What NOT to Do If You’re Unhappy in Your Marriage

unhappy marriage

So you’ve come to realize that you’re unhappy in your marriage.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that you look forward to the times when your spouse is out of the home. Maybe you’re feeling increasingly stifled or frustrated with your life and you’re experiencing a driving need to do something different. Or your spouse has begun to feel like a stranger to you and you startle to learn that you feel longer with them than when you’re by yourself.

Your mind is a whirlwind of conflicting thoughts and emotions. You remember your vows and you think about the pain that divorce would inflict upon your partner and children and you make an internal pledge to suck it up and make it work. Then, as you contemplate endless years with more of the same unhappiness or discontentment, you begin to summon the courage to make a change. And then you remember your shared history and the time invested into the relationship and you’re again unsure.

I’ve written before about what to do when you’re in the midst of a marital crisis.

But what about what not to do? Sometimes we need to be able to see the hazards clearly so that we can make sure we avoid crashing into them.

Here is that list –


What NOT to Do If You’re Unhappy in Your Marriage:


Don’t Ignore It

When things are uncomfortable or suboptimal, it can be tempting to turn away from the unpleasant reality. To pull an adult version of, “If I don’t look for the monster under the bed, it can’t exist.” Yet ignoring any concrete issues in the marriage or your own unhappiness with the status quo will not only be unsuccessful, it will also be unsustainable over the long run. The issues, whatever they may be be, will not resolve on their own and your ignored feelings will refuse to stay silent indefinitely.

It is only by facing your unhappiness that you have the possibility of resolving it.

Worried that you’re ignoring some important signs of marital discord? Here are five signs that you may be in denial.


Don’t Fixate On It

It is important not to deny your marital unhappiness and it is also critical that you refrain from becoming preoccupied with it. Whatever we nurture, grows. If all of your attention is focused on your discontentment, it will begin to multiply until it blocks your view of any residual affection or commitment.

When your marriage is in trouble, it’s natural for it to threaten to become all-consuming. After all, tremors in your relationship create aftershocks that travel through your entire life as you begin to realize how much everything is connected. You may find yourself grasping onto whatever you can as a fear of loss and isolation begins to press against your ribcage, threatening to cut off all of your oxygen supply.

Even as you’re navigating this uncertain and scary time, continue to reassure yourself that you will be okay no matter what the outcome.


Don’t Assign Blame Without Responsibility

It’s so easy – and often quite deserved – to place the blame for your marital dissatisfaction  at the feet of your misbehaving or unenlightened spouse. “I’m miserable because he drinks.” “If she would just pay attention to me instead of just the kids, we’d be okay.” “We’re struggling because he keeps flirting with random girls on Facebook.”

All of those things may well be true. And it may also be true that your partner’s actions and your happiness are mutually exclusive, that as long as their behavior continues, you will be miserable. You cannot change their choices. Yet you also have a responsibility to yourself. What you tolerate, will continue. What you allow, communicates how you can be treated. When you only blame, you give away your power. When you take on responsibility for your own decisions, you become even more powerful.

It’s important to recognize, name and confront the decisions and behaviors that your parter is making that negatively impact the marriage. And it’s also important for you to identify and express the choices that you have in light of the circumstances. You may not be able to save your marriage alone, but you do have the power to save yourself.


Don’t Have a “Bandaid” Kid

What more tangible sign is there of a unity of two people than a child? This living, breathing combination of both of you. An impressionable and defenseless embodiment of love wrapped in blankets and dreams. So it’s no surprise that people often (consciously or subconsciously) have a child in an attempt to refresh a struggling marriage.

Yet children are also an immense strain on a relationship. Tempers flare as sleep becomes a rare and precious commodity. Finances stretch under the new responsibility and the partnership often feels the strain. And the challenging steps of negotiating a fair division of labor while navigating new roles can make even the closest couples begin to have doubts.

On top of the inevitable stressors that a child adds to a marriage, it is also unfair to task a kid with the burden of stitching a worn and threadbare relationship together. Just as you spruce up the physical space to welcome home a new baby, ensure that the repairs on the marriage are undertaken before a new child is brought into the fold.



Don’t Open Up the Relationship

Many of the podcasts I listen to and advice columns I read feature advice-seekers who begin by describing their dissatisfaction with their marriages and then follow up with a question about the viability of opening up their marriage. On the one hand, I get it. They’re desperate to find a way to keep what they have that also provides the excitement and novelty that one or both spouses are craving. On the other hand, navigating the transition from a monogamous relationship to an open one is fraught with many stumbling blocks. I can’t imagine a couple that is already in trouble successfully communicating about emotionally-charged boundaries and rules.

Part of the reason that opening up the relationship may be appealing in times of discord is that is acts as both a distraction from the marital problems and another source of the validation or intimacy that may be missing from the primary relationship. And when attentions are focused elsewhere, the unhappiness within the marriage is likely to grow.


Don’t Make a Major Purchase

For many of us, when we’re unhappy, we look to material goods to fill the voids that we feel inside. It’s easy to fall prey to the illusion put forth by advertisers as we see happy and smiling families spilling out of new homes or heading out in their newly-acquired vehicle on some sort of perfect adventure. We can begin to blame our current possessions for our discontentment and pin our hopes on becoming happier once we secure that next new thing.

Not only is this snipe hunt a distraction and wallet-emptier, it can become an endless search for meaning and satisfaction where it cannot be found. No matter what baubles decorate your marriage or what wrappings surround your relationship, the basic connection (or disconnection) remains the same.


Don’t Seek Emotional Intimacy or Validation Elsewhere

When you feel invisible in your marriage, it’s tempting to find others who will truly see and appreciate you. Be careful on this slippery slope. Attention feels good and you can end up unintentionally sliding into an emotional affair (here are the key signs to watch out for).

If you think your marriage has a chance, give it that chance. Focus your energy towards making your partnership stronger and growing yourself into a better spouse. If your marriage is already on shaky ground, focusing elsewhere is a surefire way to send it tumbling into ruins.

And if your marriage is dead, have the respect to communicate its demise before you turn your attentions elsewhere.


Don’t Disappear

Because that’s just a cowardly and malicious way to end a relationship. You have the right to leave, but don’t lose sight of your spouse’s rights as well. Here is what you do owe your spouse, no matter what decision you decide upon for you.



Love, But Not “In Love”

in love

“I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you.”


This sentence, although common, is one of the more bewildering and unsettling statements to both utter and to receive. It both speaks to both caring and to a pulling away. It professes concern while confessing a lack of desire. Those little words are an admission that the deliverer wants what is best for the other person, but no longer wants the other person.

For the speaker, this declaration may come from months or years of feeling that something is missing, even as the exact nature of what is lacking remains elusive. To the listener, the words can prompt a sense of helpless falling, tumbling upon the rocks into the deep and dark pool below.

Sometimes this feeling of loving without being “in love” comes at the crucial point where a relationship is transitioning from the early hormone and excitement fueled lust and attraction into a more mature and steady love. When the expectations that the early rush will persist forever come crashing against the reality of settling into the comfort of the known, the lack of intensity can be interpreted as a lack of desire.

Yet other times, this feeling comes on more slowly and after the relationship has successfully navigated the passage into a more stable and long-term relationship. Often it slides in unnoticed, until one day a realization is reached that the passion, the wanting, is gone.  When you look at your spouse and you see a good parent, a good provider, a good friend. You feel safe with them. Perhaps too safe. The unknown is gone. The danger is gone. The hunger is gone.


We cannot have desire without uncertainty.


When we first begin seeing someone new, there is no doubt that they are “other.” They smell different, feel different and we cannot predict what they will say or do next. The unknown is a bit scary (after all, we don’t know where this will lead), but it is also exciting. A road trip without a map provides plenty of adventures.

That taste of fear is titillating. It feeds into our base desires and interrupts our more rationalized and carefully metered thoughts and reactions. But most of us struggle to stay in that space for long. After all, it’s not comfortable to stay with uncertainty for long and so we tend towards the reassurance of consistency and predictability.

But there’s a dark side with becoming too familiar. When we lose that sense of our spouse as “other” and instead fully assimilate them into a shared “we,” our aversion to feeling desire for those we perceive as family begins to kick in. We often believe that a lack of passion for a partner comes first and then we begin to see them more as a friend or even sibling. However, frequently the shift in perceived role comes first and the lack of desire follows naturally after.



Falling in love again requires letting go.


Love, but not “in love” is not necessarily a death sentence for a marriage. The passion and excitement can be cultivated and nurtured and desire can be brought back from its resting place, no matter if you’re the one saying those words or the one hearing them for the first time.


Remember Why You Care

Recount the origin story of your relationship. What drew you to your partner? Remember the shared history and revisit the times when you felt the greatest connection or the most overwhelming desire.


Be Selfish

Go after what you want. Don’t be afraid to seek pleasure and enjoy it wholeheartedly when you find it. The confidence that you show when you know what you want and you go after is an aphrodisiac. Do what makes you feel desirable. Replace restraint with hunger.


Partake in Adventures

Try new things, both with your partner and by yourself. Break out of the mold that you have placed yourself within. Try something new. Change your mind. Allow this rush of adrenaline and dopamine to wash over your partner and your marriage.


See Your Spouse Through New Eyes

Try to view your partner as a new acquaintance would. Ask questions as though you don’t know the answers (perhaps you may be surprised). See their role as parent or caretaker or provider as part of them, but not all of them. Refrain from being critical and try being curious.


Embrace Uncertainty and Vulnerability

Speak up. Take risks. Be uncomfortable. Allow the thought that your partner may behave in ways you cannot predict. And accept that you may have thoughts and desires that you have shoved into submission. Replace “what now” with “what if” and throw out those tired and worn stories you’re telling yourself.


Let Go of Control (You Never Had it Anyway)

Take a step back. When you’re holding on too tightly, you don’t give the other person an opportunity to breathe. Accept that you cannot dictate the future and you cannot force attraction.


At the end of the day, we all want to be wanted. We want the feeling of being desired and accepted. We all want to be loved and we want to know that we are loved. And the first step to welcoming that love into your life is allowing that you cannot control it.


We push people away because we are afraid of letting them in and being hurt when they leave.

We grasp on to people that are not good for us because we are afraid of being alone and someone is better than no one.

Pushing and pulling are fear, not love.

Love is holding.

Loosely enough so that each person has the freedom to grow and change.

And firmly enough so that each person knows they are supported.

It is trusting the other person enough that they want to stay even if they have the ability to leave.

And trusting yourself that you will be okay if they do.

Zen and the Art of Marital Maintenance

I had to get my oil changed the other day.

I HATE getting my oil changed. My resistance to the task is completely irrational, far greater than the time or money required to actually complete the necessary maintenance.

It’s an easy errand, yet one with little reward outside of my ability to cross it off my to-do list. As I pull out of the drive-though service center, the only signs of the clean oil are the new sticker on my windshield and a charge on my credit card. There’s no satisfaction of a job well done, no excitement about tackling something difficult and energy associated with starting something new.

Maintenance is inherently unsexy. We have countless reality shows that feature creating something new, from motorcycles to relationships. Yet, can you fathom a reality show centered on the care and maintenance of that which already exists?

Instead of old homes being gutted and rebuilt, we would watch people spending hours cleaning the baseboards and washing out the gutters. Sharktank would be replaced with footage of janitors thoroughly scrubbing down a school at the end of long day, resetting it back to its pristine state, ready to welcome the children again. Gone would be the shows that feature budding fashion designers. And instead we would be shown how to fix a broken zipper and the best setting on the washing machine to prevent excess fading.

Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it?

Yet imagine a world without maintenance. Where everything became single-use, to be discarded as soon as it began to show wear. Where no oil was ever changed, no siding ever repainted and a broken chain was reason enough to throw out a cherished necklace.

It seems absurd, doesn’t it?

Yet that’s often how we approach our relationships. We summon the energy to build them, feeding off of the excitement that accompanies novelty and possibility. And then we become lazy, falling into patterns and forgoing periodic inspections.

We accept the fact that our cars require regular attention and occasional overhauls to keep running smoothly, yet we expect our marriages to keep on humming without requiring any added consideration.

While I was sitting in my car listening to clangs and whirs of the old oil being drained, I flashed back to day I purchased the car, almost three years ago. It was more than a car for me, as I jettisoned the sixteen-year-old vehicle that was an albatross from my first marriage. I felt so proud the day that I was approved for the loan, a huge accomplishment after the horrific repercussions of the financial betrayals I had endured.

In those reflections, I saw the required vehicle maintenance in a new light. Rather than feeling annoyed at having to spend the energy on these unsexy and uninteresting tasks, these undertakings are a perfect opportunity to say “thank you” for having something valuable enough to care for.

And that’s the attitude I’ve held in my second marriage. The attention and upkeep is never a burden. It’s not something to avoid or something to complain about. It’s not always fun; it’s not always sexy. But it’s always worthwhile to take of those things that are the most important to us.

Here’s a cool idea to try in a new or established relationship in order to build and maintain connection.

And I promise to try to maintain this attitude the next time my oil needs changing.


Jumping to Conclusions

jumping to conclusions

My 8th graders are finishing up a unit on geometric proofs. This material has even my live-and-breathe-math kids questioning, “When will we ever have to use this?”

And I’m honest with them. I confess that they will never be asked to write a two-column proof justifying why two triangles are congruent in order to clinch a job interview. No romantic interest will ever look over their paragraph constructed to show that a quadrilateral is, in fact, a rectangle and criticize the fact that they failed to correctly use the slopes to show right angles. In fact, the only time that this exact skill will come in handy is if they happen to become math teachers. (In fact, I’m kicking myself now for making my way through 9th grade geometry in a zombie-like haze.)

But I don’t stop there.

“Forget the content for a moment,” I advise them. “What does this process, as painful as it may be, actually teach you?”

There are confused looks. A few random and half-hearted attempts to answer my question. And then I hear it from the back corner –


“It teaches us how to think. How to move from one fact to another and not jump to conclusions.”


When I was four, I had not yet had the benefit of geometric proofs to teach me how to think. At my grandmother’s house, I would spend hours sitting by her side as she narrated her way through countless family photos. Photos, that were for the most part, in black and white.

So I reached the obvious (well, to a four-year-old at least), conclusion: the world used to be in black and white.

That made sense. But I still struggled to understand how my grandmother, who sat next to me in full color, could have become pigmented as a young adult. I wrestled with this dilemma for a time until I finally solved the problem (and felt quite proud of myself for my powers of deduction) –  Rainbow Brite was responsible for bringing color to the world.

Well, it sure seemed reasonable then.

I had leaped from one fact – photos had transitioned from black and white to color over time – to a completely arbitrary conclusion that was based solely on the information generated within my own mind.

That particular assumption was harmless (and humorous). But that’s not always the case.


Once we believe something, even if we leapt recklessly to that opinion, we then proceed to ignore that which doesn’t support our conclusion. 


We become willfully blind. Feeding on an information diet filtered through confirmation bias. Conclusions, like habits, are much more difficult to shape once they’ve hardened into place. The time to be careful is when you’re laying down the initial layers. Jumping to conclusions has a tendency to keep you in one place.

And that’s what my students are learning. Just like you can’t claim that an angle is right because it “looks” like 90º, you can’t assume things in life just because it “feels” a certain way. 

It’s harder in life than in the classroom. After all, the stakes are higher when you’re you’re talking about real life instead of a poorly drawn polygon. Yet the lesson is still the same as we learn how to not carelessly jump to conclusions:


Base everything on the facts.

Move from one fact to another. No jumping.

Accept that there may be more than one correct way to link these facts and don’t be afraid to explore these options.

Ask for another person’s opinion. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes will see something you do not.

When you have enough facts, make a conclusion.

If you find other facts that refute your conclusion, be ready with the eraser.

In fact, actively look for ways that your reasoning may be wrong. That’s how you test its strength.

It’s okay to make temporary assumptions to test a theory, but refrain from putting it in writing until you can prove it using facts.


Here’s an example of how I put this into practice in my own life as it pertains to learning to trust again after betrayal.


Dating After Divorce: Distinguishing Between Forewarnings and Normal Fears

dating after divorce fears

Dating after divorce requires navigating a minefield littered with the emotional debris of your marriage. In such a potentially hostile and alien environment, differentiating between true threats and harmless anxieties can be challenging. Here are some clues to help you decide if your new relationship worries are normal…or something to be worried about –


Signs That You May Need to Reevaluate Your Relationship:


1 – Feeling like the other person “saved” you.

This can be such a seductive feeling. When you’ve been slogging through the suck of divorce and you meet somebody that promises (through word or action) to pull you free of all that misery, it’s an amazing sensation. Things go from seeming insurmountably terrible to unbelievably simple as this person sweeps you off your feet.

It’s tempting to read into this feeling as a sign that you’ve finally met the right one. That by replacing the person on your arm, you’ve immediately shed all of the pain and struggle from your previous relationship. Yet it’s not that simple. That lightness and elation you’re feeling with your new date is a great sign – it tells you that you won’t be mired in the past forever. And when it comes solely from an external source, it will also be fleeting. Because nobody has the power to save you from yourself.

If you find that you’re assuming the stance that you have been saved by your new dating partner, you’re putting yourself in the perilous position of counting on them to remedy your problems. You’re both giving them too much responsibility and too much power over you.


2 – Only staying with your new partner because you don’t want to be alone.

When we’re starving, we’ll settle for food that is less than desirable in order to avoid the urgent discomfort of an empty stomach. Likewise, when we’re hungry for companionship, we’ll accept a partner that is far from ideal.

The fear of being alone is universal and powerful. Consider the role isolation plays in some of the more psychologically terrifying fiction. From Hanks’ character in Cast Away to Wahlberg in The Martian, we feel that primal twinge of panic at the thought of being abandoned. And after divorce? That primal scream is awfully loud.

And so we easily can grasp onto the first available body that we encounter. Not only setting us up for a misguided choice, but also increasing the chances of feeling lonely within a relationship. Which, as many people can attest, is even more isolating than feeling lonely by yourself. Being alone suck, but being with the wrong person is even worse.


3 – Describing your dating partner as good, but…

There’s a common narrative in relationship letters to advice columnists. The writer first describes all of the wonderful characteristics of their partner, only to then follow up with, “but…” And the word that follow that conjunction are often terrible, describing abusive or controlling behaviors. Effectively negating all of the positives that were first recounted.

Nobody will be all-good or even an entirely good fit for you. Every person and every relationship has its “yes, buts…” And in order to have a happy and healthy relationship, you have to be willing to live with (and even ignore) those negatives. However, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable, it can be easy to be in denial about some major red flags. Pay careful attention to the downsides that your partner brings to the table. The good side can only balance out so much.


4 – Only staying with your partner because you don’t want another “failed” relationship.

It’s not easy to accept that either you chose poorly again or haven’t yet developed the skills needed to maintain a healthy relationship (or both). It’s both disheartening and embarrassing to have to admit that you’re yet again at the end.

So maybe you begin to tell yourself that “it’s not that bad” or maybe you begin to believe that this is what all relationships ultimately dissolve into. For many of us, it’s not easy to admit to our mistakes or our shortcomings. We stay on the path because it seems preferable to conceding a wrong turn.

Yet often, refusing to admit to a mistake is the worst mistake you can make. What’s worse – having to say you screwed up or living with a screw-up for the foreseeable future?


5 – Feeling embarrassed to introduce your date to your friends or family.

When you feel like you have to keep your date a secret from others, you need to ask yourself where this shame or embarrassment is coming from. Do you subconsciously believe that they are somehow beneath you? Do they have some very real shortcomings that you privately believe should be deal-breakers (but you still don’t want to break the deal)?

Friends and family can often provide a helpful perspective on your romantic relationships. Unblinded by love (or lust) and fear, they may be able to give you some insight that you’re too close to see. It’s a warning sign if you’re reticent to hear that input.


6 – Justifying or ignoring “deal breakers.”

before you started dating again after divorce, you probably generated a list of deal breakers in a relationship. Some of these may have been reactionary and rather inconsequential (I know I swore off men with a certain pattern of facial hair). But other items on your list are probably there for an important reason.

Take a moment to recall those traits that you swore would be a “stop sign” to a relationship. Have you allowed your resolve to slip and you’re now justifying or excusing those very things you swore you would not tolerate?

Changing your own values and boundaries is a sign that you’re allowing yourself to be swallowed up within your relationship. Remember, the promises you make with yourself are the most important ones of all.



Normal Fears When You’re Dating Again After Divorce:


1 – Struggling with being open and vulnerable.

Dating is risky. Allowing yourself to love again is scary. You will probably find yourself either wanting to hide behind an emotional wall or wanting to run at the first sign of developing intimacy. This impulse is completely normal as you try to find the balance between never wanting to be hurt again and wanting to find love again.


2 – Learning to manage triggers from the past.

You will carry some of your old assumptions and fears into your new relationship. You will struggle to differentiate between an appropriate reaction to the present situation and an attempt to battle ghosts from the past. Feeling triggered often says more about where you are in the healing process than it does about the state of your new dating relationship.


3 – Negotiating the terms and expectations of the relationship.

This new dating relationship is not your marriage. There will be rocky periods as you navigate the unfamiliar terrain and both communicate your needs and expectations. Divorce has most likely influenced you; the terms you seek within a relationship now may differ from those that you sought before.


4 – Fear of losing your dating partner.

You’re fresh on the heels of lost love. It’s completely natural to fear losing it again. You may find that you have a tendency towards clinginess or a drive to know everything your partner is doing in an attempt to control the outcome. This fear is normal; however, it can also easily become out of control if it is allowed to run amuck.


5 – Missing elements of your ex.

No matter how vile you now believe your ex to be, there were traits that drew you to them. Traits that you may now miss. Occasionally longing for the positive elements of your ex is nothing to worry about. Just be careful about comparing your new date to your former spouse. 


6 – A sense of awkwardness and discomfort.

In time, marriages become the comfortable tee shirt you’ve had since college. The sharp folds have been softened as it molds to your body and you’re familiar with its every seam. A new relationship is a unworn pair of boots. Shiny and full of promise, but also a bit uncomfortable and strange feeling. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good fit. You have to give it some time to break in.