How to navigate an unhappy marriage

How to navigate an unhappy marriage
Published : May 12 , 2022
Latest Update : September 25 , 2023
Dr. Ava Ghasemi Holdich and Matleena Vanhanen are two Dubai-based therapists who had one big idea: to make emotional health more accessible... more

It is not unusual for the reality of married life to take us by surprise. Sometimes it's more blissful and easier than expected. More often, marriage turns out to be different and harder than we thought it would be. 

What should you do when you realize you are unhappy and dissatisfied with your marriage? In this article, I propose that you have four options:

  1. Leave the marriage
  2. Resign to the marriage as it is
  3. Work on the relationship as a couple 
  4. Accept the marriage as it is, but work on your own happiness 

If you find yourself unhappy in your marriage, I encourage you to reflect on these options and intentionally choose the best option for you.

Only you can decide which option works for you, your relationship, and particular life circumstances.

You may need to consider your children and extended family in your decision-making. Whichever option you settle with, you will have to live with the consequences of your decision. Choose the option that brings consequences that you can live with.


Option 1: End the marriage

Divorce is an option for unhappy marriage

You can choose to leave a relationship that is not satisfying. In the best-case scenario, you have learnt something about yourself as an individual in a relationship.

Hopefully, this insight will prevent you from finding yourself in a similarly disappointing relationship in the future. In the worst-case scenario, you leave the marriage without learning anything and repeating the same mistakes you made in the first marriage.

We learn about relationships by being in relationships. We all have something that we can learn about ourselves, even when we feel that it is our partner that has failed us and betrayed the relationship.

For example, if your spouse is abusive towards you, that is certainly something that they have to take full responsibility for. You are not to blame for their abusive behavior. However, were there any red flags during your courtship that you dismissed? Have you tolerated the abuse for too long? Have you made excuses for your spouse's behaviour rather than labelling it abusive? 

If you realize that your marriage has come to an end and you know in your heart that it is the right choice for you, my advice is to end the marriage sooner rather than later. Break up hurts, and there is no pain-free divorce, however, prolonging the inevitable will not make it any less painful. Allow each other to heal and move on rather than waste time in limbo.


Option 2: Stay in the marriage as it is

Another option you have is to stay in your marriage and leave things as they are. You may hope that the marriage or your spouse changes and that you will find happiness together. At this moment, however, you can accept that your marriage is not satisfying. Maybe when some time passes, your children are a bit older, or your spouse experiences less stress from family or work, things will improve.

You are not choosing an easy option, but it is not a bad option in some cases. Maybe this is not the moment to make big life decisions. I do, however, suggest you ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long am I willing to wait for things to improve? A month, a year, ten years, or a lifetime?
  • What must change for me to feel happy enough with my spouse and in my marriage?
  • How will I know that enough has changed for me to shift from waiting to enjoying married life?

When you are intentional about the position you adopt, you acknowledge that you are not actively working on changing anything to improve your marital satisfaction.

Should you notice resentment towards your spouse and your life building, consider it a warning sign that this option no longer works for you. You risk becoming a prisoner of your own bitterness. You may need to find ways to hold on to hope during tough times.  


Option 3: Work on the marriage with your spouse

Marriage psychologist talking to couple

Your marriage has the biggest chances of success when you and your spouse recognize that there are areas in your relationship that need addressing and are motivated to work on them. You may do this with or without outside help. It is possible that one of you feels the pain more than the other, but both of you recognize that something has to change for the long-term future and contentment in the marriage.

The good news about choosing this option is that many couples have been able to address their difficulties and find mutual satisfaction in their marriage. No marriage is perfect, and no marriage will satisfy all needs of each spouse.

However, a good enough marriage is within reach for many couples as long as both are willing to work on it. It requires motivation, collaboration, flexibility, and grace.

If your spouse is reluctant to work on your marriage, you can always see a couples therapist alone and work on your own relationship skills. Learning about what makes a marriage work will help you make choices that benefit your relationship. Once your spouse sees the positive changes, they may want to join you in couples therapy. 

Should you seek outside help, I urge you to seek out a qualified couples therapist. Many clinicians who work with couples do so with insufficient training and supervision. Couples therapy is hard! You want to work with a competent clinician.


Option 4: Work on yourself

You may realize that you choose to stay in a disappointing marriage without much hope that it will get better. In this case, you are most likely staying because you hold values and beliefs that prioritize the stability of marriage rather than your happiness. For example, an intact family may be more important to you than the happiness of either spouse. Or, maybe you don’t want to break your marriage for cultural or religious reasons. The survival of the marriage is more attractive and safer for you than pursuing a new life. Some find social pressure to remain married too strong to be broken.

When you choose to stay in a disappointing marriage, you have an option of working on what you have control over– yourself. You know you can’t force your spouse to change. You can, however, control your perception and actions.

You can choose how you interpret situations and respond to them. You can only focus on your sphere of control. You have the freedom to choose in more ways than you may realize.

You can choose to remain alive, connected to your body, emotions, and intellect. You can choose to look after your physical and emotional well-being. You can choose to be the best version of yourself, regardless of your circumstances. At any given moment, you have the freedom to choose your response. No one can take that freedom away from you. Use your freedom!


You can find happiness

If you find yourself in a marriage that does not meet your needs, it’s not because you don’t deserve happiness and a good relationship.

Life is not always fair. We don’t get everything we want. Whichever option you choose now, don’t forget that you are an individual and can find joy and happiness in other areas of your life, even when marriage is tough.

I urge you not to let the disappointment in your marriage lead to a disappointing life. 


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