So, you had a fight. All couples fight now and then. So, you can’t remember the last time you had sex. You have young kids and a full-time job, and you’re exhausted. So, you don’t talk about anything but work and the kids. What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Is all this normal, or does it mean you might be in a bad marriage?
For all the bliss and pixie dust that locked you into saying “yes,” you know that marriage isn’t a fairy tale. It’s hard work—boring at times, lonely at times, even briefly regretful at times.
But you’ve known enough couples happy in their lifetime marriages to know that the work is worth it. Marriage fulfills, heals, teaches, and gives life.
And yet, you’ve had this inner voice nagging you for a long time. Something’s not right. Why am I having doubts? And why am I so unhappy? Why do I feel so unloved? Who is this person I’m living with? How will I survive ‘forever’ like this?
You know better than to say anything to any of your friends and neighbors because all they see is a happy couple. Everything looks great from the outside, so saying anything would just rock the boat.
But they don’t see your life on the inside. They don’t feel the little blows of disrespect and sarcasm. They don’t see the physical and emotional distance that has become your norm.
Besides, your husband doesn’t even know that you’re struggling inside and wondering if you’re in a bad marriage. Would saying something make him angry, hurt him, make him not trust you?
Where to Turn for Support
If this is your first marriage, you have no prior experience for comparison.
If your parents were divorced or had a bad marriage, you have that negative modeling rooted in your psyche.
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How, then, are you supposed to figure out if your marriage is just going through a predictable phase or is actually a bad marriage?
Thankfully the internet has infinite choices for reading up on relationship problems and how to deal with them.
But, in the long run, it’s that same inner voice that’s making you question your feelings that’s also going to lead you to answers.
That’s not to say you have to find those answers on your own. At a time when your self-doubt is mounting, you need to have reliable sources of wisdom and guidance.
That may be your best friend who knows you better than you know yourself. It may be a therapist or divorce coach capable of listening for critical cues and giving you feedback on what’s “normal” and what’s not.
What’s important when you’re questioning yourself and your marriage is that you seek the help of someone with expertise and wisdom.
Can this person look beyond the veneer of your life and reach into the deeply planted seeds of discontent?
Can this person help you discern the difference between a bad marriage and a marriage that simply needs help?
A Word of Caution: Talking to Your Parents
One suggestion worth considering: You may have a close relationship with one or both of your parents. But unloading your marital concerns on them can actually work against you.
The fact that they’re from a different generation than you means they made decisions and life choices in a different context.
And the fact that you’re their daughter means they will instinctively side with you to protect you at all costs.
That alliance may feel good, but it won’t help you examine yourself and your marriage objectively. And it can also cause your parents to worry about you and/or view your spouse differently.
So how do you figure out if you’re just in a rut or actually in a bad marriage? Isn’t there a spectrum of “good and bad” for marriage? “Wonderful, great, good, OK, needs some work, all about the kids, unsatisfied, unhappy, miserable, afraid”?
There are definitely predictable signs to look out for. But no single sign is going to point to divorce. (You didn’t think it would be that simple, did you?)
You may want to start your query with a legitimate marriage quiz from a reputable source. Knowing the right questions to ask is a huge step toward satisfying that unsettled inner voice.
Below are several signs that your marriage may not be as happy as it should be.
(I’m being careful not to use the term “bad marriage” here because most marriages—even deeply happy ones—experience some of these symptoms.)
You’re not having sex anymore, or only infrequently.
Physical intimacy is one of the exclusive gifts of marriage. It elevates your relationship above all others. And it’s an essential part of the connection between spouses.
Is one of you avoiding sex? If so, why? Are you exhausted from raising kids and working a full-time job? Do you not feel good about yourself and therefore don’t feel sexual?
Do you and your spouse discuss your sex life openly, or do you keep your desires and dissatisfaction to yourself?
Have you experienced sexual abuse, either from your spouse or from someone else?
There can be a lot of reasons for a decrease in sex. But an honest examination of and discussion about those reasons is essential to restoring this important part of your marriage.
There has been an infidelity.
Does having an affair mean you will divorce? Not necessarily.
Believe it or not, affairs can happen in a happy, “good” marriage just as they can happen in a bad marriage.
So, as heart-shattering as an affair is, it doesn’t necessarily point to divorce. It may be the impetus needed to learn the skills necessary for communicating needs, wants, complaints, and love in a healthy way.
You fight all the time.
Living that way is exhausting. The volley of shouting, blame, and criticism can make you walk on eggshells and wonder why you’re even together.
You have stopped fighting altogether.
Fighting, however, isn’t bad in and of itself.
It’s how you fight, when you fight, and especially why you fight that matter.
If you’ve muted your interactions in an effort to avoid the altercations, you may have decided you don’t have anything worth fighting for.
You don’t feel heard.
Marriage is supposed to be that safe haven where you can bare your soul and at least feel heard on a heart level.
Couples don’t have to agree on everything in order to listen from a place of love and concern for one another person’s highest good.
Not feeling heard—or feeling you just get “blah blah” lip service—is an important sign to pay attention to.
Likewise, are you listening to your spouse or shutting him out?
You don’t feel respected.
Couples can go through tough times but still feel and demonstrate respect for one another.
When sarcasm, negative body language, interruption, control, and other disrespectful behaviors creep in, it’s time to pay attention.
You daydream about life without your spouse.
Having the occasional thought of “What would my life be like if I hadn’t married?” isn’t unusual. Nor is wondering what it would be like to be one of your single friends.
But fantasizing about life without your spouse or with someone else points to deeper issues that need to be addressed.
Confiding in a therapist can help you determine if, for example, an underlying issue like depression may be affecting your perspectives.
One of you has an addiction.
Addiction can’t survive without an enabling environment.
If one of you is an active addict, your marriage is inevitably riddled with codependency.
And, if your marriage is going to survive, you will both need to get help.
There is abuse.
As with addiction, abuse can’t continue without an underlying dynamic to support it.
Domestic abuse is not something you can figure out or solve on your own.
If you and/or your children are being abused, it is imperative that you seek professional help and safety immediately.
The Four Horsemen come riding in.
No one has done more research on the predictability of divorce than John Gottman.
If your marriage is being visited by what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling—pay attention. These are definite signs of an unhealthy marriage pointed in the wrong direction.
No one walks into a marriage with a perfect formula for making it work. But everyone who walks into marriage does so with a moving truck of history, experience, and learned behaviors.
Some issues, like addiction and abuse, demand immediate action and professional help.
Other issues, however, aren’t always so obvious.
If you and your spouse don’t have the communication skills to discuss them in a healthy way, that’s part of the issue. Communication is the issue.
You’re the only one who can decide if your marriage is worth saving. No one else can look at your life and tell you you’re in a “bad marriage.”
It’s your intuition, your desire, your choices, and your commitment that will ultimately direct you.
It really does come down to YOUR inner voice.
Listen to it.
Since 2012, SAS for Women is entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.
*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”