Are you unhappy with your marriage? Here are the right 5 questions and 5 action items.
Feeling unhappy in a marriage is normal. All relationships have ups and downs, happy seasons and difficult seasons, agreements and disagreements. For most people, marriage is harder work than they anticipated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the investment.
Read on for the right 5 questions to ask yourself, from the marriage experts behind the leading couples counseling app, Lasting.
Question 1: Why do I feel unhappy?
There are four primary emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. With regard to your relationship, you’re probably feeling the emotion of sadness in some form. Maybe you are feeling anger and fear to some extent, too.
The question is—why?
First, you need to understand that emotions are sources of information. Steven Dziedzic, founder of Lasting, says that “…Emotions are powerful signals. They’re like personal notifications to your body. They tell us what we like or dislike, what we care about, and what’s important to us.”
In fact, one of the goals of marriage counseling is to see couples engage with emotions and view emotions as informational and important. Liz Colizza, MAC, LPC, NCC, a seasoned couples and family psychotherapist, comments, “A lot of people need help in this area—help with naming, accepting, understanding and engaging with their emotional world.”
If you’re feeling unhappy, then practically-speaking, your body is informing you that something is important to you—and you need to pay attention.
That leads us to your first action item: write down the specific things that are important to you in your relationship that you feel are falling short. This will help clarify what’s missing in your life and marriage. As you do this, remember that all your emotions are important and valid in this process. Each one should be documented.
Keep in mind that it’s easy to complain about what your partner isn’t doing but harder and more vulnerable to ask them to do something.
Only when your partner knows what’s important to you can he or she actually feel empowered to help you. And with that, let’s move onto the 2nd question.
Question 2: Does my partner know why I feel the way I feel?
Dr. Harville Hendrix, the famed marriage counselor, wrote, “Couples often operate out of the erroneous belief that their partners know what they want."
It would be wonderful if your partner knew what you wanted, but they rarely do. Even healthy couples forget this.
And if your partner doesn’t know how you feel, how are they supposed to help you or meet your emotional need?
That’s why it’s vital to come to the realization that your partner probably doesn’t know how you’re feeling—and even if they have some sense of it, they certainly don’t understand how you’re feeling at its deepest level. They need to hear it from you.
That brings us to your second action item: prepare for a conversation with your partner (don’t invite them into conversation just yet). Map out what you’d like to say. Put your feelings at the forefront and don’t blame your partner. Colizza recommends a simple formula for starting this conversation: “I feel… My concern is… How do you feel about that?”
Question 3: Do I know how my partner feels?
If you’re feeling unhappy in your relationship, odds are that your partner has some areas where they’d like to experience change, too. Colizza comments, “Relationships are adaptive, and relationship problems are not cause-and-effect—but circular in nature. Each partner’s behavior pulls and influences the other partner’s behavior.”
Typically, in cases of unhappy marriages, you find yourselves stuck in a way of relating with your partner: processing, organizing, and regulating emotions in the same unproductive way. The goal is to get you unstuck.
To that end, do you know exactly how your partner feels about your relationship? On a scale of 1-10, how satisfied is your partner in your relationship, and why would they choose that number?
Here’s the reality: studies show that your best shot of relational change happens not only when your partner understands how you feel, but when you understand how your partner feels. Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), the most successful method of couples counseling, says that “Emotion is the music in the dance of adult intimacy. When we change the music, we change the dance.”
In other words, the goal is to deeply understand one another’s emotions and the underlying causes.
That brings us to our third action item: simply reflect on your partner and how they might feel in the context of your current relationship. As far as it depends on you, attempt to build some empathy for them.
Question 4: How can I change myself?
When something makes you feel unhappy, the knee-jerk reaction might be to blame someone or something else for the cause. It’s just human nature.
The question is—are you part of that problem?
Before you say no, consider what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. Because of our human “error," we tend to be more forgiving of our own mistakes and less forgiving of others.
“We see this in Lasting across the board,” says Dziedzic. For instance, in a survey of 12,087 married people, Lasting found only 33% of respondents said that their partners make consistent attempts to understand their emotions. But when the tables are turned, a whopping 52% of respondents said that they make consistent attempts to understand their partner’s emotions. As Dziedzic says, “It’s a human tendency to over-empathize with yourself.”
Here’s another example, using a couple named Josh and Leya. When Josh forgets to clean the dishes, Leya’s tendency is to think it's "fundamental" to Josh, e.g. he only thinks about himself or he's forgetful. Leya doesn't tend to think that it's "situational," e.g. the kids needed more attention than usual.
And so, this calls for a lot of humility and courage, but choose to see yourself as the biggest problem in your relationship. “If you can do this, you’ll see areas where you can grow and change,” Colizza says.
That brings up your fourth action item: write down all the ways in which you can grow and change. Your partner is far more likely to respond favorably if you take the humble route and proactively share responsibility in your relationship.
Surprisingly, one of the best ways to influence change in others is to change yourself.
Question 5: How long am I willing to wait?
Sometimes marriages get to a breaking point where one or both people in the relationship are fed up, out of steam, and lacking any energy to extend themselves toward the other.
This is one of the most difficult mental places to be and requires courage to ask the fifth and final question: “How long am I willing to wait?” This line of thinking calls into question what commitment means to you and what you’re truly responsible for in your marriage.
To help you thoughtfully reflect on these topics, here are some clarifying questions:
What exactly am I waiting for?
What is the breaking point for me in my marriage?
What am I willing to do at this point in time for the sake of my marriage?
If I can’t change my partner and I’ve made changes to myself, then what?
How long am I willing to wait for things to be different?
What am I willing to do for my marriage so that I can be sure I gave it my best shot?
Sometimes, people choose to wait years for their partner to move toward them, while some people find that they can only wait a few months. Even the most broken marriages can be repaired, but it takes hard work and both people must be willing to work for the marriage. Studies show that one of the most important factors in relational repair is the motivation levels of both partners.
That brings us to your fifth action item: write down your answers to all the questions above. Clarify for yourself what you’re willing to wait for in the relationship.
A word of caution here: do not compromise your personal safety and mental health for the sake of “saving” your marriage. There are some circumstances that demand immediate action and professional help. You need to decide what you will allow and not allow with your partner. What are your boundaries for how you deserve to be treated? What happens if your partner disregards or even violates these boundaries?
Beyond this, here are three cases where counseling may not help you, and you may need to choose to leave:
Addiction or mental illness is having a major impact on the relationship because it has not been treated prior to attending sessions.
Abuse—verbal, physical, or other—is an issue in the marriage and one of the partners is fearful about their safety.
One or both partners are unwilling to work on the relationship.
As you reflect and process this question, you may need help from a trained counselor; don’t hesitate to reach out to one. Counselors are gifted at helping people reflect on and process very difficult questions.
Once you’ve completed the 5 parts above, move onto your final relationship action item.
As with most relationship issues, there’s a 3-step process for helping get to the bottom of the problem:
Thoughtful self-reflection, where you attempt to understand the way you feel
A loving invitation, to your partner, into a conversation that addresses how you feel and why
A conversation with your partner, where you discuss what this means for your relationship and how to move forward
Each of the above 5 questions and action items begins the first part of that three-step process—meaning, they help you reflect on the current state of things.
If and when you’re ready, we urge you to initiate steps two and three with your partner. Invite them into a conversation and attempt to discuss your relationship gently, with the primary goal of understanding both sides of the equation.
And if at any time you feel like you need a counselor, leverage Lasting or the EFT therapy network.
1. The Lasting couples counseling app
Simply download the Lasting app and subscribe to unlock your entire research-backed couples counseling program, which consists of assessments, exercises and audios. Subscribing costs just $12 per month (for two people) or $80 per year. 94% of couples who do Lasting together see new relationship strengths.
2. In-person couples therapy
After finding a qualified, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), reach out to them to schedule a couples counseling appointment. At Lasting, we highly recommend Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT is evidence-based couples therapy that typically consists of 8 to 20 hour-long couple’s therapy sessions, at $100 to $250 per session. Remarkably, 70% to 73% of couples who participated in this type of couple's therapy reported recovery from relationship distress, with 86% reporting significant improvement over the control group.
Find an EFT therapist here.
Parting words? Relationships take work. First and foremost, you need to reflect deeply on how you’re feeling, then develop a game plan on how to move forward.