Got an Unhappy Spouse?


I have noticed a lot of marriage advice for unhappy couples encourages them to reduce each other’s unhappiness. Personally, I never found this model very helpful.
There is a time for helping reduce your spouse’s unhappiness, but it’s not while you’re seeing him or her as the cause of your own unhappiness. It’s when you’re happy. It’s when love frees up your generosity and kindness and delights in doing whatever you can for the wonderful person you married.
That happiness is within your reach. In fact, while your spouse could help you become less unhappy, happiness is something you can only give yourself. But that’s not the subject of today’s post. This one is about what you can do, once you rediscover the happiness in your relationship, to reduce your mate’s unhappiness.

  1. Look for reasons to be grateful to have this man or woman in your life. Try to find at least three new ones every day.
  2. Express your gratitude often and in as many ways as you can come up with: love letters, favorite foods, thank you gifts, small favors, public declarations, notes to be found unexpectedly, welcome home kisses with a thank you for whatever happened while you were apart.
  3. When you cannot or will not do what your spouse asks of you, instead of “no,” say, “Tell me more about what you’re looking for, and not just how to get there. I want you to have it, and I am willing to help come up with a better way to get there.”
  4. Set aside time in your day for being present with your spouse, even when he or she is not necessarily ready to be present with you. Turn off your phone and email. Put down whatever you are reading. Turn off the TV. If your spouse is willing to talk, listen actively and reflect back what you are learning about what your mate feels or believes, whether you agree with it or not. Just feeling understood makes a huge difference. If he or she is willing to have sex, take your time and give it your full attention. Or cook a meal together, take a walk together, or play a game of tennis.
  5. Don’t walk away from a complaint or a jab. Try something like, “Thanks for being married to me in spite of my shortcomings. What else could I do to make our relationship better?”
  6. When your spouse has good news, respond positively (“that’s wonderful!” or “fantastic”) and constructively (“what a great reward for your hard work on the project” or “sounds like your extraordinary social skills paid off again”). The way you handle good news is even more important than how sympathetic you are to bad news.
  7. Watch that you do not expect anything in return. When you give to get, you don’t give at all.

Nothing in return means this is not how you fix your marriage. It is how you celebrate it. If you are not yet ready to celebrate it, first Assume Love, Expect Love, and Find Third Alternatives every chance you get. That is how you enjoy being married.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Hi Patty – like most others I found your blog by googling whether to stay in a marriage for the sake of your kids. It is comforting to read other’s posts and know I’m not alone. Your site has SO much info I’m asking for a little guidance finding the help I need. I am a 42 yo old wife and mother of 2 HS age children. I’ve been with my husband since I was 17 and we just “celebrated” our 17th wedding anniversary. The past 10 years have been rough. He has wanted to leave…I’ve cried and begged him to stay. He was the first and only real love of my life. He says he doesn’t love me anymore. Can’t stand to look at me. Isn’t attracted to me. We have little options in the way of splitting up due to finances. Underneath all of his anger is really one message…I didn’t love him enough. In my mind, I’ve loved him to death. Now even when we are just feet apart it might as well be miles seperating the two of us. Intamacy is gone and it is awkward to try and “create” it. We fight in front of the kids. He yells, I cry. Too many details to post. I simply want to know if there is hope if the other person really doesn’t want to try. He refuses to go to counseling and now when I just try to have a conversation, he talks over me saying my words are nonsense. I’m not ready to give in or give up. I know I am not a happy person when I’m home. Is it really as easy as making myself happy first? He already claims I don’t do enough for him and now any time I “escape” (which is rare) I’m accused of spending too much of my time with others. All I want is to be able to show love and receive it in return. Can it be too late? Thank you.

  • Jennifer, you don’t mention whether there is any violence in your household. If so, ignore all of this and get real help putting an end to it before you do anything else.
    I don’t make offer any guarantees that dealing with your own happiness first will change your husband’s heart, but it has a better chance than the course you’re on.
    When we work really hard at loving someone, it often backfires. We’re doing what feels like an awful lot to us, and we keep going right to the point where we resent how little it’s getting us in return. To a spouse who wants something other than what we’re offering, all that’s visible is the resentment. Nothing eats away at a relationship more than resentment does.
    What I recommend is doing the reverse. Stop working at loving your spouse and start working at noticing every loving thing he does. Take nothing for granted. If you have a home you cannot afford to divvy up in a divorce, it means you’re both contributing all that you can to it. That’s a form of love. If you’ve been waiting for loving words, watch for loyalty or a helpful act or a smile. If you’ve been waiting to be held or made love to, watch for tiny gifts (as small as “want the last M&M?”) or a willingness to spend time together. Add to the list at least once a day.
    In your mind, you’ve loved him to death, but he hasn’t felt loved. It’s possible he’s got a bottomless pit or he’s a manipulative sociopath just using you, but it’s much more likely different things feel loving to him than to you. Why not start with a clean slate. Tell him you’re ready to learn how he wants to be loved. Ask him what you did in your dating days to make him feel you could be the one to love him, because whatever it was is something you know how to do, even if you didn’t know it was anything special.
    Then get to work on shortening your list of unmet needs. Download my 5-page eBook at for help with this.
    Even if none of these work at all, you’ll be in a much better place if you decide it’s time to move on.

  • I have a big problem. I’m as you say in a baby marriage still and can’t say that a big history ties me to my partner. But love does. We had hard time from the start. I found him to be a very pessimistic but never thought that that might be his personality. Something inside said that he is not that, that the whole wall build around him is for his protection. I thought that if I love him as much as I can and give him all the reasons to feel safe he will see that he needs no walls. I’m still living everyday hugging the walls. I’m a very optimistic person. I love to smile and be happy. It’s who I am. But I haven’t been my self lately. I’m always aiming to please him and make him happy. I forgot about my self along that way. I always give him compliments every day. not just to make him feel good but I do mean all of them. I hug him as often as it’s possible. I try to have conversations with him. I ask about his interests and listen carefully. I make cute romantic gestures often. and he is still not happy. He feels unaccomplished as a person and unhappy with himself and I often say to him that he needs to appreciate himself more than he does. that he is a great guy and he can do all the things he wanted. its never to late! No support, no love, no care, no words ,no acts, nothing helps! He is unhappy. and I give all that I have but seems like not enough for him and I start to feel depressed and unhappy my self. I am aiming always to find the reasons why he says or does things so I wont feel the pain of them impact me as much since I tell my self it’s not me but other things that influence him. I look for excuses (like he had a tough childhood and being far from home for so long in a place where he has no one did this to him) but the case is that no matter what it’s starting to get me. he never compliments me, if he does it’s because he was told he doesn’t so he will say something once and its so fake and forced you wish he said nothing. when ever I want to talk about things that interest me or make me feel something he starts to criticises me or just make that face: will you stop bothering me with your nonsense. I’ve left my home, my family, my friends, my career to be with the man I love but I sacrificed all for us to be together and happy. Whats the point of doing that for unhappiness. I don’t know anymore. Still think he is depressed and thats not him and I’m still waiting for him to emerge from inside. But instead of helping him I feel like I need help cause I’ve joined him in depression and can’t find the strength that I once had and overcome all. He always tries to belittle me and I know that comes from the need to make me feel small so in case I “see” him like he does I wont leave him since I will believe it is what I deserve. And in his fear that I might leave he pushes me away. I know he loves me he just cant deal with himself. its hard to like someone if you don’t like yourself. and he really is upset with himself. But I’m all alone here. No one. no one is here to say a kind word and to say it’s going to be ok. and listening to him everyday brainwashes even the most optimistic parts of me and I start to believe him. that I cant do things, that life is scary, that things are no good, that I’m not good enough. and every time when I ask him are you happy with our life with us he just makes a very unpleasant face. And I ask him with what are you not happy so something can be done about it he says: Don’t know… with that same face and that kills me every day slowly. I do love him and want him to be happy, us to be happy but how can you make an other person happy if they refuse happiness even form themselves?

  • Suzy, you are working very hard at a nearly impossible task. And here’s what’s happening while you’re working at it:
    You have stopped being a very optimistic person.
    You have stopped smiling and being happy, which is who you are.
    Your husband gets compliments, hugs, conversations, and cute romantic gestures without doing a thing about his depression, making it easier for him to coast further downhill.
    You get to feel like you’re the good guy and he owes you something in return. Except your marriage is getting worse and so is your outlook on life, because expecting something your spouse cannot give you creates corrosive resentment and giving in to depression convinces you life is happening to you and out of your control.
    You are alone in a new place, putting your happiness and hope in the hands of a rank amateur who has no clue at all how to help you. You need new friends, new activities, new reasons to get up in the morning. You need people who know the area and can tell you convincingly it’s going to be okay. You need people who return your smiles and share their enthusiasm with you. If you’re too far down to look for them, you may need talk therapy or pills to get you started. Whether your husband is happy or sad, you need your groove back.
    I think one of the scariest things about marriage is that it tempts us to hand off to our spouse whatever looks too tough for us to do. That’s great when we’re married to someone with a talent for it. But when we’re not, it makes it so much harder to choose to do what needs doing. You can start looking for your new friends and activities now, or you can wait until you fall out of love with your child’s other parent or wake up a widow.
    You already recognize he’s likely to be scared you will leave if you’re getting happier. The answer is not to be sadder. It’s to be reassuring, which is a lot easier when you’re happy and self-confident.
    If you think cheering him up is tough, imagine the weight on his shoulders as you demand he cheer you up. He has no idea how to cheer up anyone. Take away that expectation, that feeling of failure for him, that source of resentment for you, and watch your relationship come back to life.

  • My husband and I have been married almost 8 years. They have been great years until recently. We don’t get to see each other much because he works a lot of over time so I can stay home with the kids. He has recently told me that he’s unhappy. He said he’s still in love with me and doesn’t want to give up. I have run out of ideas to get out relationship back on track. He told me a few months ago that he needed space to think things over. So now I never know what to say to him or how to act. If I act normal he might feel smothered or I might say something to push him away. Things have become awkward between us. I wonder everyday if this will be the day he tells me he don’t want me anymore. Some days I feel so stupid staying with someone who’s not even sure they want to be with me. Some days I’m just waiting for everything to crumble and other days I’m optimistic. But my optimistic days are growing fewer all the time. I feel so helpless and its a huge blow to your self esteem when you feel you can’t make the man you love happy.

  • You cannot make your husband happy, Kirstie — no one can — so please quit kicking yourself for failing at this.
    It sounds like you miss having time with him. But when you get time with him now, he’s unhappy, probably short-tempered from lack of sleep or just exhaustion from all that overtime. You are also competing with the other things he likes to do with his spare time and with the ones he feels he’s supposed to do with his spare time. If you are also walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting him or moping around because he’s not enthusiastic about time together any more, you two could be bringing each other down.
    The answer is not to do without time with him. It is to rethink even the things that feel like a given about how you two are structuring your lives, starting with the ones you can change on your own, with the goal of ending up with both of you simultaneously available and at your least stressed.
    Can you change the children’s schedules, so you are free when he’s at his best?
    Can you stop doing a chore that’s getting in the way? For example, when my husband died, there was little time between when I got home from work and when my son went to bed. And I was spending a lot of it in the kitchen, cooking. So, for a year, until I could make a lot of other changes, we ate mostly microwaved TV dinners.
    Can you find a way to make enough money to alleviate either his overtime or his household chores? Or can you cook extra food or iron extra clothes and trade it for work your husband would otherwise need to do? Or can you cleverly save some of the money you’re currently spending?
    Can you reach out to other people for some of your needs? For example, if your husband is not great at talking problems through, could you seek out friends who are? If he’s stretched too thin to get the kids to school when you’re ill or to take one to the dentist while you take the other to ballet, can you find other mothers to trade off with?
    Can you make yourself available to him while he’s doing the other things he likes to do? Could you learn enough to enjoy golfing or fishing or bowling or whatever he’s trying to find time for?
    Beyond the things you can do on your own, consider the “unthinkable” things you could do together. Could you trade your current home in for a townhome with landscaping and exterior maintenance provided and a pool, a gym, and a tennis court within walking distance of the house? Could you move closer to his workplace? Could you take in a college student for the rent and the overnight babysitting possibilities? Or for the school holiday care that would allow you to take a part-time job?
    Also consider a large, six-year calendar, so you can both see that some of what you’re dealing with now is temporary, due only to your children’s current ages.
    And a marriage therapist who can help the two of you figure out how to have the most important parts of having a parent home with the children without paying such a steep price for it? It the great scheme of things, it’s probably more important to them and their wellbeing that you two find a way to enjoy being married than to have the advantages you can give them by staying home with them.

  • I have been with my boyfriend since i was 14 and now 26 we have a newborn together and we’ve been having issues with our relationship for years now at first it started out with him saying i was just not very out going and not very interesting, which i must admit is a bit true. I tend to focus on our financial grounding becuase he hasnt held a job thoughout this whole relationship for longer than a couple months at a time. He stays home to care for our child as i dont really feel as if i can pay for child care, he keeps telling me he is unhappy and by this time in his life he thought he would have an idea of how his life would be within our relationship and to my understanding he doesnt like the outlook right now. He tells me he’s bored, lacking passion, intimacy and i always feel like everything is my fault when there was once a time i couldnt imagine not having fun doing something silly and carefree from time to time, i am generally an optimistic person but with not being able to find what i can do to make him happy my optimism fades. I know i should be an anchor but currently im trying to anchor my peace of mind about our lifestyle as it seems he doesnt care too much about it cause he’s not actively searching for work. I love this man to death and i dont want him just for financial gain thats not why i decided to continue to be with him this whole time but i never thought i would be doing it by myself. Im just searching for a way to continue with this relationship and we both be happy. I s

  • When a relationship is going badly, Simone, it’s easy to start mixing all your problems into one pot. When you do this, you often end up jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
    You’ve been together a long time, and I would hate to see you throw away so much of your life’s history.
    You don’t make enough to feel comfortable paying for child care, and you are your child’s only source of income. If you divorce, this will still be true, but you will probably do something about it, take some risk to increase your income or find child care you can afford. It’s not a relationship problem. When you attribute it to your boyfriend’s lack of a job, it just delays solving the problem while it wrecks your relationship.
    You have become so focused on your finances that you don’t do anything carefree or silly or have any fun. But you invited a new baby into this life you’ve made, and now your responsibilities are even greater. But part of that responsibility is having some fun, being silly, setting your cares aside from time to time.
    A new baby stresses any relationship. Add to it that the baby’s father came of age just as the economy tanked and put lots more men than women out of work for years, and you’ve got a tense situation. Now, as the economy is finally recovering, he’s stuck feeling like he has no career, no adult identity, and no way to take the risks necessary to find one. And he’s a new father.
    I have cared for newborns. Looking for a job while you care for one is pretty darn difficult.
    One of the ways to fix a falling apart relationship is to do everything you would do after you divorced short of infidelity. For you, it would mean finding a way to care for your child even if her father never contributes a penny or spends any time with her, and make time for some fun in your life. For him, it means finding a way to care for his child even if you never contribute a penny or spend any time with her, while he builds a career he can rely on to pay the bills.
    If you two did those things, you would probably find each other very attractive as life partners. And growing up with both of you in a loving home is more valuable to your child’s future than anything you can provide separately.

  • I came into this relationship …. BLINDED by desire and loneliness. I now know that was a big mistake. However, I can say that @ “times” we seem to like each other … but I am a very positive, happy soul and have fallen in love with someone that I don’t even think has a soul…IF he does he’s very against it. He was a widower of 4 years and has spent the last 4 years alone…”totally” according to him. He’s angry, frustrated, opinionated, and just plain mean @ times. I can move out IF I want to, I’m just not sure “how” to without too much pain. I have an attachment issue and feel like I would totally fail @ being alone again and don’t want to make this same mistake again. I know there are probably no “real” answers on how to make someone that’s this miserable …”happy” … but any suggestions would be welcomed! Thanks for your blog!

  • Hi, Gigi, and sorry for what brings you here. I love your happy soul. You sound so unhappy in this relationship and so unhappy with who you might be without a relationship. Your first step must be to start doing things that make you feel happier, then taking the steps to identify what you fear about being alone with yourself for a while and do everything you can to take the fear out of them.
    Even if there is anything within your power to change about the man you love, you will be thoroughly ineffective at it until you let that happy soul shine again.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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