We had a storybook romance and the idea of an unhappy marriage was furthest from our minds. We found first love working together at a summer camp. Our first kiss was a warm summer evening on a hillside under the stars in the forest. We got married a year later, started careers, bought a house and before long, had three children. We shared the same faith and values. We both came from solid families.Then, a mere seven years after the wedding, my wife “pulled the fire alarm” and said she was not happy with our marriage. Like many husbands I literally had no awareness that there was even a problem. I was in shock!
Over 30 years later, we are in a much different place. Not only has our relationship recovered from that season, but we teach relationship classes and I do marriage counseling. We have mentored numerous young couples and I have officiated some of their weddings.
What we experienced in that stage in our marriage is not unusual. In fact, research indicates that “5-10 years” is actually the most common low point in relationships. At that point, many couples give up. Others may stick it out, but develop coping patterns that lead to a lifeless relationship that is not much better. Fortunately for us, we were able to find some keys that turned our marriage around to something deeply satisfying and beautiful.
5 Keys that Helped Us Turn Around an Unhappy Marriage
Here are 5 keys that helped our story turn from an unhappy marriage:
1. We became transparent with both our frustrations and our commitment to each other.
Our relationship at that point was a mixed bag. My wife made it clear that she stilled loved me and was committed to me despite her disappointment. Another married couple in our church were going though similar things at the same time. In their case, however, they both avoided talking about it. Their marriage did not last. He later told us that they both employed an avoidance strategy that allowed coexistence, but at the cost of greater and greater distance.
When my wife shared the depth of her negative feelings I was devastated. However, her assurances of love and commitment prevented me from feeling outright rejection.
2. We sought help from others.
I still remember, early in our marriage, proudly stating that “I didn’t need to read one of those self-help marriage books”. As a Christian, I had a high view of my marriage commitment. My parents had a strong relationship. I thought I was smart-too smart to have a bad marriage. Though I had a decent IQ, I had little idea how low of an EQ (emotional intelligence) I had. After all, not knowing your wife is miserable is pretty bad!As a counselor, I now understand that good relationships are hard work, especially in marriage.
There is so much wisdom to be gleaned from books, mentors, classes and counselors. Only a fool (like the old-me) would think that he can’t gain from the wisdom of others.
Around this time of low satisfaction, I got involved with a men’s small group, reading books and discussing how we could be better husbands and fathers. Diana met with our pastor’s wife for a year. Then we did a 13 week Christian marriage class, complete with weekly homework.
This class taught us important principles, some of which we still use. It also forced us to have deeper conversations about issues that we had never addressed or understood how to approach.
Some of the effort during this period led to more pain. I still remember tears and some arguments on the long drive to the class. But now, the broken pieces of our marriage were on the table and we could both work on gluing them back together.
For my wife particularly, my willingness to join the Men’s group and invest the time in the class was a message of love to her that spoke in a way that kisses or flowers could never do. They didn’t instantly “fix” her feelings, but they gave her hope.
3. We addressed our marriage problems before it was “too late”!
Every marriage counselor shares this wish: ”If only my couples would have come to me years earlier.” Recently, I came up with a great idea for a law. What if every couple had to do 6 months of marriage counseling at year # 5. Though an actual law like that might not be very realistic, I don’t know of any couple who would not benefit from a “engine overhaul” at that stage.
I had one couple come to me about eight years into their marriage and proclaim, “our marriage isn’t bad, but we think we need something more than just an oil change. We want to work on our marriage before we really need it.” That is one wise couple- one who has not surprisingly grown greatly since I first met them.
In his book, What Makes Love Last, marriage researcher John Gottman Ph.D. points to an insidious relationship killer called Negative Sentiment Override. This occurs when a spouse experiences an accumulation of hurts and disappointments to the point where they come to expect negativity.A spouse with N.S.O. will read negativity into actions that are harmless or even gestures that are intended to be loving. “Oh, sure, you buy me flowers for this anniversary…don’t think this makes up for the last 3 you forgot”. Like wearing those cheap dilation glasses after an eye appointment, you are protecting yourself from damage, but you also cannot see very clearly.
I personally believe that it is never too late to get help. Even a very damaged relationship can be turned around. However, it is much easier when there are still some warm coals to blow on, than when all life has gone out.
I often tell my couples that our initial goal is not to take a bad marriage and make it great. Our initial goal is to simply move the needle in the “love gauge”. If we can get a little better at listening…a little more patience…perhaps a little more time devoted to serving each other’s needs, we can move the needle.
Moving the needle produces hope, and hope often leads to even greater changes and positive sentiment override can begin. Then each positive gesture is appreciated, which in turn encourages more change and then the couple is on the road towards a good or even great marriage.
4. We made growing our relationship a high priority.
I had wonderful feelings of love for my wife in the honeymoon phase of our marriage. I still had strong loving feelings for my wife in that dark season when she was not happy. However, in terms of time and energy devoted to her, I was not actually demonstrating my love very well.
There are likely a number of reasons why the “5-10” year period is often a low point in marriage. Perhaps the greatest reason though, is the natural tendency of couples in that stage of life to devote far more attention to their careers, homes and children than each other.
Ironically, I was so confident in our relationship that I actually took it for granted. I sometimes tell our classes that I thought my wife was like my car. For some guys, that would speak of their deep devotion and attention. For me, my car is something that I simply expect to start when I need it, take me where I need to go and it will always be waiting for me, ready and able for the next task.
I now understand that love is more like a garden. When you regularly water it, nurture it and care for it during the various seasons it will produce joy and beauty year after year. Neglect it, and it is sure to fill with weeds, lose its beauty and die.
Couples who spent every free hour devoted to each other in the dating stage, find it strange when their passion or connection fades in the busyness of their daily lives. My wife and I discovered, almost accidently, that when we would get away from the kids and day to day responsibilities, go on some little trip or drive together, we often returned feeling some of that old “in-love” feeling that we once had. The simple truth was that we were practicing some of the concentrated quality time that allowed our love to blossom in the beginning.
5. We believed that a beautiful, love-filled marriage was attainable.
Unlike many couples, we had the advantage of coming from two sets of parents who had a healthy (though not perfect) long-term unions. We had good models that gave us a positive vision. As Christians, we also had the biblical promise that God wanted to take the two of us and “make us one”.
So, when we found ourselves in an unhappy marriage, we still trusted that the “institution of marriage” was good. Rather, we believed we must be doing something wrong. We just needed to learn how to do our marriage differently.
Our culture teaches us that love is a spell. If we just find the right person, then we will live happily ever after. However, the experiences of most happily married people, and the relationship research tells us that that love is actually a skill. For most people, especially those like me with a low EQ, love is something that has to be learned.
The good news is that love is a skill that can be learned.
As my wife and I get more grey hair (or less hair), a little slower and far more creaky in our joints, we are reaping the harvest of 4 decades of love and hard work. There is nothing like holding hands on a long drive, smiling together while watching a PBS series, or repeating multiple adorable phrases of our children when they were small.
40 years after that first kiss, our marriage is far better now, than even the best of the early years. We are grateful to have a life-long intimate friend that will be there till “death do us part”. We are so thankful that, with God’s help, we were able to fight for our marriage and grow from that stormy season so long ago.
If you are in an unhappy marriage, perhaps you too can see it turn around. You don’t have to be stuck. You don’t have to stay miserable. Love is a skill that can be learned.
- Try sharing your concerns, along with your commitment.
- Get help from others, before it is too late.
- Make your relationship a high priority.
- Believe that a better marriage is attainable.
Maybe the later chapters in your love story will be the best of all.
For counseling help, contact me or one of the other counselors in the online directory.
“Happy Couple”, Courtesy of Vera Arsic, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Unhappy Couple”, Courtesy of Vera Arsic, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Vintage Car”, Courtesy of Jess Loiterton, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Happy Couple”, Courtesy of Kampus Production, Pexels.com, CC0 License
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