Your question is unique in that, when asked for my advice, I’ve rarely been given so little information to respond to. I almost didn’t answer your letter. What could I say, after all? But then I realized: a lot, actually. And I bet readers of this column can also say a lot, because haven’t most of us been unhappy at some point? And regardless of WHAT is causing your unhappiness — maybe it’s your marriage, or maybe it’s something else — what you’re asking, basically, is what you can do to stop being unhappy to start being happy, and that’s something I can respond to.
The best place to start for anyone who is unhappy is to try to figure out the cause of your unhappiness. Because the only info you shared about yourself is that you’ve been married six years and you’re unhappy, it would be a logical assumption that it’s your marriage that is causing your unhappiness. But… maybe that isn’t really the case. Maybe there are other internal or external causes for your unhappiness and it’s your emotional state that is affecting your marriage and not necessarily your marriage primarily affecting your emotional state.
Can you pinpoint a time that you started feeling unhappy? What else was going on in your life? Can you think of a time that you WERE happy? What was different about your life then? What did you have that you don’t have now? Or, conversely, what do you have now that you didn’t then? How has your lifestyle changed? What new responsibilities do you have? What is your support network like? Do you live near family? What are your major stressors? What are you — or can you — do to combat them? Do you exercise regularly? What’s your diet like? How’s your overall health? Do you sleep well? Have you gotten a physical recently? Do you have any illness, either physical or mental, that requires meds to treat? If so, is it possible that your dose needs to be tweaked? Do you have work or projects or activities in your life that feel meaningful to you? Do you have hobbies you enjoy? Do you have children? And if so, how old are they and is it possible you have PPD? If you have kids, do you feel like you get adequate support caring for them? If you don’t have kids, are you happy not to? Do you feel pressure to have them? These are just some questions to ask yourself to help pinpoint the root of your unhappiness, assuming your marriage isn’t the sole cause.
But maybe it is. Or maybe it’s a large enough component of your unhappiness that it clouds everything else — good health and work you enjoy and hobbies you like and a support network you can count on. Maybe your marriage is so unhappy you can’t think about anything else. Maybe you feel stuck and just need someone to tell you how to get unstuck.
How to get unstuck in an unhappy marriage in 10 steps:
1. Talk to your spouse about your feelings, taking responsibility where you can and avoiding putting the blame entirely on him or her.
2. Express your needs clearly (“I need more time with you.” “I need more support and help with household chores and child-rearing.” “I need you to listen to me more.” “I need you to touch me and be affectionate.”)
3. Express the seriousness of the issues and potential consequences if your needs aren’t met.
4. Ask what your partner’s needs are and what he or she has been feeling about your marriage.
5. Consider couples counseling.
6. Consider a trial separation.
7. In you are being abused in any way, follow these tips.
8. Call in your support. Confide in trusted confidantes, like a best friend or a parent or sibling, and ask for whatever support you need to help get through this period, whether it’s a temporary place to stay, babysitting help, temporary financial support, help finding a job, or just a shoulder to cry on.
9. Decide how much longer you’re willing to be unhappy before you accept that it’s time to MOA, and then find a divorce attorney and start the process of ending your marriage.
10. Remember that every relationship has ups and downs and that you are not alone in your feelings. Remember that, if your marriage ends, you are not a failure. Remember that, even if you have children, your marriage is between you and your spouse and, if you can’t be happy in it no matter how hard you try, it is better to be happy apart.
And while you are following these steps, do everything you can to find happiness outside your marriage. If you don’t have friends, make some. If you work in a job you don’t like, think of ways you can make your work more enjoyable (talk to your boss about taking on projects or tasks that might challenge you or teach you new skills) or look for a different job, find exercise you can enjoy on a regular basis (dancing, biking, jogging, yoga, intramural sports, etc.), take a vacation (even if it’s an overnight getaway somewhere with different scenery), go to the water, walk in the sun, spend time with a child, practice healthy eating, do one thing that scares you, then do another, learn a new skill, start a gratitude journal, pray, make your health (physical and mental) a priority by getting a full physical and talking to a therapist about your feelings. Go to the highest elevation you can find — a hill or a mountain or a tall building — and look out as far as you can and remember that the world is full of people fighting their own battles every day and we all have struggles and you aren’t alone in feeling unhappy — everyone at some point has experienced sadness or feeling overwhelmed or lonely or like they’re stuck and there’s no way out. And many, many people have overcome those feelings and their situations, and you can too.
I know — or I suspect, at least — that things seem hopeless right now, but I promise there’s hope. You can be happy, if not in your marriage then on your own. If you are fully financially dependent on your spouse and feel like you have to stay married because you don’t know how to support yourself otherwise, you CAN do it. You can fight for alimony that will help you as your start a new life. You can get an education and get trained in a skill that will help you find work that will support you and bring new meaning and fulfillment to your life. This is not a hopeless cause. YOU are not a hopeless cause. You have the power to make changes in your life. You have the ability to get unstuck.
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at email@example.com.
jbk80 July 2, 2014, 10:21 am
Great advice from Wendy! Here’s a link to an article I read recently from The Atlantic, which also provides some useful information for how to foster a healthy marriage through positive communication: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/
Bittergaymark July 2, 2014, 10:26 am
You can either fix your marriage. Or end it. Somehow, I rather suspect that the main problems in your marriage stem from… Poor communication
Wendys Dad July 2, 2014, 10:27 am
Yo, Firstborn daughter of mine. Where did you get that picture? I’m pretty sure it’s one of mine. If you took it from my site, fine. I’m happy to be of service to the DW site. But if it came from a commercial site, I wonder who is using my images.
Long answer to a short letter, BTW, but very good. As usual.
Dear Wendy July 2, 2014, 10:38 am
Um, I took it while visiting you in Germany two years ago.
MsMisery July 2, 2014, 12:47 pm
My dad answers the phone “Yo.” This made me think of it.
Amy July 2, 2014, 10:28 am
Wendy, thank you for such lovely advice. I was going through a very hard time a few years ago and made a friend out of a new girl at work that had experience going through similar things. She would send me emails occasionally throughout the workweek that were well written, compassionate, and filled with insightful advice that really helped me. This response reminded me of the help I received from that friend. Thank you for printing this for everyone who will go through difficulties. I’m saving this one!
Good luck LW. If you do decide your unhappiness stems specifically from your marriage, please don’t feel bad about yourself. There is joy and fulfillment waiting for you. Good luck!
JK July 2, 2014, 10:33 am
Great advice Wendy (especially with so little to go on!)
joanna July 2, 2014, 10:39 am
I’m willing to bet we get an update on the letter with a million details that were left out and it totally changes the scope of the advice.
Addie Pray July 2, 2014, 11:05 am
This is a really good general “how to get happy” guide though! But who knows, maybe the specific advice this LW needs to hear is: “eat a bunch of legumes, take a laxative, and chug water; you’ll feel better real soon”- hard to tell though with her details, ha.
csp July 2, 2014, 2:06 pm
Addie: Quick Thread Jack: I saw your post the other day about the zit thing. You can look up how to use it on you tube. there are actual tutorials.
Addie Pray July 2, 2014, 4:17 pm
haha, thanks, csp. zits be damned.
Addie Pray July 2, 2014, 4:41 pm
also, this has given me the idea that it would be funny to reply to people with random untrue things (though this was true, I had a question about a zit tool ha) designed to embarrass them. here, i’ll give an example in reply to ktfran above.
csp July 2, 2014, 4:52 pm
That is brilliant! No, I saw the comment in the other thread but figured you wouldn’t go back there. That could be a very funny game though.
Addie Pray July 2, 2014, 4:53 pm
oops, got on a call and forgot to leave an embarrassing reply to kt. i’ll just have to do it later when i’m in a goofy mood. right now, work work work!
ktfran July 2, 2014, 5:09 pm
I can hardly wait….. I’m on the edge of me seat!
ktfran July 2, 2014, 10:45 am
That was beautifully written Wendy, and great advice for pretty much every person on the planet to read at least once.
jlyfsh July 2, 2014, 11:15 am
Wendy’s advice is so good, LW. I hope you read it and find your answer there. Marriage is not always easy. I hope that if there is love there and it’s what you want, you’re able to make it work. Learn to rely on outside people and activities for support. Learning to communicate effectively with your spouse is so important. They are either very aware you are unhappy and not sure what to do about it, or equally unhappy. And that’s no way to live.
Wendy's Dad July 2, 2014, 11:31 am
Wendy, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that our photos match each other given that we were in the same spot but just at different times. FWIW, I wish I could go back there and take more pictures.
And Happy 4th of July to the DW readers.
Addie Pray July 2, 2014, 12:35 pm
Happy Almost July 4th, Wendy’s Dad!
Laura Hope July 2, 2014, 12:26 pm
When I was unhappy in my marriage, communicating didn’t work and therapy didn’t work. So I tried to remember when we first met and first dated and he was my boyfriend and the insane attraction I felt for him. I had kept a diary so I was lucky to have it all in writing. Everything that happened. And somehow it clicked. I remembered those feelings and they came back. And since he wanted it as much as I did, we became boyfriend/ girlfriend again. And it was new again. I don’t know if this is helpful but maybe it could work for you.
csp July 2, 2014, 1:48 pm
LW – Wendy’s advice is excellent. Here is what I will say. Write down why you are unhappy. Write a book if you have to then try and find the theme. Like, over and over it is that he doesn’t listen. or money stuff. Whatever. Then come up with some clear points that you want to bring up with your husband and see if there are things you can change. Like, if your husband is terrible with money and has ruined you, that is probably something that can’t be changed. But if it is that you are just bored to tears, that is something that can be changed. But when you are going to have this conversation with your husband, make sure you are ready for it and you know what you want to get out of it. I have friends who have fights off the cuff and start spewing all the things that are wrong in detail then the main points get lost in the details.
simonthegrey July 3, 2014, 12:00 pm
Years ago, my mother and I were arguing about something, and she said something that has stuck with me and colored every bad experience since then: “You’re just like your father, you’re not capable of being happy.”
I asked her about it once, not so long ago, and she doesn’t remember saying it. But oh, I remember hearing it. Every time I am unhappy about something, every time I feel like my depression is clouding back in, every time my husband and I argue or someone I love dies or there’s a disappointment, this little voice reminds me that I’m not capable of being happy and that I will never be happy.
In the better moments, I know it’s a lie. I am happy. There are many things that bring me joy. But I have to search for them, recognize them, remember them. That’s the hard part. Maybe OP has a naturally realistic/pessimistic demeanor. Maybe it’s depression. Maybe OP’s spouse is a jerk, or maybe OP is. But OP, don’t listen to that voice. You can be happy and you deserve to be happy.