What Are The Signs Of An Unhappy Marriage?

Men and women view relationships differently.  If 100 people were asked to offer up their opinion on what defines a happy, and therefore, successful marriage, the chances are that they would all give very differing views based on their own background experiences.  There is an enormous amount of personal bias that goes into one’s definition of a happy marriage and the perceptions that one takes to it.

There are those that on a more simplistic view suggest that the signs of an unhappy marriage are simply those who have the absence of things which make a marriage a happy one.   Again, this is a subjective view and can differ from person to person and family to family.

There are many relationship advice sites which help couples identify those areas in which their marriage might be failing.  Some are framed with the view of trying to repair the marriage and avoid any suggestion of marital split.   Conversely, there will be others that highlight the tell-tale signs of an unhappy marriage, and encourage the parties to separate and ultimately divorce.  There is such a melee of advice out there that this leads to total confusion.

In my published book Secrets of Relationship Success, published through Random House, I dealt with many aspects of how people perceive a happy and unhappy marriage with examples but in this article I simply seek to identify from our cases over the many years the repeated patterns of behaviour that generally speaking when present, will lead to either the parties recognising the problems and dealing with them through therapy or ultimately divorcing.

Many online searches for the signs of an unhappy marriage will return a lot of ‘list’ articles – ie 10 signs of an unhappy marriage, 14 signs that your marriage is over, 17 signs that your marriage needs work.

Indeed, the numbers continue to increase. In this article we simply highlight a small selection of problems which come up time and time again.

One important factor here is that any sign of an unhappy marriage that we present are based upon that particular behaviour or feeling being present for a sustained period of time that the other party simply cannot cope with. Being angry for a one-off reason for example that your spouse didn’t rinse the plates off before loading them into the dishwasher  or snores, may well lead to a fight, and indeed if they do this on a daily basis then there may well be an underlying problem however, there are common issues that arise when two people from different backgrounds get together that does not necessarily suggest that the marriage is over.

A lack of intimacy

A lack of intimacy may well be an indication of an unhappy marriage, but it’s important to realise that there may be other reasons why this can occur that are not simply the ending of a relationship.  A lack of intimacy can be caused by a lack of libido. Some people experience a dip in their sex drive at various points of their ages.  The reasons behind them are many and varied.

Financial worries, stress at work, unhappiness with one’s own physical appearance and therefore sexual attraction, or being too tired, or having hormonal changes at certain points can all be reasons why the frequency of sex may fall during the course of a marriage.

However, sex and intimacy are not necessarily the same thing. Simply touching each other or holding each other in a way that shows love and affection, may be an expression of intimacy. Holding hands when you go for a walk, massaging your spouse’s neck and shoulders as you walk behind them, or simply cuddling in front of the TV can prove to be just as, if not more intimate than having full sexual intercourse.

The key word here is connection. Many couples can have sex on a fairly infrequent basis – sometimes every couple of months or longer, but that is not necessarily an indication that their marriage is failing.  If both partners are comfortable that their needs are being satisfied in that area, then there is no difficulty. If one partner’s needs are never being met, then they must feel comfortable in expressing that they feel unloved and unwanted.  If they fail to do so, and the lack of intimacy that they perceive continues on, then it leads to a feeling of rejection and a sign of an unhappy marriage.

You’re not listening

Listening is the key to the success of any relationship, and has often been referred to as an absolutely vital element of a marriage.  Listening is also a skill, and many people recognise that it is a skill into which they need to put in some effort.

In our world of multiple screens, channels and distractions, listening has become harder than ever. However, if your partner is constantly texting and never communicating with you then most certainly it is demonstrating that he does not wish to be connected with you and is finding solace elsewhere by talking to others in preference.  This will quickly help you to recognise that there is a problem.  Picture the scene, your spouse wants to talk to you about something important, you have no idea what it is, and granted you may well feel that it is not important even after they have imparted the problem to you but they do wish to talk to you. However, you are enjoying something on TV and are simultaneously scrolling through social media to look at conversations about the show that you’re watching and that you are interested in.

As soon as your partner tells you that they need to talk to you, do you:

A) roll your eyes and tell them that the show you’re watching will be finished in 10 minutes?

B) ask if it’s OK for you to watch to the end of the show and talk afterwards and that you don’t mean any discourtesy or  

C) Immediately pause the show, turn off the TV, put your phone away and give your partner your full and undivided attention?

Now it should be pretty obvious to anyone that if you opted for A, then you do not wish to engage with that person or do not wish to treat them as a priority.  Many may well have thought that option B but be a sign of disinterest, but not necessarily. Not everyone has the means to pause live TV and the spouse may well recognise that the show is important to their partner. There has to be some give and take on both sides which would suggest that in relation to B or C, that the marriage is OK but there needs to be a little more attention to the party’s needs.  It is however important to know that you do not have to drop everything immediately simply because the other party wishes to have an immediate discussion.

Quite often when dealing with divorce cases, we are met with the information that the woman has waited every day for the husband to come home from a difficult day at work and launches into the problems, the moment they cross over the threshold.  It is something that is often brought up by therapists, psychologists etc that if you have something important that you do wish to discuss, that you should allow a sensible space in which that discussion can take place and not be seen as attacking the person at the moment they come through the door.  Accordingly choosing your moment to have deep meaningful and difficult discussions should be dealt with in a sensible way so that you are not seen as someone who is utterly spoilt and stamping their foot  that they want to speak now.

Most people need to work on how they listen. In a more heated exchange, a lot of us are only half listening and half preparing our responses, and that is not regarded as listening at all.

If one of the party’s feels that they’re not really being heard, then they stop trying to communicate. They don’t express their feelings; they don’t then vocalise their concerns about what they consider to be problem areas in the marriage. Silence can often turn to resentment, contempt and anger, and once those become the dominant feelings in a partner, the relationship’s problems may well become irreversible.  Very often men complain that women expect an immediate answer to a problem posed, but often they would like to digest the problem and come up with a sensible answer.  In a relationship it is about give and take and understanding and compromise.

Accordingly, if you feel as a husband that you need time to think about the issue that you are discussing then voice this so that your partner is clear about where the discussion is going, so they don’t feel overlooked or side-lined.  Do also allow a space in which these discussions should take place and don’t raise very difficult issues immediately before your partner is about to drop off to sleep.  This is an issue that often is brought up in divorce cases that on a regular basis a wife or husband raises important and devastating issues just before bedtime.  Issues of vital importance should be dealt with at a sensible time that both parties agree is a space in which they can discuss matters.  You may not always agree on issues but allowing each other to be heard and to voice their feelings is vital in  every relationship.

Fantasies about leaving

It is rare for a couple to fight without one, or indeed both of them entertaining the thought of life away from the marriage. Fleeting thoughts such as this, are no reason to consider an immediate separation or divorce.

However, sustained fantasies or exit strategies can be a sign of a growing unhappy marriage, but it doesn’t mean that  ultimately a marriage that has ended.

Many relationship counsellors suggest taking the fantasy to the next level and exploring the feelings that come with it. Simply looking at listings online for places to live can be a good place to start. If looking for a new home fills a partner with dread at the thought of living away from them, then there is hope for that the marriage that will subsist.  This couple may well need to communicate and, more importantly, they may well need help from a third party to get their marriage back on track.  However, starting to follow through those fantasies by meeting up with others online or in person are signs of an unhappy marriage and can lead to the other party being devastated at finding out about those meetings or phone calls indeed if there are phone calls endlessly online or emailing other people online.

If you have a lack of respect for your partner to the extent that you are actually communicating with members of the opposite sex, in a sexual way, then the chances are that your marriage is in grave difficulties.

The four pillars of an unhappy marriage

There are four things to look at from either side that can indicate that the marriage in question is an unhappy one.

Criticism and blame is the first, and here, a simple shift in language can be all a couple needs to see whether or not there is a problem. “You always leave such a mess in the bathroom,” indicates a problem, whereas, “It upsets me how you leave the bathroom sometimes,” gives the other person a chance to acknowledge the issue and do something about it.

This leads to the second pillar, which is defensiveness. Being constantly criticised is likely to lead to a partner digging their heels in, finding justification for their behaviour and refusing to accept responsibility and make a change.

The choice of language, and especially tone is crucial here. If there a lot of sarcasm and contempt being expressed whenever there is a disagreement, then this shows a lack of respect and perhaps the slow drip ending of the relationship.   A little bit of sarcasm or joshing, is fine, and can be the basis of one partner’s sense of humour, but too much will serve to belittle and undermine the other person, at which point they may well choose to stop communicating effectively or at all.

The fourth pillar. Is those that finding themselves in an unhappy marriage, shut down emotionally. There will be no communication of any kind, and feelings of resentment and anger will continue to spiral on the part of their partner, simply as a reaction to the lack of emotional connection that they would have expected from their spouse and have been deprived of.

At this stage we would also invite you to read one of our other articles on a very similar topic which we have headed – How do you know it’s time to divorce?

In this we ask the parties to recognise that many marriages hit a bump in the road, and not everyone in that situation needs to start preparing for a divorce.  However, if any of the above tell-tale signs have been present for well over a year, then it’s important to take some action.  We would firstly suggest that perhaps you considering seeking the advice of a marriage counsellor and if that does not assist in any way, then take the step of consulting with a divorce lawyer as to your rights and what steps can be sensibly taken.

We do see many that reach a point in their marriage where they think that they are ready to divorce, but experienced lawyers recognise from the outset those clients who are ready to move on and those that still are in the midst of a marriage that they are uncertain as to whether it has ended.  With those clients which we find very easy to spot, then talking about next stages is met with a sense of absolute resistance and makes the clients seemingly fall apart.  In those cases, we have to investigate with them as a first step whether or not there is any possibility of a reconciliation between them and their partner.

Quite often parties still do not know where to go to seek advice about how to assist to their marriage and prefer instead to go straight to a divorce lawyer to receive help about the people from whom they should take advice. It is absolutely correct that we have a bank of therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists who can readily assist couples who have fundamental problems in their marriage and in approximately 25% of cases, can assist the parties to resurrect or repair their marriages.  No one should throw away the possibility of a marriage working simply because they do not know who to seek advice from.  There might always be an answer.

However, there are those cases also where they have been ongoing abuse of either a verbal or physical nature for such a considerable time that the party in question is simply too scared to take the next step in a marriage that has clearly been dead for many years.  Again, experienced solicitors learn to spot these kinds of clients and the kind of abuse that they have been subjected to.

These clients need very careful handing to understand that they have been the victims of abuse and that the kind of behaviour that they have been subjected to is not normal and that they need assistance to help them to develop a good and healthy relationship in the future.

Going out all the time without notifying you of their whereabouts

Another flashpoint for marriages is when your partner seems to have switched off from the relationship generally, is going out with numerous friends in the evening to your absence and/or constantly going to the gym, but yet his or her gym clothes seem to be unused.  Of course, you might be overly suspicious and perhaps he might be just finding himself or herself some space that they could not find at home.  However, it could be the beginnings of an indication that all is not well in your relationship.

If you find that they are beginning thereafter to stay out overnight or unexplained absences, holidays or business trips abroad that could not be verified in company terms, chances are that they may have been starting a new relationship.

Change in grooming or clothing habits

This has come up time and time again in cases as an indicator that the other party might be starting an affair.  When someone totally changes their hairstyles, their looks, their clothes, their way of dressing and everything about themselves, the chances are that they are either getting themselves ready for a new relationship or may have already started one.

Of course, this should not be confused with parties who have recovered from say for example, having a baby or going through the menopause when they wish to look carefully at their appearance and change that to the better.   This can sometimes happen if a party has put on weight and simply wishes to take themselves in check.

There is a vast difference between simply wishing to improve one’s personal hygiene and looks and totally changing everything about one’s self from looks, cars, telephones and demeanour.

Any party faced with these kinds of behaviours is likely to feel unhappy, miserable and undetermined.  However, if there is a risk that your partner is thinking about having a relationship with someone else or starting an affair, then do not be seen to be moping around the home whether you are a man or a woman, address the issues together.

Have the conversations, consider the issues and listen to what the other party really feels so that you can then address the issues as a couple and put things right before matters escalate.

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