I've been writing a relationship advice column for several years and I get many letters every day, but I recently received one of the shortest letters to date. It said simply:
I need some advice. I've been married for six years and I'm so unhappy. What do I do?
-- Unhappily Married
I almost didn't answer the letter. What could I say, after all? But then I realized: a lot, actually. And I bet readers of my column could also say a lot, because haven't most of us been unhappy at some point? And regardless of WHAT is causing this letter-writer's unhappiness -- maybe it's her marriage, or maybe it's something else -- what she's asking, basically, is what she can do to stop being unhappy to start being happy, and that's something I can respond to. So here's what I told her:
The best place to start for anyone who is unhappy is to try to figure out the cause of your unhappiness, and since 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's 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's 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 (move on already), 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. The sooner you start unsticking yourself, the sooner you're feel free.
This post was originally published on Wendy Atterberry's relationship advice blog, Dear Wendy.
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If you have a relationship question Wendy can help answer, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.