Yes, You Can Fix An Unhappy Marriage — 9 Keys To Doing The Work

You don't have to stay miserable in your marriage.

Last updated on Apr 27, 2024

Keys to doing the work to fix an unhappy marriage PixelsEffect | Canva

You may have no idea how your marriage got to this place. You may feel doomed, wondering how to fix an unhappy marriage — or if it's even possible or wise. But one day, you woke up and realized that you hadn’t been happy for a long time. Now, you have to decide between fixing an unhappy marriage and ending it. Hopefully, you’re not ready to throw in the towel just yet. But your disappointment in where your marriage warrants a fearless and compassionate examination. If you’re going to restore your relationship and relive the hope and happiness it once had, you need to work for it.


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Yes, you can fix an unhappy marriage — here are 9 keys to doing the work:

1. Stop making more damage

Fixing an unhappy marriage is a difficult and forward-aspiring effort. Even with the best intentions, it can sometimes feel like a lesson in futility — a dead end. But one thing’s for sure: There can be no forward momentum when there’s negativity pulling you backward. If you’re to have any hope of repairing your marriage, you have to stop doing the damage that broke it. No more snide remarks. No more disapproving body language. No more blame. No more playing the victim. No more avoiding one another. It only makes sense that you can’t heal a wound if you’re constantly reopening it or rubbing salt into it.


2. Take a personal and joint inventory of your marriage

The work of fixing an unhappy marriage requires awareness of why you’re unhappy in the first place. This means taking a hard look at the way you and your spouse communicate (or don’t). What behaviors and comments are triggers for each of you? Where is your marriage lacking in connectedness, enjoyment, and intimacy? As you do the forensic work of looking at the history of your marriage, look for negative patterns that have emerged. So often, it’s the accumulation of little things that lead to big disappointments and feelings of defeat.

3. Get help early

According to marriage expert John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years before getting help for their unhappy marriages. That’s a long time to build up a lot of negativity and unhealthy habits. Marriage is hard work and, unfortunately, relationship skills aren’t taught as part of a child’s school curriculum. There's no shame in seeking the guidance of professionals who have committed their professional lives to helping couples save their marriages. Doing so early on helps with every one of the nine keys listed here.

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4. Work on self-awareness

Marriage is the union of two histories as much as it is the union of two people. Unlike any other relationship, the intimacy of marriage holds the possibility of healing past wounds. But that intimacy also has the potential to inflict wounds. We all have unconscious triggers and motivators — influences silently accrued and carried forward from childhood. And, unless we work on learning how to be more self-aware, those unconscious influences will control our perceptions and responses. Self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. It’s the way you bring your interior, unconscious filters to the level of consciousness.

When you’re able to identify your feelings, you have the information necessary to make wiser choices. You become the one in control, not your feelings and their unconscious history. With that kind of self-control, you’ll be prepared to work on healthier communication and taking responsibility for your role in your marriage.

5. Develop healthy communication skills

So much of what erodes happiness in marriage is rooted in communication. Poor communication. Unspoken communication. Lack of communication. Chances are, you entered marriage with communication skills carried forward from what you learned in childhood. You saw how your parents communicated and that became your framework, going forward. Pair that with the communication style your spouse brought to the marriage, and it’s no wonder there’s conflict. Learning to communicate in healthy, self-accountable ways is foundational to overcoming current dissatisfactions and laying the groundwork for happiness going forward.

6. Take responsibility for your own stuff

Blame can become almost reflexive when you’re with someone for a long time. There’s a convenience to having someone else as a depository for your disappointments and unhappiness. You don’t have to spend a lot of time examining your own contributions to your marriage’s failings, because this other person is right there. And surely you wouldn’t be so unhappy if your spouse weren’t doing ABC, or were doing XYZ.


But marriage takes two. Even if there was a betrayal, there's always mutual responsibility for the dynamics of the marriage itself. The sooner you step up and take responsibility for your own behaviors, the sooner you’ll notice a shift in your happiness. Chances are, your influence will rub off onto your spouse and inspire a confident self-examination on their part. And no matter what, once you put the brakes on blame, you’ll notice that defensiveness disappears.

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7. Prioritize your marriage

A big part of fixing an unhappy marriage is prioritizing your spouse and relationship. That may sound logical, but when you’re "just not feelin’ it," your natural instinct may be to stay away from your spouse. Avoiding conversations and physical intimacy may feel self-protective at the moment, but they won’t fix your relationship. Start with little things. Commit to even 10 minutes a day of uninterrupted conversation. Make physical affection a priority, even in small doses — a passing touch, one long kiss, or even a soothing back rub. The point is to start viewing your marriage as your priority, not as a dumping ground for your leftover energy.

8. Commit to forgiveness

Holding onto grudges means holding onto all that's making you unhappy. And fixing a broken and unhappy marriage is, in large part, a lesson in letting that go. Forgiveness isn’t an exoneration of unacceptable or hurtful behavior. It’s unburdening your heart, so you don’t have to continue carrying what doesn’t serve you. If restoring your marriage to a place of happiness and hope is important to you, then forgiveness — of self and one another — is essential.


9. Look for the positives

When you’re unhappy, it seems as if only negativity shows up. You don’t even have to look for it — it’s just there, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now is the time to start intentionally looking for the positives in your spouse and your marriage. There were enough positives to convince you to marry one another, so chances are they’re still there.

Set your radar to "positive" and change what you see. Look for the intention behind small gestures. Contemplate the sacrifices your spouse makes on behalf of your home and family. Make gratitude your compass and watch how many blessings reveal themselves.

Fixing an unhappy marriage isn’t easy — but it can be done. Depending on the circumstances that led to your dissatisfaction, you may have very little incentive and energy to put into the effort. But you and your spouse found the good in one another when you were dating. You knew it was worth leaping into a lifetime commitment. Take the time to figure out how you got here. You may be surprised at all the good that comes out of hiding along the way. And that's worth fighting for.


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Dr. Karen Finn is a divorce and life coach. Her writing on marriage, divorce, and co-parenting has appeared on MSN, Yahoo, Psych Central, Huffington Post, Prevention, and The Good Men Project, among others.