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.
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 less time 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.
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.
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.
3. Stability stage
In this stage, you accept your partner as a unique individual. Rather than wishing for your partner to change, by now you’ve learned to respect your partner. You’ve figured out how to resolve differences and you each have established roles.
This stage brings peace and stability, but with that comes routine and set roles. This can be boring for some. Growth requires risk and ongoing learning. Being too comfortable in the routine of this stage means your marriage does not grow.
Here are the tools you need to navigate this stage:
Consider changing up roles in the relationship, even if just a few. It can raise your appreciation for your partner and grow you as a person.
Try to vary the routine to make your relationship fresh again. As you and your spouse try new things, use the communication skills you learned in the previous stage. What you try needs to bring you closer together, not drive a wedge between you two.
4. Commitment Stage
By this stage, you have recognised there is no ideal partner nor ideal relationship. In this stage, you choose to commit to the individual you married. You both have learned how to communicate and continue to do so. You can freely share the good and the bad with each other, trusting your commitment to support you.
It’s common in the commitment stage to realize you love your spouse, but you may not like them at all times. We are all human and not perfect. Love can look beyond imperfection.
The tools you need to navigate this stage include:
If you are frustrated with the imperfections in your relationship, consider talking to a therapist.
Couples workshops or retreat weekends can also be beneficial by providing new insight and skills and give you the opportunity to re-connect with your spouse.
Continue to expand your knowledge of your partner. What are their current hopes and goals? How about their current fears? What are their feelings about upcoming events or milestones? We continue to evolve as individuals, even though we are married.
5. Co-creation stage
In this stage, you and your partner consciously use your partnership to benefit people (or something) beyond your marriage. This typically involves engaging in a joint creative project.
Using the strength of your partnership, the two of you create something you value together. Habitat for Humanity is an example of the power of the co-creation stage. In other instances, this is when a couple may decide to have children, which can also complicate navigating an unhappy marriage.
In this stage, you act as a team. A pitfall, though, can be losing focus on nurturing your relationship. You may find yourselves back in the power struggle stage.
Instead, navigate conflicts by using the tools you learned in the previous stages.
Take your time to thoughtfully choose a creative venture that excites both of you.
Prioritise routines that nurture the relationship.
Periodically pause and take inventory of the relationship: “Are we still on track?”
Whichever stage you currently occupy, recognize these stages are not linear.
You may find yourself in any of these stages multiple times throughout your marriage. But each time you go through a stage, you and your partner are working towards a deeper connection.
So, can you save an unhappy marriage?
There is no one right answer to this question. There are just too many situational variables involved. However, by reflecting on your relationship and the stage it is in, hopefully, you can discover your answers on how to proceed.
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