. Loving one person well is not an easy job, but it is worthwhile investing a lifetime in.
As Mike Mason wrote, “A marriage is not a joining of two worlds, but an abandoning of two worlds in order that one new one might be formed…Marriage involves nothing more than a lifelong commitment to love just one person – to do, whatever else one does, a good, thorough job of loving one person”.
Love each other by always thinking of the other’s needs, not our own, and our needs will always be met.
“Comfort”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “I give you my heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Pinkies”, Courtesy of Gift Habeshaw, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forehead Kiss”, Courtesy of Jakob Owens, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.