What Can I Do When I Am Unhappy In My Relationship?

Couple unhappy in relationship- sitting on a couch.

In any relationship, there are times when we are not happy with our partner or how things are going. You can complain about it or blame yourself or your partner. Or you can use this as a sign that you need to stop and take a look at what’s going on in yourself and in your relationship.

There are no set rules about how much of the time you should feel happy in a relationship. Be careful not to get into thinking that there’s something terribly wrong when you feel unhappy and then get more upset. Use this as an opportunity to look deeper into yourself and to communicate honestly with your partner.

Unless there is severe emotional or physical abuse going on, there is time to inquire into and work on what is troubling you about your partner. You certainly would not want to get used to being unhappy and just go along with it, as many couples do. In fact, many couples that stay together still report that they are unhappy. STATS? You do not have to go there. There is more joy possible for you and your partner then you have ever imagined! Let’s stop and take a look at what you can do.

First,do not start by thinking about all the problems you are having in your relationship. Give thought to how you want your relationship to be and work from there.  If you just start listing all the problems, you may convince yourself that it’s not worth working on. If you start by communicating all these problems to your partner, the same may occur for him or her. Too many couples give up on the relationship too soon. Give yourself a chance by reminding yourself of what you want and what you’re committed to creating together.

Build a couple vision of how you want your couple to be.

Stop and think about what your couple is committed to. What is the vision that you had when you started your relationship? What possibilities do you see for manifesting that vision now? Think about it yourself, and then invite your partner to examine this with you. ….. Maybe being happy is not the only thing you want to get out of being in a relationship. Sometimes being moved or being generous or even thoughtful can be as important as happiness.

Develop a joint statement of what this vision looks First, . In our work with couples, we call this statement the “couple proclamation”–a positive of the possibility of your relationship. Like the Emancipation Proclamation or the Declaration of Independence, it continues to inspire you even in difficult times. Elsewhere we describe guidelines for how to create your proclamation. LINK HERE. Once you have it, it is important to say it every day, especially when you are unhappy. So keep saying it, and fake it til you make it!

For example, a couple who had just started living together, Mike and Gloria, were about to break up when they came in for counseling. They had conflict about their finances and about how they were spending time together. They had created a couple proclamation of “we are safe and loving,” but they hadn’t been saying it. When they began talking about what they were committed to, Mike said he was afraid of them breaking up, and Gloria said she was afraid of disappointing him. They re-committed to saying their couple proclamation and to acknowledge what they had by setting a time to go out and celebrate the anniversary of their first date. They immediately started feeling better about their relationship.

Like Mike and Gloria, you might want to find some things you can celebrate together and take the time to do that. Set up a time to go on a date or even a weekend together. Create the intention to make it an intimate and special experience.  Enroll your family—parents or children—in supporting you in accomplishing this. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with baby-sitting or finances, if you need it.

Look for some of the things that do make you happy in your relationship and acknowledge them. 

These may be small things like cooking and sharing meals together, having people over, making each other laugh, or walking the dog together. Showing appreciation to your partner for the little and the big things makes a big difference.

Acknowledgment is not an expensive commodity, but people are often stingy with it. That is a sad state of affairs, since research has shown that simple acts of positive attention– even more  than expressions of love—are what people need most to function well (Barron, 1988). In fact, happy couples have been shown to make positive statements to each other five times more often than unhappy couples (Gottman, 1994).

A major block to long-lasting relationship happiness is in our individualistic culture. Of all the challenges to relationships that couples currently face, the most significant is the prevailing notion of living for yourself, the idea that being independent and getting your own needs met is the highest form of personal functioning. While there are certainly positive aspects of individualism, like freedom of expression, too many couples end up being premature and unnecessary casualties of it.

So before considering separation or the divorce option, stop and look at the bigger picture.  Perhaps being happy almost all the time may not be the primary value of being a couple.  Beyond your individual happiness is the pleasure of contributing to another or others and creating some things that make a difference in the world. With some commitments and goals beyond yourself, like family or civil rights or the environment or school safety, and so forth, you may be able to put your unhappiness in perspective and create joy in your life and others.

That is one of the goals of the organization, Couples Coaching Couples, that we co-founded 25 years ago, in which couples take turns coaching each other on a weekly call. We have noticed when we are on a call that even if we are in a bad mood with each other, as soon as we start coaching the other couple, we feel more connected and happy with our own relationship. 

Also, talking and listening to other couples about their challenges and what they are doing to manage them can give you new insights and perspective. You don’t have to be on a coaching call, to share your experiences with others and find out what has helped them. “We are all bozos on this bus,” as the saying goes!

Certainly, if you try these things and you continue to feel unhappy in your relationship most of the time, you may want to seek professional help, preferably as a couple, but by yourself if your partner is not open to that. Be careful, though, because if you go to individual counseling or therapy, you may convince yourself and your therapist that your relationship is hopeless before you have given it a real chance. Discuss it with your partner before making a decision about the counseling. Try to look from the perspective of what might be possible for you if it works out, not just how bad the situation is.

In any case, as mentioned earlier, use your unhappiness as an opportunity or a red flag to pay closer attention to what is going on in your life and to take action to take care of yourself and your relationship.  Acknowledging that you are unhappy is the first step to becoming happy. If you want help with this process, please contact us for a consultation.

About Couple Power

Phyllis Koch-Sheras, PhD, and Peter Sheras, PhD, are clinical psychologists and a married couple for over forty years, who have written several books and articles about relationships and who see couples for weekly sessions, week-end intensives, and couples groups and workshops in Charlottesville, VA. They are co-founders of Couples Coaching Couples and do presentations and workshops around the country. You can find out more information about them on their website, www.CouplePower.com or reach them by calling the office at 434-971-4701.

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