Unhappiness in marriage is a lot like bad baking. Just as poor baking habits—such as going heavy on the salt—lead to a culinary disaster, there are also predictable patterns for a miserable marriage. Unhappy marriage habits can sneak into a relationship. Many couples don’t realize they are doing anything wrong until it’s too late. If you want to ensure your relationship stays healthy, you must take steps to prevent unhealthy marriage habits from creeping in. This post takes a counterintuitive approach to happiness. The goal is to identify common unhappy marriage ingredients so you and your loved one can avoid them. Then, add in the right ingredients for a happy marriage.
How Not to Bake a Cake
A few years ago, our daughters invited their friends over for a baking competition. I was nominated as the baking judge—a role I participated in reluctantly. Everything was going great until I arrived at my oldest daughter’s mini-cake. From its outward appearance, I rated the cake an 8 out of 10. It was an impressive feat for a pre-teen learning to bake. Then I tried a bite…
My initial reaction was sheer delight. While I’m not a huge cake fan, I am a frosting fiend. It’s fair to say I like a little cake with my frosting, and few things are better than a frosting sugar-high. So when the initial hit of buttercream registered on my taste buds, I was delighted.
But after a few seconds, an uncomfortable bitterness kicked in. Then I started to gag. Two seconds later, I spit the bite into a napkin. Fortunately, everyone was in good spirits and eager to taste what all the fuss was about.
An Unhappy Marriage Recipe
After taste-testing her creation, my daughter proclaimed, “Dad, I wasn’t sure what the abbreviation TSP meant. I added a tablespoon of baking soda but should have only used a teaspoon—oops!” A great thing about baking is that if you don’t like the way the cake tastes, you can always change the recipe.
The same principle applies to marriage. Happy marriages follow predictable happy marriage patterns, while miserable marriages have plenty of unhappy marriage ingredients. When couples don’t like the way the marital cake tastes, they can always change the recipe by choosing better actions.
As my friend Erik Tyler the author of The Best Advice so Far, says, “You always have a choice.” The ability to choose how we think and act (though not how our spouse thinks and acts) is just as readily available for married couples as it is for bakers and single adults. So if you don’t like the way the cake tastes, then it’s time to change the recipe. Here’s a list of unhappy marriage ingredients to avoid.
Ingredients of an Unhappy Marriage
1. Ignorance Leads to Unhappiness in Marriage
Ignorance in marriage is anything but bliss. Sadly, marital ignorance abounds anyway. This is one reason so many unhappy marriages exist.
Ignorance in marriage is so common that one of my favorite psychology professors used to say, “Most couples spend more time researching their next vehicle purchase than getting to know their future spouse.” Sadly, he’s right!
And Dan Seaborn, the author of Marriage On Purpose, says that while most couples seal their wedding vows with the words “I do,” it would be far more accurate to say, “We have no clue.”
Don’t worry. We don’t have a pessimistic view of marriage. However, it’s important to acknowledge the lack of sound, evidence-based marriage advice. The point is that many couples don’t have a happy marriage because they never learned how. While schools teach math, history, and science, students spend far less time learning how a happy marriage works. The bright side is this is a solvable problem. Unhappy marriage ingredients can be replaced with better ones.
Unhappy Marriage Ingredient #1: Ignorance leads to unhappiness in marriage.
Happy Marriage Action Steps: Choose to keep learning and growing. Dive into evidence-based marriage research—such as John Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Choose to keep learning about your spouse by asking good questions.
2. Too Many Unhappy Moments increase Unhappiness in Marriage.
Unhappy marriage moments are like baking with chili peppers. An occasional disagreement can spice things up. But too many unhappy moments lead to an unhappy marriage. While this may sound like an oversimplification, researcher John Gottman has the math to back this up.
As it turns out, there is a recipe that happy, stable couples follow. During disagreements, happy marriages maintain a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction. At their best, happy couples achieve a ratio of 20 positives for every negative one. In unhappy marriages, the number of positive to negative interactions is 1-to-1 or less.
It’s important to note that the magic relationship ratio is 5-to-1 at worst and 20-to-1 at best. If you and your loved one agreed on everything, one of you wouldn’t be needed. Numbers like 100-to-1 probably indicate one or both of you feel too intimidated or enmeshed in the relationship to disagree. The bottom line is having some unhappy moments is normal—and even healthy. But too many painful moments lead to an unhappy marriage.
Unhappy Marriage Ingredient #2: Unhappiness in marriage comes from having an overabundance of unhappy moments.
Happy Marriage Action Steps: Get intentional about creating more happy moments. Check out this list of 28 fun couple activities for a list of happy marriage ideas. Then, do the types of things that other happy couples do!
3. Unhappy Couples Shy Away From Professional Support
According to Psychology Today, “Only about one-fourth of divorcing couples report seeking professional help of any kind to improve their relationship, and those who do wait an average of 6 years after serious problems develop to seek marital therapy.” The moral of this story is don’t be that couple!
Another unhappy marriage ingredient is a refusal to seek professional advice. The fact you are reading this post probably means you are one of the exceptions. And while not every couple needs therapy, the idea is to stay open. If you see signs that your relationship is deteriorating, don’t wait. Six years of baggage is a lot of “stuff” to carry into a therapist’s office.
Unhappy Marriage Ingredient #3: Unhappiness in marriage comes from avoiding professional support.
Happy Marriage Action Steps: Don’t take the journey alone! Avoid unhappiness in marriage by assessing your relationship and reaching out for professional support if and when needed.
4. Trying to Change Your Spouse Increases Unhappiness in Marriage.
The renowned therapist, William Glasser, used the phrase external control psychology to describe attempts to control others. He suggests that much of human misery stems from trying to get others to do things they are determined not to do. The problem with external control psychology is that even if you get what you want, it always hurts the relationship.
Glasser suggests, “We are driven by five genetic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun.” Even when nagging, threatening, punishing, and pouting lead to our loved one giving in, this “success” comes at the high cost of damaging the bond. Since love and belonging are fundamental human needs, this generates misery.
An Unhappiness in Marriage Story
One pastor tells how he and his wife were miserably married. He would wake up groggy and bang his shins on the dresser drawers she left open. He tried howling in pain, lecturing, and getting very upset—all of which are types of external control psychology.
Each time, her story was the same. She apologized profusely and promised to change. But soon, she’d return to her old habit of leaving drawers open. And the pastor would bang his shin again.
The couple’s marriage was on the rocks. Then…
Choosing Happiness By Changing Ourself
William Glasser says, ” It is almost impossible for anyone, even the most ineffective among us, to continue to choose misery after becoming aware it is a choice.” The last time this pastor banged his shin, he became acutely aware of his choice. He could decide to divorce his wife. He could choose to keep yelling, lecturing, and trying to control (all ineffective strategies that made the problem worse). Or, he could decide to take responsibility for the problem.
This pastor chose the latter and was glad he did. “From now on,” this pastor thought, “Closing the drawers is my responsibility. And every time I do, I’ll remind myself, ‘I love my wife.'” This ended their longstanding argument and shows that couples truly can choose happiness.
Unhappy Marriage Ingredient #4: Unhappy couples focus on changing each other and ignore ways they can be part of the solution.
Happy Marriage Action Steps: Decrease unhappiness in marriage by changing yourself first. Ask, “What can I do to solve this problem?” Happiness in marriage is not about being perfect. It’s about finding ways to make your relationship better every day. If you decrease marital unhappiness by just one percent, you are on the right track. And if you find a way to make your next conversation better than the last, it’s a marriage win!
How to Take Responsibility for Your Happiness
One of my favorite college professors had the habit of passing out a worksheet entitled How to Fail this Class. The goal was to get his student’s attention in hopes they would do the opposite. This post takes a similar approach. By providing this unhappiness in marriage recipe, we hope you’ll avoid the ingredients of an unhappy marriage.
After all, if you and I don’t like the way the cake tastes, we can always change the recipe. Now that we’ve created a list of what not to do, it’s time to add the right ingredients for a happy marriage!
Jen and I are thrilled you stopped by! Kind words and coffee fuel this blog. If you enjoyed our thoughts on The Unhappiness in Marriage Recipe, help us keep this great content coming. Please tell us what unhappy marriage ingredients you would add to this list. Or use the buy us a coffee button to help fund our next project. To dive even deeper, you can also check out our books and resources for couples. Jen and I are passionate about helping couples create happy marriages. Know we honestly couldn’t do this without amazing readers—like you—cheering us on!