As I reflect on all the unhappy couples I have counseled over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the ultimate secret to their success depended on one thing: commitment. In fact, studies have shown* that the number one reason for divorce is not money or infidelity but lack of commitment. The couples that successfully get through crisis are the ones who are committed to their marriage. And interestingly enough, once couples face their lack of commitment towards each other and actually make the decision to Re-Commit to their marriage, despite whatever issues are still unresolved, they become happier! More on how to be happy in an unhappy marriage.
While it may appear obvious, the couples that make it are those that are committed to making their marriage work. And the flipside is true as well. Those that are not committed to their marriage, do not usually make it.
More inspiration about how to be happy in an unhappy marriage:
- What if your spouse isn’t interested? How to save a marriage when only one is trying.
- Want to be one of the lucky ones? What it takes to be successful in marriage
- Marriage support from a therapist when your spouse refuses to go to counseling
- DIY self guided marriage counseling
When you make the decision to commit, you have decided to put in the hard work that is needed to save your marriage.
When you waver and think about what it would be like if you married someone else or how you wish your life would be different, you are usually not able to generate enough momentum to push forward and repair the relationship.
Does this mean you’re doomed to stay in an unhappy marriage? Is “till death do us part” meant to be taken literally?
Yes and No.
In our disposable society, a marriage is as expendable as a computer. You buy it knowing that you will have to replace it within a few years. But a marriage is not a computer. It is a serious commitment that requires work, and while it may seem much easier to leave the relationship when the going gets tough, the truth is that it is not necessarily so.
Most of us already know the damage divorce can do to our children, our health, and our wealth, and many people decide to stay married for these very reasons, including some who have no real hope for it to improve. They think they married the wrong person and that if they could marry someone else, it would be better. They may not intend to terminate their relationship, but the thought does cross their mind.
In order for a marriage to improve, a mental shift must take place.
You must commit to success instead of looking elsewhere for something or someone better. If divorce is always an option lurking in the back of your mind, you lack the commitment to make it work and you will not be able to be fully present in your relationship.
Part of being committed to your marriage or at least trying to make it work is to realize that it is not all about the other person. What do you bring to the table?
Most of the things that really bother us about our partner are only partially about them and largely about us.
A relationship takes two to tango; there is never one party that is entirely innocent. What responsibility do you take in your relationship? Is your spouse an evil monster with psychological problems or do you play a role in triggering such undesirable behavior? Most of the things that really bother us about our partner are only partially about them and largely about us. Why would a particular incident bother you tremendously but appear insignificant to your friend? Each one of us has our own unique history as well as natural tendencies.
We may have grown up feeling ignored or not fully heard by our parents. It is no wonder when we try to get our spouse’s attention and he/she is checking email and not responding that it may stir up strong feelings for us. Maybe our spouse was in the middle of something important and not intentionally ignoring us, but we feel emotionally charged by the incident.
Our external triggers, as real as they may be, are only a symptom of a greater problem. That problem is our story and ourselves. By working on ourselves and becoming more conscious about why we react the way we do, we can learn how to be more effective in relationship and have more compassion for our spouse. Begin to notice how much ownership you can take for your feelings/reaction. How is this conflict compelling you to grow?
Furthermore, these points of conflict are a blessing in disguise. Marriage is ultimately an opportunity for growth and healing. The challenges that we face are there to do just that, to challenge us to become better and more balanced people. A woman who is exceedingly proper and rigid about manners marries a man who is sarcastic, loud, and loves to rock the boat. While these issues cause friction in their relationship, their frustrations with each other are really a call for them to become more complete people. He needs to work on becoming a little more appropriate and she can benefit from lightening up a bit.
Couples in crisis who want their marriage to succeed and are willing to invest in their relationship are almost always successful.
In my experience, couples in crisis who want their marriage to succeed and are willing to invest in their relationship are almost always successful. This holds true even for the most egregious breaches of a marriage. It is astonishing how even in such cases it is possible to salvage a marriage by committing to making it work. The ones who lack that commitment are the ones who don’t always make it.
Even in a case where only one spouse is committed, the changes he or she can make on their own can have a ripple effect and shift the inertia of the relationship. While it will be much harder than if both are committed, when one spouse begins to change and create safety in the relationship, it often allows for the other one to let down the walls of resistance and leads towards greater connection.
While you may be afraid of committing, once you decide to commit, you will actually feel much more relieved.
A quote from a Starbucks cup: “The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating- in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” It is often the case that indecision is what feels so uncomfortable and enslaving. Once we muster the courage to decide to commit, that stagnant energy can now move and propel you forward for the good.
So the first step is to being happy in an unhappy marriage is to become conscious and to commit. Here’s what to do after you do that.
1. Become Conscious
One of the major areas that set marriages up for failure is unrealistic expectations or a misunderstanding of how relationships work. While couples often start off in the “romantic phase,” where everything is great, they inevitably shift into the power struggle. However, when we normalize conflict and view it as an opportunity for personal growth, as opposed to a sign of marital failure, we can take productive steps to create a loving relationship. This process begins by looking inward and becoming conscious. We often discover that the very things that trigger our anger are the areas where could stand to grow. What are you doing that triggers your spouse’s anger?
What are they doing that triggers yours? As you begin to view your spouse from a more conscious space and are more aware of your own triggers, you will be able to act from a place of compassion and understanding. Your changes will affect your spouse and will improve the relationship even if you are doing all the work on your own.
How far will you go in your commitment to your spouse? The couples who get through crises successfully are the ones who are committed to their marriage and have a real desire to be with their spouse. This means making your relationship a priority and being willing to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship. When this dedication is present, you will feel safer and more willing to give for the relationship to succeed. It will help you not get overwhelmed by the day-to-day challenges, because you have a long-term view of the marriage.
Do you ever wonder why marriages used to last much longer? While divorce may have been taboo, it also true that people married with the intention of it lasting “til death do us part.” Today, many spouses, particularly women, who feel like they do all of the work in their relationship. They are often miserable and constantly thinking, “what if?” What if I had married someone else? What if I get divorced and find someone better? These questions are not helpful and display a lack of commitment to making their situation work.
Even in a case where you are the only one committed, the changes you can make on your own will have a ripple effect and shift the inertia of the relationship. While it will be much harder than if both of you were committed, when one spouse begins to change and create safety in the relationship, it often allows the other one to let down the walls of resistance, leading towards greater connection.
3. Take Responsibility
When you change the way you “show up” in relationship, you may notice that your spouse’s resistance begins to wane and that many of your complaints about your spouse disappear. Change in a relationship is usually organic. It definitely needs to be not forced, and it doesn’t even require both partners to “buy in.” When we take little steps to change ourselves, those moves help shift the relationship. Most relationship patterns stem from a lack of “safety.” When we feel unsafe, we revert to self-preservation techniques. When we can add safety to the relationship, the annoying resistance we face from our spouse will often subside. Think of what you do to contribute to the state of your relationship. What parts can you take ownership for? What stretches can you make to do things a bit differently? Although you may feel that your unwilling spouse is largely to blame, be the bigger one and make the change.
Mirroring is an essential tool – and one of the simplest and most powerful tools you can use to prevent you from getting hurt by your spouse. It will also help your spouse feel safer and, as a result, be less hurtful. Mirroring is when you repeat back to your spouse what they said, without interpreting or interjecting. You allow the other person to continue sharing as you listen and reflect back what he is saying. Mirroring protects you, because it forces you to respond in an intentional way, as opposed to a knee-jerk, reactive way. Here is an example with and without mirroring:
Wife: I can’t believe you are home late again. Every single night you are at the office, and you don’t even bother calling.
Husband 1: The last thing I need to hear after a hard day’s work is your constant complaining. I told you I had a lot of work this week. Could you just give me a break!
Husband 2: You’re upset that I am late and that I am at the office late every night and I don’t call you to tell you when I am coming home. Is that right?
Both husbands feel attacked. But the husband who mirrors holds on to his reactivity and defuses the conflict by giving his wife a voice; he thus prevents the exchange from turning into a shouting match. Mirroring allows you to remain calm and not slip into reactivity, feeling safe enough to hear what the other is saying without taking it as a personal attack. Mirroring is also beneficial for the one being mirrored. Whenever there is conflict, reactivity, or resistance in a relationship, it is a sign that someone is feeling unsafe. Mirroring defuses the emotional charge from the other side and allows one to feel safe. Your spouse, feeling “heard,” no longer needs to prove his point or protect himself by being reactive.
5. Keep the Goal in Mind
Keeping the goal in mind means that when you engage in relationship, you have a clear intention of what you want to accomplish. Do you want to connect or disconnect? When you speak to your spouse, what are the desired results? As you examine the intended results, you think about how you can achieve those results. Is yelling at your spouse going to bring you closer? Probably not, so it is important to act in a way that helps you achieve your goal of connection.
If you have decided that your goal is to connect, then you must create a safe environment in which to share. This is accomplished by first making sure it is a good time to talk. If we catch our spouses off-guard, we are not giving them a chance to show up with their best, attentive, and most loving selves. If you want your spouse to listen and hear your story and not be reactive, you must make sure it is a good time to talk.
“Dumping” is threatening and will prevent your spouse from feeling safe enough to listen and from being there for you. Ask yourself, “What is my intention in having this conversation?” Do you want your spouse to really hear you, or do you just wish to hurt or dump on them? The intention of any interchange, no matter how challenging the issue, is connection.
6. Don’t Cause Fear or Shame
Men must be conscious not to trigger their wives’ fears, and women must be conscious not to shame their husbands. This gender distinction is key to establishing and maintaining connection in marriages. It comes up quite often around career. If a man is struggling to find a career path, is dissatisfied at work, or even unemployed, this can be very scary for women who are relying on their husband to support. At the same time, it can be a shameful experience for men in that position.
I have heard numerous stories from couples, in which male shame is exacerbated by female fear around employment issues, and vice versa. In fact, fear and shame become a cycle, where her anxiety causes his shame, and his shame causes her anxiety. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to be attentive to each other’s vulnerability.
While it is frustrating to think that you are the only one interested in working on your relationship, you will be pleasantly surprised at the power you have in transforming your marriage in spite of your spouse.
One of the things we do that is unique and different and keeps us happy is our ability to dialogue about not only our frustrations but our appreciations for each other. We sit across from each other, look into each other’s eyes and really “get each other” as one person speaks and the other person reflecting back what the other said. It allows for emotional safety and connection and is an instant way for us to get centered and recharge our relationship. You can finally be heard and understood deeply using the Imago Dialogue process. It’s truly magical!
We’ve put together a comprehensive at-home DIY online marriage course for you to affect change in your relationship even if you’re the only person interested in working on your marriage. It’s called Marriage School and it has made a HUGE impact in really helping spouses that are desperate to bring their partner around- even if that partner as already “checked out”. Check it out today, your family needs you!
How to ensure you’ll be one of the lucky ones – Successful Marriage Tips.
- Be aware of the consequences divorce can have on your children and your finances. Many of the common causes for divorce are still not necessarily reason to end your marriage. Even an affair is repair-able, if you are committed to fixing your relationship no matter what.
- Realize that it takes two to tango and that finding someone better is not necessarily a cure-all, as you will likely have issues in future relationships.
- Finally, recognize how the particular challenges of your marriage are growth opportunities for you and your spouse, and that there are ways for you to transform this conflict into connection. (Of course, this does not apply to abusive relationships.)
The true test of commitment to your marriage is when a stressful situation comes up and you’re both tested.
We want you to be able to withstand the stress and be one of the lucky ones, happy and together forever. The best way we can help you get there is with our 2 Day Marriage Restoration Retreat. You’ll be able to recommit to each other when understanding that your conflict is precisely what you need to grow not an indicator that you’ve made a mistake. All you have to do is show up! We take you through the process of all that you do to create a happy marriage.
Need more intense, bootcamp-style counseling? Try our intensive marriage retreat.