Staying in an unhappy marriage can be a difficult decision, but it can also be the right decision for any number of personal reasons. If you are choosing to stay in an unhappy marriage, take heart. You aren’t alone, and there are some things you can do today to make your situation better.
Whether you’re staying because of the kids, because you don’t want to start over, because you don’t want to be alone, or because of something else entirely, the decision is yours alone to make. It’s a deeply personal decision, and we support you.
Important note: If you have any reason to suspect that you are in an abusive relationship, our advice in this article doesn’t apply. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 to get the help and support you deserve.
If your marriage is safe and you do choose to stay …
Here are 14 of our best tips for staying happy in an unhappy marriage—
Once you’ve decided to stay happy in an unhappy marriage, the first (and perhaps most important) thing you can do is adjust your expectations accordingly. It’s completely natural for something as big and important as our marriage to consume much of our thoughts and emotions. So staying in an unhappy marriage can easily and effortlessly lead to a life of perpetual unhappiness if we’re not careful. Instead of hoping things will magically start to improve after years of trying to fix them, maybe it’s time to adjust what the expected outcome will be.
Ideas: Start by taking a careful look at what expectations you currently have about your marriage. If you’re brave, write them down. Are any of those expectations unfair or illogical at this point? Have these expectations gone unmet (and therefore created unhappiness) over years? Consider meeting with a counselor—either as a couple or by yourself—who can help you sort out your feelings and set reasonable hopes and expectations for the future.
Bottom line: Re-adjusting your expectations isn’t admitting to failure so much as it is setting a new and achievable standard for success.
Imagine a world in which you and your partner were kind to each other as a general rule. Sure, we all have moments where we slip into old patterns or unhelpful habits, but what if—generally speaking—you and your partner pledged to get along? No, this doesn’t mean you would necessarily agree on everything or that your marriage would suddenly be healthy and happy, happy, happy, but it could defintely contribute to your overall happiness as a couple and as individuals. And even if your partner refuses to be kind to you, you can choose to lead by example. It’s much harder (though certainly not impossible) to be unkind to someone who is consistently being kind. So by being kind to your partner, you might discover that the favor is returned.
Ideas: Refuse to raise your voice, only do what is helpful for both of you, support your partner however you can, and treat your partner the way you want to be treated. Consider asking your partner to agree to mutual kindness.
Bottom line: It’s a good rule of thumb to treat your partner the way you would treat any other person in your life. Would you feel comfortable yelling at your coworkers or consistently using an abrasive or sarcastic tone with your best friend? If not, don’t engage in that kind of behavior toward your partner, either. Rise above it.
When any relationship in life—professional, romantic, platonic—disappoints us or fails to meet our expectations, it’s easy to wallow in self-pity or spend our time hashing and rehashing what went wrong and what the person should have done differently. But focusing on what went wrong actually keeps us stuck in unhelpful, unhealthy patterns. And it can acutally push other relationships in our life away who don’t want to consistently hear about our marriage drama. On the other hand, when we begin to focus on solutions—instead of just problems—our anxiety and hopelessness begin to disolve.
Ideas: Look for support from someone other than your partner. Join a meet-up or make regular time with friends who will fulfill you emotionally. Work on becoming more independent. Make a list of the skillsets you need to strengthen in order to be truly and fully independent.
Bottom line: Spend more time working toward solutions than you do obsessing about problems and you may start to see things improve.
Right now connecting with your partner may feel impossible or even undesirable, but make no mistake: connection—even a new, different kind of connection—is critically important for your mental and emotional health. Especially since you are choosing to live under the same roof. Maybe you no longer feel like observing your long-held family traditions or your Friday night date nights. Fine. But how can you make an effort to create something new so that your situation is more bearable for everyone involved?
Ideas: Watch sporting events, enjoy your kids’ hobbies, discuss neutral topics. Direct your energy into creating a new normal.
Bottom line: You can choose to be miserable in your unhappy marriage, or you can discover new ways to be pleasant with each other in this new version of your marriage. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen.
In many (or even most?) marriages, somewhere along the way it’s common to replace a vibrant social life with responsibilities like kids or work. In fact, it’s easy to either intentionally or unintentionally start thinking of a social life as an inessential activity in lieu of more important relationships like marriage. But if you find yourself in an unhappy marriage, you need your social life now more than ever. Loneliness will only cause your marriage to deteriorate faster. If you’ve neglected your social life—or if you have no social life left to piece together—start now. Invest in a group of friends. Find your people. Getting your social and emotional fulfillment from someone other than your partner will remove that unnecessary pressure from your relationship.
Ideas: Call old friends from your past and get together for food or drinks, identify a coworker or two who might like to hang out after work, join a local hobby or interest group in your community or online and make connections.
Bottom line: The truth is, regardless of the state of your marriage, your partner is not an adequate replacement for having good, close friends.
Since children are the number one reason people tend to stay in unhappy marriages, it’s worth mentioning that kids should be kept out of marital troubles as much as possible. While kids are smart and often pick up on their parents’ problems, it’s our duty as parents to keep them as insulated from adult issues as possible. Children easily become insecure or feel unsafe when their parents fight all the time—especially if these fights aren’t resolved in an equally public or meaningful way.
Ideas: Choose not to argue in front of your kids, don’t engage in discussions that demean or disrespect your partner, and try to maintain a healthy, happy atmosphere for their benefit
Bottom line: Our kids are learning how to build and maintain relationships by watching how we do it. If we fail to give them a good example, we actually inadvertantly perpetuate an unhelpful and unhealthy cycle they may repeat in their future.
No, not permanently. But it’s good to get out of the house more often to unwind and relax. When you leave the house, mentally make the choice to leave the stress or anxiety behind. Putting space between you and whatever requires hard work enables you to return with renewed energy and resolve. If you find being at home stressful, then find reasons and opportunities to get out more often.
Ideas: Invest in a new personal hobby or find places you can hang out for a quiet moment alone. Go for a walk or volunteer.
Bottom line: The more time you spend not being stressed, the better it will be for your health and the health of your home.
Truly being grateful for what is going well in life can be hard when other important things—like marriage—feel like they are going wrong. But the power of gratitude cannot be overestimated—especially during difficult times. In fact, practicing gratitude is one of the most effective tools for improving your personal, long-term happiness. In an unhappy marriage there will always be a problem (or problems!) to focus on. In many ways, these problems can easily and quickly create an endless treadmill of unhappiness. And practicing gratitude is the only way to step off of the treadmill and regain peace and happiness.
Ideas: Start (or continue) a gratitude journal, interrupt negative thought patterns with thoughts of thankfulness, verbalize to yourself and others what is going well in your life, refuse to dwell on any current conflicts.
Bottom line: Gratitude is so powerful that it has been shown to change a person’s brain over time. If you want to change or improve your situation, start by practicing gratitude on a regular basis and see what happens.
As hard as it may be to understand or accept at times, your partner has a right to have opinions about the marriage just as you do. And part of building (or re-building) trust in a marriage is agreeing to hear each other’s opinions and create solutions that work for both parties. It’s not right or fair to expect either party to be cut out of the decision-making process. That’s not a marriage. That’s a social contract. Compromise is the glue that holds a marriage (even an unhappy one!) together.
Ideas: After voicing any concerns you have, invite your partner to do the same. Truly listen to what your partner has to say, and determine to be logical and rational as you work toward solutions.
Bottom line: Do everything in your power to make compromises and meet in the middle. Not only will this directly improve your life and happiness, but if you have kids, this will also set an incredible example about how healthy relationships work.
Now, to be clear, your partner may have some serious character flaws that need to be fixed. Let’s go ahead and assume for a minute that it’s true. You may be in your unhappy marriage precisely because your partner needs to change something. But chances are, you won’t be the one to change your partner. Has it worked so far? Or has all your effort to change your partner only resulted in you harming your own mental, physical, or emotional health? Your partner has to want to change. And that motivation probably isn’t going to come from you.
Ideas: Refuse to manipulate, name-call, or engage in unhelpful or unhealthy discussions.
Bottom line: Unfortunately (and fortunately) the only power we truly have is the power to improve ourselves. So spend your time and energy doing what’s best for you. You can be healthy and happy even if your partner is not.
Choosing to stay in an unhappy marriage can be a really brave thing that requires a lot of courage. But to do it successfully without losing your mind means you have to refuse to fight. Oh, there will be plenty of things to fight about, and a good alternative is not letting every negative or harmful behavior slide. But fighting long-term accomplishes nothing good. Most relationships are not pieced back together (if that is the goal) or even manageable as friends or co-habitants if they endlessly fight in circles over the same irresolvable differences.
Ideas: Next time a fight begins, stop and take a breath. Ask yourself if arguing will be productive. If not … walk away. You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.
Bottom line: Refuse to keep fighting the same fights. At some point—and the sooner the better—you have to decide if the constant battle is worth fighting.
Broken boundaries may be part of what landed you in this unhappy marriage in the first place, but it’s never too late to build stronger or healthier boundaries moving forward. In fact, if you’re choosing to stay in your unhappy marriage, you need to set clear boundaries for your own well-being. Boundaries may feel restrictive, but in reality, they allow you tremendous freedom to express your own needs while also acknowledging the needs of your partner.
Ideas: Establish personal privacy, agree to communication expectations, delegate household chores and responsibilities
Bottom line: Clear boundaries are foundational to emotional health and healing.
This advice may seem obvious or even cliché, but let’s be honest. Taking good care of ourselves is one of the first things to go out the window when times are stressful or our days are busy. And if you’re putting your energy into an unhappy marriage, taking good care of yourself is more important now than ever.
Ideas: Go out with friends, join a gym, go to a salon or spa.
Bottom line: The result of you prioritizing your care will make you happier, and it will make your family members and friends happier by extension. Everyone benefits from your commitment to self-care.
By now, you know marriage is hard work … and staying happy in an unhappy marriage requires even more hard work. But it’s absolutely possible. In fact, some couples have made the commitment and done the work and actually built their marriage back from the ground up until it was healthier than it was before. The key is to keep trying. If you make a mistake, admit it, get back up, and try again. Real, healthy change in a marriage is a marathon and not a sprint. If you decide to stay, then keep trying.
Ideas: Admit your mistakes, apologize often, give your partner room to try and fail.
Bottom line: Your marriage isn’t over until you give up.