By Meg Gemelli, Crosswalk.com
Are you sitting in public right now? If so, look to your right and left. One in every five of people within your line of sight suffer from an unhappy relationship.
Does that seem like a lot to you? Not to me. Honestly, I’m surprised the number is so few! But as a Christian Marriage and Family Therapist, my perspective is a little skewed. I serve the unhappiest of couples, and pray daily that our work together will change lives for the better.
Happiness is a subjective measure, and quantifying the meaning of the word for most couples seems as big a challenge as nailing Jello to a wall. In faith communities, we commonly refer to happiness as gladness, counting it all joy, staying in perfect peace, or being blessed.
But Scripture paints a number of interesting pictures of what it means to have the joy of the Lord in all circumstances. Not all of them are harmonious, or even desirable. It’s the stuff of jail cells, chains, and Paul’s suffering--all in the name of Love.
So what does that mean for marriage? Does the commitment naturally become a drudge? Is it just something to be tolerated in the name of holy joy, despite our experiences of loneliness, betrayal, and disappointment?
Does your “feeling happy” matter to God at all?
Probably. How else could a writer celebrate such an elation of love, as in Songs and Proverbs? I suggest to you that God does actually care about your happiness. And though we’re warned that the Christian life isn’t easy, we are promised that two are better than one.
Creation itself presents solid evidence for married couples benefitting from a happy connection. Couples are less likely to suffer from depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other illnesses.
This is especially true for older couples, who report having significantly less conflict, higher rates of intimacy, and feelings of both pride and nostalgia when it comes to their relationship legacy.
Even so, happiness is an ever-changing state. Ask any couple married for more than a few years and they’ll agree--their relationship is often the best part, and the worst part of every single day.
Here are 4 signs of an unhappy marriage, and what to do about it.
1. You’re Keeping Score
“Do not seek revenge or hold a grudge…” Lev. 19:18
Do you know what the difference is between a romantic partner and a co-worker? Intimacy. And when it’s lacking, it’s human nature to notice who’s doing the most work. We keep score--and while some of us nag, others of us silently seeth.
Remember when you were first married and the kitchen looked as if the fridge and cupboards exploded? Yet there you sat, cuddled up on the couch, oblivious...
If you’re feeling resentment toward your spouse, and wonder if he or she even cares about how hard you work anymore, you’re likely unhappy. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’ve begun to create a mental list of all the ways your partner is failing, there’s no doubt that he or she will continue to do so.
There’s also no doubt that you’ll want to hold a grudge in return.
2. You’re Withholding Communication, Affection, or Praise
"People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway.” Mother Teresa
If you’ve stopped praying for your spouse…
If you can’t even force yourself to utter a kind word…
If you shrink away from his or her touch…
Unhappiness is rooted in the heart.
When we experience pain, our initial human response is to shrink back. We avoid the person or activity causing the hurt, and isolation puts us at high risk of ungenerous self-preservation. It becomes a cycle. As we protect ourselves, we cause injury to our spouses, who in turn respond to their own pain by retreating from us.
...And round and round it goes.
3. You’ve Begun to Seek Affirmation and Encouragement Outside of the Marriage
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear...but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Tim. 1:7
A coworker, your best friend, or the personal trainer at your gym--it feels amazing to receive a kind word when your spouse feels more like a criticizing boss than a teammate.
If I can’t get it at home, at least somebody cares enough to support me here...
Beware, these are the thoughts that have paved the way to doom for countless marriages by way of infidelity or neglect. If you can relate, it’s time to acknowledge the truth: Unhappiness has probably been around too long.
4. You’re Hyper-Focused on the Kids, and You’re Going Through the Motions with Your Spouse
And activities, vices, and entertainment all seem more pleasurable than spending time as a couple.
“So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God, but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth.” 1 John 1:16
What’s better than having to deal with a problem head-on? Distraction! (At least it feels that way for a little while). If you’re constantly grabbing for something, anything to fill the minutes of a day, rather than facing your spouse, an unhappy marriage is likely to blame.
And the truth is being squelched by over-stimulation.
Sadly, this tactic will fail over time. Activities end, kids move away, and there’s only so many hours of TV one person can digest in a day. And after all the avoidance, the problem of unhappiness will be greater than it ever was at the beginning.
Worse still, your kids might feel as though they were the center of your universe--pressured to perform by an over-involved parent.
Perhaps we’re not as “busy” as we all think we are...it’s possible that we’re simply avoiding an unhappy marriage. Now what?
Here are 3 essentials for how to heal from an unhappy marriage:
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Jon Asato
If you’ve gotten this far and you can relate to any of the signs, I want you to know that there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We’ve all experienced feelings of sadness, disconnection, and disappointment in our marriages, and it’s not the final word.
It’s OK to admit that life isn’t turning out how you thought it would. You’re normal. But if you’re tired of feeling lonely and sad, and you know that God has called you to something more in marriage, here are some ideas that will help.
1. Identify the Truth. Tell the Truth.
The problem isn’t really his career, is it? It’s the fact that your loneliness overwhelms you as you feed, bathe, and put the kids to bed alone night after night.
And the problem isn’t really her busy schedule, right? It’s that it seems as if she makes time for everybody else...except you. And it feels like rejection.
Couples fight about money, intimacy, work, and kids, but at the root of every single argument lies the same question:
Are you here for me? Are we on the same team and do you still want me around?
We blame one another with accusations and demands, but what we’re really protesting is the distance between us. We struggle to find each other through the loneliness and hurt. But the only way to discover true happiness, is to stop focusing on the superficial details of daily life. We cut straight to the heart of it instead.
I still love you. I’ve missed you for too long. I’m sorry. I want you close to me again.
2. Stop Blaming. Take Responsibility.
“Get up, for it is your duty to tell us how to proceed in setting things straight. We are behind you, so be strong and take action.” Ezra 10:4
This is one of the most difficult truths in all of counseling and ministry to understand (and one that clients love to hate):
Nobody can force us to “feel,” at least not for any length of time. They can influence or trigger us. Ignore us. Or misinform. But not a single human can force us to entertain specific thoughts over and over again, that result in feelings. We reinforce and solidify our own feelings, therefore we need to claim a fierce ownership of our thought lives.
Unhappiness is often rooted in the stories we tell ourselves about our spouses. If we ruminate on their negative traits, we have zero chance of experiencing happiness in marriage. What if you repeated the following sentences in your head every single day?
a) My husband doesn’t care about me. I’m just a maid to him. As long as he has food, clean laundry, and somebody to watch the kids, he’s happy. He’s the most selfish person I know.
b) She doesn’t want to be close to me. She just gives in to intimacy because we’re married. She must “feel tired” so many nights because she doesn’t find me attractive.
If I had a quarter for every time I heard somebody make those comments…But look at what a difference an unconditional, positive opinion of your spouse could make.
a) I feel overlooked and exhausted right now, and I wonder if it’s because he’s tired too. Maybe he hasn’t noticed my work, but on the other hand, I haven’t told him how much his appreciation means to me. I don’t praise his work nearly as often as I should either, but I’m so thankful that he does it. I like to hear it, but I wonder if, and how, he feels appreciated. I need to find out. He’s a good man and I know he’s doing his best.
b) I feel lonely and rejected right now, and I wonder if it’s because she’s so physically tired that she hasn’t thought about it. I crave closeness, but I haven’t told her how much comfort she brings when we’re together at the end of a long, stressful day. I wonder if she feels the same way I do, or if there’s a different type of comfort that she needs more. She’s a good woman and I know she’s doing her best.
Intimately connected couples don’t expect their partner to read their minds. They assume the best, and communicate the rest thoughtfully, and with a spirit of grace.
3. Make Time. And Make No Apologies for It.
“Let your yes be yes, and your no, be no...” Matt. 5:37
No I’m sorry. We can’t volunteer Saturday night, because I haven’t had alone time with my spouse in a week.
No son, you can’t have a slumber party Friday because we’re overdue for a family fun night.
Unfortunately, I can’t take on that extra office project right now. My self-care and family time has been suffering lately, and I’ve made the decision to prioritize my responsibilities.
Happiness dies in the swirling vacuum of isolated goal-setting. So it’s one-hundred percent up to us to reclaim precious time and create moments that foster joy. It may frustrate those who’ve become accustomed to your many “yes’s,” but sometimes “no” is the holiest word in all the heavens when it comes to fighting for the health and happiness of your marriage.
The common-sense realization we must come to, is that none of us can continue doing exactly what we’re doing now, and expect a different result. The changes that are decisive, made together, and God-led are the ones that will reignite not just happiness in marriage, but passion.
At the end of the day, our feelings of happiness aren’t the final destination anyway. And the goal isn’t to chase after or manufacture the fleeting, all-consuming emotional highs. Instead, we remember that pure happiness is merely a byproduct of the sacred gift of relationship.
It exists within the space between two souls, connected by the warmth of Holy Spirit.
Because truly, the greatest of these is always Love.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Ivanko_Brnjakovic
Meg Gemelli is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and the founder of theMakingofaMarriage.com. Along with polishing her Crossfit participation trophies, she can be found Pinterest-failing in the kitchen, glamping with the fam, or reading a great book oceanside. However flawed, she practices faith over fear every single day.