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Options for the Unhappily Married

Can you fake your way to a happier marriage?

Unhappily married.
Unhappily married.

A recent study by UK divorce law firm Slater & Gordon asked two thousand people how they felt in their marriage. The good news is that most married people consider themselves either happily or very happily married. About 20% though, which is one out of every five couples, ranked themselves as unhappily married. That’s sad. Yet many of these unhappy spouses do not want their potential reasons for divorce to cause them to go their separate ways. Something—be it fears, guilt or loveho—holds them together, or at least holds them back from separating. If you are in one of these marriages, can you fake your way to a happier marriage?

You can at least fake part of the way. If you begin by making nice gestures like talking in a friendly way, smiling more, and expressing gratitude and appreciation to your spouse at least three times a day, that would launch a good start.

For a map of the next steps, listen to the song from country singer Pistol Annies called "Unhappily Married" (To listen, click here).

As I will suggest in the bottom part of this article, the song includes much remarkably good advice about how to procede.

First though, why do unhappy couples stay together? There's many very good reasons. The Slater & Gordon study of "unhappily marrieds" listed the top 10 reasons that couples stay together long after the love has languished. Here’s their list.

1. Not enough courage to leave.

2. Fears of later regrets.

3. Hope that things will improve some day.

4. Concerns about the impact a separation with have on their kids (most often a men’s issue).

5. Fears about how to sustain the finances on her own (mostl often a women’s issue).

6. Not wanting to have to give up the family house.

7. Feeling too old to walk away and start a new relationship.

8. Guilt about leaving.

9. Living alone looks scarey.

10 Worries about loneliness.

At the same time, here’s the good news about an unhappy marriage.

There’s much that even just one person in a couple can do to make an unhappy marriage better.

So here’s my suggestions for 10 options beyond divorce for those who choose to stay instead of separating. These particular solutions all spring from the lyrics of Pistol Annies' poignant song:

"Unhappily Married"

Must be mistaking me with the maid we don't have

Can't even wash your whiskey out your glass

I gave you no loving in a month or so

Can't live with you but I can't let you go

You better start working some overtime

Can't buy high heels on nickels and dimes

You're going bald and I'm getting fat

I hate your mum and you hate my dad

I'll cook your dinner if you wash my car

May as well keep going, hell we made it this far

We'll both play our parts in this disaster

I'll be the bitch and you'll be the bastard

Hey hey, it's alright

Everybody fusses, everybody fights

With all of the baggage you and me carry

We'll spend forever unhappily married


We'll spend forever unhappily married

We'll spend forever unhappily married

Can I get an amen?


Here's 10 ways these lyrics can guide positive marriage upgrades.

The words to this heartfelt country song suggest a surprisingly full plan for launching better times.

#1. Address the problem of ”mistaking me for the maid we don’t have.”

Schedule a “business meeting” with your spouse. List as item number one on the agenda something your spouse will like such as how to enjoy more fun together. Make item #2 division of labor. Quietly discuss how you might share household tasks instead of leaving the current roles of who dirties and who cleans.

If discussing the issue sounds unlikely to be productive because the two of you need better skills for how to communicate (how to communicate with your spouse), think about how you could, in a very pleasant way, cease doing certain tasks and very pleasantly, request if your spouse might be willing to take them on. No complaints, just requests. Maybe add incentives to your request like “so I’ll be less exhausted so I can be better humored and more affectionate when you’re home.”

#2: Address “”your whiskey.”

Discuss how each of you feel about alcohol and it’s possible role in your relationship. How has it been positive? Why do you each drink? How is alcohol potentially hurting your marriage? Alcohol and other drugs are one of the three main causes of divorce.

#3: Discuss and decide to do something different, with regard to “I gave you no loving in a month or so.”

Discuss how much and in what ways you are giving each other loving. Loving includes sex, affection expressed in physical touch like cuddling in bed or an arm over a shoulder. It also includes smiles, appreciation, agreeing with something your partner has said, playful comments, laughing together, doing something fun together …. If you both aim to give at least loving messages a day, lots would change very quickly.

#4: Explain, in a gentle way, why “I can’t live with you…”

Share with each other the three main difficulties each of you have in living with your loved one. Sometimes it’s helpful for you each to write them down, let the other read your concern, and then talk quietly about it.

#5: Share why “I can’t live without you.”

Focus on what you like about being married and especially about being married to your spouse. Share these fondnesses with each other--every day.

#6: “…better start working some overtime. Can’t buy heels on nickles and dimes.”

Brainstorm together on ideas for increasing the money in your household.

Be sure you focus on what you might do to add to the family bank account. It’s up to your spouse to get creative about his/her potential new ways to increase the pot.

Money doesn’t equal happiness, but insufficient money does create stress.

#7: “You’re going bald and I’m getting fat.”

Design activities you can do together to watch your health and to exercise together. Aim for activities that will be fun to share. Even a walk together after dinner every night, with or without the kids, can be good for you. ‘The best things in life are free.’

#8: “I hate your Mum and you hate my dad.”

Take a fresh approach to talking about your parents. Aim to understand each of them compassionately, maybe by looking at the context in which they each grew up. You needn’t like all they do to find aspects of the that each of you can appreciate.

#9: “I’ll cook your dinner if you’ll wash my car.”

Look for new ways to help each other out. Let yourselves be a real team.

# 10: “We’ve both played parts in this disaster. I’ve been the bitch and you the bastard.”..."With all the baggage you and me carry we'll spend forever unhappily married."

Decide to switch from blaming and complaining about each other to talking in a way that helps you both to heal from upsets. Learn to talk more respectfully. Learn to listen more responsively. Learn the communication and conflict resolution skills for marriage success.

What might happen if you made a conscious decision to switch from from bitch and bastard to prince and princess, lovers, or even best friends? Try the old technique of "fake it until you make it" and see what happens....

As to all that baggage of resentments about what your partner did or didn't do in the past, use it to learn something for yourself of what you might do differently should a similar situation happen in the future. Holding on to ressentments about long ago actions only feeds bitterness toward your loved one. Learning, by contrast, gaining a vision of how you can act differently in the future, offers far higher odds that your future will in fact become brighter and more gratifying.


An unhappy marriage does not have to stay unhappy. In fact, multiple studies have shown that for many couples even long stretches of marriage problems eventually give way to good times. By the time the nest is empty, most couples are very glad that they stayed in the saddle to ride over the rough spots. Happiness on the other side makes it all worthwhile.


Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test.

Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills for a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.

For more from Dr. Heitler

How to save your marriage

Does Marriage counseling work?

Online marriage counseling.

More from Susan Heitler Ph.D.
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