It’s not always going to be rainbows and butterflies. It’s just not. But, who am I telling? You already know that, I’m sure. If you’ve been married more than 10 day, you’ve already experienced that. I’m sure. Marriage is work, so much work that sometimes it seems it would be better to just quit. That’s the quickest and easiest option, but is it the best? According to an article entitled Marriage Crossroads: Why Divorce Is Often Not the Best Option, anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of divorced couples (depending on circumstances and location) regret ending their marriages (Barlow, 2003). Considering this information, it may just be better to learn how to happily be unhappy.
I know what it sounds like. I know the phrase itself makes you uneasy. It should because, at first glance, it sounds like I’m saying, “Stay in your marriage no matter how unhappy you are, just to preserve the marriage.” I assure you, that is not the message I intend to send. Though I do consider myself a marriage advocate, I do not support maintaining dysfunction simply to preserve the family. I’m more about ending the dysfunction to reinstate the happiness (and preserve the family).
A wonderful friend of mine (check out her site) told me her mother once said, “Sometimes, you have to learn how to be divorced within your marriage.” My own mother has made similar statements. Thank God for the sage wisdom of mothers, because they really have a good point here. Again, this isn’t about accepting the unhappiness and letting it grow and fester. It’s about understanding the pendulum of marriage health. The condition of a marriage is not static. It changes, swinging back and forth between elation and extreme frustration. This is no different than the many other challenging duties we accept as part of our lives. For example, even the most successful entrepreneurs have days—or months even—where they’d rather just throw in the towel. And even the most doting parents reach that “I’m about to go crazy” point now and again. As my favorite lion king, Mufasa, pointed out, “It’s all a part of the circle of life.”
So, where does that leave unhappily married couples who can’t even stand to be around each other? It leaves them in great company. Practically all couples go through rough patches where they seriously rethink the day they said, “I do.” But, that doesn’t mean they should call it quits. Sure, divorce is warranted at times—certain things just aren’t worth saving—but many, many, many marriages are. Have you ever been so angry about something, only to look back on it later and laugh at how big of a deal it seemed at the time? Couples who “stick it out” can often relate to this feeling. They may not be laughing at the situation, but they’re grateful they didn’t draw up any paperwork.
The book The Case For Marriage reports that “77 percent of the stably married people who rated their marriage as very unhappy (a one on a scale of one to seven) in the late eighties said that the same marriage was either ‘very happy’ or ‘quite happy’ five years later” (Waite and Gallagher, p. 148-149, 2000). If a couple who rated their marriage a 1 out of 7 can turn things around, so can you. The question isn’t, “Is it possible?” The question is, “How?”
Steps to Rebuilding Happiness in Your Marriage
1.) Don’t freak out or draw conclusions. Things aren’t going well now, but it’s not necessarily the end of the world. If your spouse isn’t severely mentally ill, abusive, a drug addict, harmful to the children, a serial cheater, a serial killer, or just a plain old heartless monster, the odds are already in your favor!
2.) Make a commitment to get through this hump. When couples make it to the other side of unhappiness, it’s because they made it a point to do so. Things won’t just magically get better. It’ll take time. Give the marriage that time.
3.) Change your behavior. Before you present your list of complaints about what the other is doing wrong, make a list of the things you can improve and start improving them. You’d be surprised at how big of a difference you’ll notice in the other person after you decide to change yourself.
4.) Get your argument tactics together. Some of the sweetest, coolest people think it’s okay to fly off the handle when they’re in a fight. Just because you’re mad doesn’t mean you can say and do anything you want. Consider what John Gottman calls the Headless Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. (Find out more about these here.)
5.) Celebrate the positive changes, regardless of how small they may be. The change won’t be overnight, but you should notice things slowly getting better. Even if it’s something teeny weeny, it’s a step in the right direction. Don’t ignore it.
Barlow, B. (2003). Marriage crossroads: why divorce is not the best option . Provo, UT: Brigham Young University.
Waite, L. and Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financially. New York, NY: Doubleday.