Most, if not all, marriages will encounter the occasional rough patch over the years—but when does a rough patch turn into an entirely loveless or unhappy marriage?
It can be scary to consider the possibility that your marriage is over, or to even recognize the signs in the first place, but it is possible to come back to each other if that's what you both want.
Here are the main signs you're in an unhappy marriage and what to do about it, according to marriage therapists.
Quiz: Are you in an unhappy marriage?
16 signs you're in an unhappy marriage:
There's constant criticism
Constant criticism is an indication that feelings of love and warmth for each other are being replaced by judgment. If you're constantly criticizing each other, that's not a good sign, according to licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC. "Criticism or name-calling is a huge boundary violation," adds licensed marriage and family therapist Shane Birkel, LMFT.
Your relationship has become sexless
Another sign of an unhappy marriage is a virtually nonexistent sex life. Or, when you do have sex on the rare occasion, it's not great. Of course, not having sex all the time isn't necessarily a bad thing, and some couples don't mind a sexless relationship. It's not so much about how often married couples have sex; rather, it's about whether you enjoy the sex with your spouse and feel good about your shared sex life.
You struggle to spend time together
Being around each other may feel like a chore, or extremely forced. Without the sense of intimacy that was once there, you may feel like you have nothing to say—and also don't really care what they have to say.
You stop sharing wins with each other
When something exciting happens, who's the first one you call? If it was once your spouse and now it's a friend or family member, that's a sign your marriage has taken a hit. Birkel notes that in unhappy marriages, there isn't much motivation to connect or share anything.
You’re both defensive
Caraballo and Birkel both note that constant defensiveness is a sure sign that the two of you aren't communicating well, going hand in hand with the constant criticism. Simple statements or questions can also be met with backlash. For example, when one partner reminds the other to do a chore, they may get defensive and say something along the lines of, "I already said I was going to do it—don't guilt-trip me."
You avoid each other, as much as you can
Birkel says that generally avoiding each other is also a relatively obvious sign things aren't going well. You'll likely make separate plans and have no motivation to spend time together—all of which point to an unhappy marriage.
You daydream about leaving
It's entirely possible that fantasies of leaving or being single will start to pop up in your mind. You're becoming aware of the issues facing your marriage and how the marriage makes you feel, and it's inevitably causing you to think of the other possibilities.
There's an anxious versus avoidant attachment dynamic
Something Birkel has frequently noticed is a clash of attachment styles: "There's a spectrum of people who are pursuers," he explains, "who are kind of boundary-less and get their self-esteem from how the other person feels about them. And then there are withdrawers—conflict avoiders that don't want to talk about issues." In these scenarios, there's often a cycle of one pursuing and the other withdrawing, only to cause more subsequent pursuing and withdrawing.
You feel more yourself when separate
When you first get together with your spouse, you're supposed to feel like they bring out the best in you, and you like who you are around them. In an unhappy marriage, you'll feel more yourself when they're not around and may even dislike who you are around them, Birkel says.
You stop arguing
Not arguing anymore roughly translates to the two of you not being willing to work through things anymore, Birkel says. Arguing isn't great, obviously, but at least it means you're still fighting for something. "Losing motivation to work through things with each other is a really bad sign."
You're in denial about negative patterns
Whether you've been together for decades or you're just not keen on the idea of divorce, accepting you're in an unhappy marriage can be very difficult. This can result in denial, or an "inability to recognize negative patterns," Birkel says, adding, "if you don't recognize it, it's going to be very difficult to improve on your relationship."
There's no understanding or compassion
Things like blame, judgment, and shaming will often take front stage in an unhappy marriage, Birkel says, leaving little to no room for understanding or compassion. When something goes wrong or isn't working, no one's willing to give the other the benefit of the doubt, a supportive gesture, or even just a loving tone of voice.
Body language changes
We can tell a lot from body language, and it's usually not too hard to read when you know what to look for. Very basically, you and your spouse may always angle yourselves away from each other, even when speaking. You may cross your arms or put your hands on your hips a lot, in a dominating or defensive manner.
It feels physically wrong being together
Being in each other's presence is no longer warm and joyful and instead likely feels cold, awkward, and uncomfortable. This may actually show up in certain body language, such as the examples mentioned above, but it can also simply be an overwhelming feeling that you don't want to be physically near each other. A. marriage without intimacy may struggle to survive.
You feel contempt toward each other
Along with defensiveness and criticism, contempt is one of the "Four Horsemen" of relationships described by The Gottman Institute, one of the leaders in relationship research, Caraballo explains. Contempt is a kind of extreme disdain for another person, akin to hatred and disgust. It's a lingering emotion, and it will make most encounters with your spouse unpleasant.
You stonewall each other
The fourth and final "horseman," Caraballo says, is stonewalling. It essentially involves someone shutting down, particularly during conflict. They might walk away or simply surrender to make the conflict go away and be left alone. Birkel adds that stonewalling shows an unwillingness to improve your relationship.
RELATED STORY: 8 Ways To Fix Your Relationship When It's Falling Apart
Body language of unhappy married couples.
Body language can be one of the most obvious indicators that something in your marriage is awry.
According body language expert Blanca Cobb, M.S., we're usually pretty good at intuitively discerning whether someone's body language is positive or negative. As she previously explained to mindbodygreen, when someone's body tenses up, that's a common "negative" expression, which may be related to stress, discomfort, or anger. "Positive" body language, on the other hand—like relaxing your body or resting comfortably—can indicate happiness and trust.
In the case of negative body language in relationships and marriage, some examples include:
- Crossed arms
- Angling away from each other
- Avoiding eye contact
- Negative facial expressions
- Aggressive posturing
- Closed-off posture
- Looking around the room
- Shaking head "no"
What to do if you're in an unhappy marriage.
If you've gotten this far and think you're in an unhappy marriage, the next question is, where do you go from here? It's ultimately up to you and your spouse to decide if you're able and willing to work on the relationship, or decide if the best course of action is to end your marriage.
It's important to get clear on whether to say or to go would be better for you. Unhappy marriages can actually be detrimental to our health1, according to research, so if you choose to stay, it should be with the earnest belief that your relationship can be repaired and that you can return to a happier place. No one should have to endure a relationship that makes them unhappy.
No matter what you path you choose, you'll want to start by opening a conversation with your spouse about how you're feeling. Couples' therapy can be extremely helpful to facilitate these conversations and to help you decide on the best course of action, Birkel and Caraballo both note. A couples therapist can help you and your partner talk through what's not working, and they can guide you through the process of rebuilding your relationship if that's what you choose to do.
It may also be worth taking some time apart to help you both get clarity on your situation. As relationship psychologist Margaret Paul, Ph.D., previously told mindbodygreen, if you're not sure you're ready for a full-blown divorce, taking some time apart through a trial separation can also be a good option.
According to psychologist Debra Campbell, Ph.D., if you do want to stay together, "Act now if you want to save the relationship with openness, energy, empathy, love, and most of all by teaming up again." She says that this is your relationship’s trial by fire, and now's the time to really fight for each other. "Turn to one another with a shared focus, or keep gazing out the side windows, ignoring each other, at your own peril," she previously wrote for mindbodygreen.
Can you revive an unhappy marriage?
Yes, a loveless or unhappy marriage can still be revived as long as both partners are committed to doing the work.
"Reviving an unhappy or unfulfilling marriage starts first and foremost with a desire to have things change," Caraballo says. The desire to work things out must also be followed by concrete steps to repair, he adds. "This could look like learning new ways to communicate more effectively, managing finances differently, or anything in between."
Again, a relationship therapist can definitely help with this. You can also try using "therapist-written books on relationship repair together, or attend workshops or retreats led by licensed professionals," Caraballo adds.
And always remember, Birkel says, if you've made the decision to work on your problems and try to save your marriage, "This is a person you love and care about and want to make it work with," he says. Remind yourself of that fact often.
When to get divorced.
Deciding whether to get divorced is never easy. It's definitely recommended that you reach out to a trusted person for support as you weigh this decision, whether that's a friend, family member, or therapist.
We have a whole guide on how to know when it's time to get divorced to answer any questions you might have, but some of the biggest telltale signs that the relationship is irreconcilable include abuse of any kind, if the marriage is causing you significant distress, or if the marriage isn't improving despite you and your partner's mutual efforts. Paul notes that couples therapists can be helpful when deciding on (or going through) a divorce as well.
If you do decide on moving forward with ending your marriage, Paul emphasizes that, with enough compassion, the process doesn't have to be grueling. If you're both willing to approach the divorce in a caring and empathetic way, you can "work it out with a good mediator who does this kind of work, and it doesn't have to be so hard," she says.
If you want to leave your marriage but can't.
You may feel unable to leave your marriage because of children, finances, cultural pressures, or abuse. If you're in such a situation, we highly encourage you to reach out for support from loved ones, mental health professionals, or a domestic violence hotline, who can help you take stock of your situation and figure out the best next steps for you. Getting an outsider's perspective can often help you shed light on options you hadn't considered, and help you remember that you're not alone in this.
For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
Is it normal to be unhappy in a marriage?
It is common for marriages to go through periods of unhappiness. However, a relationship that's entirely or consistently unhappy is likely not a healthy one and requires change.
Is it better to divorce or stay unhappily married?
Given that research suggests unhappy marriages can have negative physical and emotion impacts on our health, it is often best to get divorced if nothing is working to improve your relationship.
Remember: Divorce isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it can actually be the healthy, empowering thing to do if you're in a relationship that is harming your well-being and isn't improving despite your best efforts.
What if you're in an unhappy marriage but can't leave?
If you are in an unhappy marriage but are unable to leave for reasons such as addiction or abuse, it is imperative you seek outside help through loved ones, mental health professionals, and/or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224).
An unhappy marriage is more than just a rough spot—but it doesn't mean your marriage is doomed.
It may take a lot of soul searching and hard questions to figure out whether you want to make the marriage work or if it's time to walk away. (Here's how to know if your marriage is over.)
But if you and your partner decide your relationship is worth it, you've already overcome a huge hurdle—and your marriage may be even stronger once you come out on the other side.
RELATED STORY: Married But Lonely: 4 Potential Causes & What To Do
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.