Can you save an unhappy marriage?

You realise that you’re stuck in an unhappy marriage with a spouse that you may or may no longer love. Now, you want to know how to save your marriage and bring it back to the way it was.

It can be hard to know if your marital dis-ease is just a bump in the road or a sign of a bigger, underlying problem.

All relationships and marriages go through relationship problems. But, understanding the different phases your marriage will go through can help you answer the question, “Can you save an unhappy marriage?”

According to Dr. Susan Campbell, a best-selling author and relationship expert, there are five distinct stages to a relationship. Knowing these stages, and the stage which you and your spouse may be in after you marry, gives you insight into whether you can save an unhappy marriage.

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It helps you recognise why your marriage feels unhappy, how to become unstuck, and what the future may hold. So, if you’re asking yourself, “Is my marriage over?”, it’s not. You can learn how to save a marriage.

Here are the five stages of marriage that you need to know:

1. Honeymoon stage

The honeymoon stage can last up to two years, at which point, the overwhelming feelings of love and happiness begin to fade. According to Richard E. Lucas of Michigan State University, we all have a level of baseline happiness. External events can temporarily raise or lower your happiness point, but in the end, it will always trend back to your baseline.

This is called the adaptation theory and can be applied to marriages. During the honeymoon phase, everything is fresh, new, and exciting. You may not realize your partner’s flaws or you can tolerate them because of the love you have. Without effort put into the marriage to keep the excitement alive, it begins to fade.

Love is considered a necessary quality for marriage in our western culture. And with love, couples can overcome almost any challenge. However, it means regular relationship maintenance to keep that love alive.

Here are the tools you need to navigate this stage:

  • Recognise that even though the excitement of a new relationship is fading, it does not mean your love for your partner is, as well.
  • Spend lesstime with your spouse. Spending so much time with your spouse generates predictability, which may lead to boredom. Spending less time doing everything together helps break up the monotony. This helps you maintain your own interests and not lose yourself in the relationship.
  • Try a new hobby that you are both interested in learning together. Challenging yourselves as a couple can help keep the excitement in the relationship. It also allows you to grow together, instead of apart.

If you’re asking yourself, “Is my marriage over?”, it’s not. You can learn how to save a marriage

2. Power struggle stage

As the honeymoon stage ends, the power struggle stage begins. Your life as a couple gets hard in this stage. The monotony of marriage becomes felt. It’s when your or your spouse’s dreams aren’t turning out as expected. Your expectations of what it means to be in a relationship (i.e. happily ever after, always and forever, without any effort) finally becomes seen as unrealistic.

During this stage, you may feel distant from your partner. You may feel like your partner is different than the person you married. However, you actually are still just learning about each other and each of your emotional needs. It may seem like you really knew each other when you got married, but in reality, this is just part of the learning process of this stage.

The power struggle stage can be difficult to navigate and can last months to years. Many couples in this stage either begin looking for a new relationship or attempt to change their partner to match the expectation of when they first met. This can make each of you feel that you are constantly misunderstood, can’t be yourself, or you’re walking on eggshells.

This is a normal stage in any relationship. If you and your partner can work through this stage, you will have a healthier, more mature marriage. You will grow together as a couple and be more connected to each other.

Successfully navigating this stage lays the foundation for a happy marriage and here are the tools you need to do it:

  • Learn how to effectively communicate your needs without emotionally triggering your spouse by using counterintuitive communication skills. Effective communication helps you and your spouse begin to understand what’s really being said, instead of just fighting to make sure your perspective is being heard.
  • Work towards connecting in ways that you both enjoy and make you each feel safe.
  • Develop steps or compromises to end recurring fights. Reframe problems and seek win/win solutions. Realize harmony naturally includes some struggle to get there.
  • Work towards starting a new narrative so that old wounds can heal and mutual trust can be restored.
  • Strongly consider seeing a counsellor who will help you build skills and change unproductive patterns. Research says that couples tend to wait too long — over 6 unhappy years — before seeking help. Getting help in this stage, rather than waiting for a crisis which can be hard to undo, can make all the difference in the future of your relationship.