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Signs You Might Be in an Unhappy Relationship

Oprah Magazine logo Oprah Magazine 8/21/2019 Ashley Mateo
Ryan Gosling et al. looking at the camera: Relationship experts, marriage counselors, and couples therapists weigh in on the red flags that could spell trouble for your relationship. © IMDB Relationship experts, marriage counselors, and couples therapists weigh in on the red flags that could spell trouble for your relationship.

Committing yourself to someone every single day takes work and no partnership is perfect. If you've ever wondered whether or not you hate your spouse (seriously) you're not the only one. But, there's a difference between the standard marital ennui and finding yourself questioning whether you're actually unhappy, or even in a loveless marriage. And if you are pondering that, you're also probably considering what you should do about it.

Sure, there's always divorce, or separation, but there are a lot of reasons people don’t leave unhappy relationships, many of which are rooted in fear, explains couples counselor Ronica Arnold Branson, Ph.D. “Fear of being alone, fear of being rejected, and the fear of failure—these all apply to our relationships and why we continue to stay in them even though we aren’t happy.”

Plus, it’s tough to tell a partner you’re unhappy, especially if you aren't sure yourself how you feel. But, if you're not already doing regular check-ins, you need to have that conversation, says Kiaundra Jackson, a marriage and family therapist.

“Ask yourself: If today is my last day, can I say that I’m in the relationship that I want to be in? That I deserve to be in?” says Branson. If the answers are no, acknowledge that what you want does matter—and happiness does exist.

Not sure where you stand? These are some signs that you may be in an unhappy relationship, rather than just in a rut.

1. There’s no fight left.

Common sense would pinpoint having too many arguments as a relationship red flag. And while that may be true, so is the opposite: “Healthy relationships have conflict,” says Stephanie Wijkstrom, a psychotherapist and founder of The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh. “A normal dose of disagreement shows that you are investing in the growth of the relationship.”

Without that, the emotional climate of a relationship can become stagnant. “When a couple isn't bickering or disagreeing at all, that’s a sign that both members of the couple have given up and are feeling hopeless about the impact they can have on each other and about the chances of the relationship changing,” says Lyons.

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2. You prioritize your friends and family over your partner.

While it’s important to make time for people outside your relationship, it becomes an issue if you’d always rather see them than your partner. “When you had a good day at work, when you ran into someone you haven't seen in a while, when you find a $20 bill in your jacket pocket—who do you want to run and tell?” asks Raffi Bilek, a couples counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. “If you're in a happy relationship, odds are it's your partner. If you're not, it's probably somebody else.”

Beware of overly relying on friends or family for emotional safety and support, too. “That’s a sign that someone has lost not only the desire to bring their deeper emotions to their partner, but that they may no longer feel safe being vulnerable with them,” says Kimberly Ciardella, a marriage and family therapist.

3. Date night ceases to exist.

Remember when you first met and you’d squeeze in face time no matter what it took? If you stopped prioritizing quality time together (and we're not just referring to lingering dinners) it’s a sign of disconnect. “Relationships take work, and when something is important to us, we make an effort to take care of it,” says Ciardella. “When that effort stops, it's a sign that your relationship is losing importance and value.”

When date nights, no matter how short, become non-existent, or your partner finds excuses to avoid coming home (or vice versa), alarm bells should go off. “People use 'being busy' as a way to run away from and avoid being intimate and close,” says psychologist Mary Ann Mercer. “They’re also running away from their problems. They hide in all their activities and hope that things will just heal themselves, but they won't."

Of course, there are plenty of valid factors (you're emotionally drained from taking care of kids, or your parents, financial stress, and so on) that could stand in the way of being able to carve out an entire evening. The key is that you're still trying to find moments for each other.

4. You’re drowning in criticism.

When someone is unhappy, the smallest things tick them off. “When critical commentary or judgment outweighs intimacy, it's hard for a relationship to recover,” says Ciardella. “How can you experience joy when you feel like you’re constantly failing?”

5. There’s no gratitude.

In a partnership, you do a lot for the other person—from sharing paychecks to raising children. “Feeling appreciated, feeling heard, and feeling seen are all important markers of an intimate relationship,” says Ciardella. “When gratitude is lost and partners stop thanking and recognizing each other’s strengths and efforts, there’s less motivation to continue doing the things you are hoping your partner appreciates—and that often creates a cycle of discontentment.”

6. Your sex life is lacking.

Though sex may not always equal intimacy, "it's a way for couples to show their affection and desire for one another,” says Madison. “If sex isn’t happening, it can be a sign that the couple is uncomfortable being intimate with one another, whether that’s due to a lack of sexual satisfaction or not feeling emotionally connected to one another.” Neither reason bodes well for the happiness level of your relationship. If this sounds familiar, start by communicating your feelings. While a sexless marriage can certainly survive, it's important that you're on the same page.

7. There’s nothing nice to say about the relationship.

Sure, every relationship has its downsides. “But if you can only recount negative or bad memories about the relationship, then that may mean the bad is outweighing the good,” says Madison. “When you’re constantly feeling unhappy or unsatisfied in the relationship, it may be difficult to think of happier times.” If you’re making an active effort to brainstorm the pluses of staying in a relationship and still drawing blanks, you may want to rethink your status.

8. You feel so alone.

The very nature of being in a relationship with someone is that you’re in it together. “Feeling alone can mean you’re not receiving what you are needing from your partner—that they’re not supportive or emotionally available to you,” says Madison. Of course that would make anyone feel unhappy.

A partner shouldn’t be your everything, but it’s important to feel that you’re a team. “When a couple doesn’t share their struggles and triumphs with one another, this leaves an ally, someone who may be one's primary champion, in the dark on the details of their life. Good ideas are often left on the table, as well as empathy and a sense of connection,” says John Duffy, a psychologist and relationship expert.

9. There’s contempt between you and your partner.

“It's puzzling, but we often save our worst, in terms anger, for our significant others,” says Duffy. Treating your partner as inferior is a recipe for discontentment. In fact, “contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce,” says psychologist Caroline Fleck, Ph.D. “Whether that’s name calling, mocking, laughing at someone’s position, eye rolling, or scoffing, the result is that the offended party feels worthless, and in some cases even despised.” Not exactly how you expect to feel in a loving relationship.

10. Someone’s stonewalling.

Stonewalling is when one person shuts down, ignores, or otherwise stops responding to their partner. “Think of Don Draper in Mad Men tuning out his wife Betty while he watches TV,” says Flack. “Stonewalling can look like an attempt to control the conversation (one partner is basically blocking further discussion by disengaging). But it typically occurs when an individual is physiologically distressed and inadvertently trying to shut down overwhelming emotions.” The person being stonewalled, on the other hand, is left feeling like they don’t have a voice in this relationship.

11. You’re living parallel lives.

As a couple, your lives should be interwoven—at least, in certain ways. But “if you look up and see that you and your partner's lives are not intersecting, that’s an indicator that someone may be unhappy,” says Jackson. “You shouldn’t be on your own separate path and expecting your partner to just keep up.”

Even if you don’t spend all your time together or you have distinct separate interests, you should feel like an active element of your partner’s life. Think about it this way: Can you describe what your partner did in the last 24 hours that you weren’t together? “Happy partners check in on each other and share the small and big details of their days,” says Wijkstrom. If you don’t know what’s going on with them when you’re not with them—or worse, don’t care—that’s a sign you could be unhappy.

12. You're holding grudges.

You’re not in middle school anymore. “It takes far more energy to stay angry and hold a grudge than it does to let it go,” says Mercer. Not only is it an agonizing position to put your partner in, “a grudge is a destructive form of self-sabotage because the purpose is to keep people at a distance,” she says. And if someone’s wallowing in anger, who would want to be with them? Staying stuck in the past because your partner did something to hurt you and you will not forgive them continuously sabotages you in the now," she says.

13. Someone’s playing the blame game.

“Couples fight, but if everything is always your partner's fault and never your own (or vice versa), someone’s probably being a bit biased or irrational,” says Mercer. In a relationship, you should be able to easily say ‘I'm sorry.' When someone is so stubborn that they just won’t let things go, they could be pushing their partner away.”

Blame is a type of defensiveness that prevents someone from being able to listen or change. “Chronic defenders are unable to consider the source and situation before they react—they always respond with justification or deflection,” she adds. It’s another form of relationship sabotage."

14. You’re picking fights.

If you’re having major arguments about things you know are insignificant, there’s something deeper going on. “When the question of who put the scissors in the wrong drawer turns into a major, relationship-threatening blow-up, that's signals something deeper at play," says Bilek.

Picking fights is a way to create space and avoid interactions, says psychotherapist Joanne Ketch. “If you’re doing this non-stop, it may be time to be honest with yourself and your partner and consider if you want to make that distance official, or work through your issues,” she says.

15. Someone's got a serious attitude.

If this sounds like something more applicable to a teenager, you’re not wrong. But “the most obvious thing that we often ignore is our partner’s attitude,” says Branson. “If they no longer smile when they're around you, don't show affection, or have an unpleasant demeanor when they’re in your presence, more than likely, they’re unhappy.

The change in attitude could be due to a bad day at work, but that can't always be the excuse. “Your partner should be able to relax, rejuvenate, and engage in happy moments as a result of being around you, after awhile, at least. If they constantly have a terse attitude, anger, or an unpleasant disposition, this is a cause for concern,” she says.

16. You’re daydreaming about being single.

Fantasies are normal, and imagining being with other sexual partners or dating someone new “doesn’t necessarily mean that you're looking to cheat, but rather that you're seeking stimulation, passion, or excitement,” says Ketch. But, if you’re regularly fantasizing about living it up as a single again or you’re jealous of your friends who are regularly swiping around dating apps, your current relationship is missing something important and you need to get to the bottom of it.

17. There’s a lack of respect.

“Respect is essential to a happy and healthy relationship,” says Branson. And that means respect in all aspects. “When your partner shows that they are losing respect for you, through abusive language, abusive acts, and/or engaging in activities that they know aren’t appropriate, this is most definitely a sign that something is not right.” You know the old saying, people will only do to you what you allow them to do to you? “If you let the cycle of disrespect continue and not say anything about it, unfortunately, it will more than likely continue,” she says. And that makes for a very unhealthy and unhappy relationship environment.

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