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Why are so many people unhappy in their relationship?

That’s a hard question to answer, although that doesn’t stop people from trying to figure it out.

According to Dana Adam Shapiro’s research for his book You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married), very few married people are happy — he says about 17 percent. What derails their marriage? A lack of communication, dishonesty and adultery are among the top problems, he notes.

One poll finds that about six in 10 of us are unhappily coupled, four out of 10 say they have considered leaving their partner and one in 10 don’t even trust their partner anymore.  Unhappy marriage


The poll goes on to detail the most-mentioned problems, the top five being lack of spontaneity, lack of romance, terrible sex life, no time to give each other attention and lack of time to talk.

Instead of a poll, I thought I’d venture over to the Experience Project to read the real-person responses to a question — why are so many people unhappy in marriage?

Here are snippets of the 140 answers:

  • Finances and unmet expectations.
  • marriage isn’t natural. It isn’t really natural for a person to WANT to be permanently bonded to someone, with no real option of getting out (without a lot of trouble). Society and cultural norms and history have made marriage something that seems totally normal, when in reality, only certain types of people and certain types of personalities are going to be naturally able to make marriage work. Everyone else is going to have to work at it.
  • people getting married when they shouldn’t: too early, not compatible, etc. If you’re bored after a few years of marriage it’s definitely not gonna work. A real lifelong relationship should have many stages
  • I’ve been against marriage because I had the idea that my parents are suffering so much in it and I hated the idea of being so miserable. The funniest thing is that they actually get along really well, the problem was in the image movies and fairytales give about marriage — happily ever after, endless romance etc.
  • I suspect that a large chunk of the unhappiness can be traced back to dubious reasons for getting married in the first place. That is, the foundation of the troubled relationship is fragile and built on superficialities such as watching the same shows, loving the same favorite band, or even the theatrics of having a wedding itself.
  • if more marriages are failing right now, I’d say the number one cause is our lack of knowledge of how to built and maintain one — not that we aren’t suited for it.
  • Because people don’t want to accept that relationships are work
  • people just assume too much … they fill in the blanks with what they want to believe rather than having the hard conversations to find out for sure … or they don’t know themselves well enough to be able to answer truthfully if the right questions are asked
  • If they view a relationship as the end result goal in itself, rather than a beginning of new types of opportunity, then what?
  • People are unhappy in marriage because they do it for the wrong reasons. If you choose to be married, you have to maintain your own identity and be willing to communicate and make known what your needs and wants are and be willing to listen to those of your spouse. It isnt all about you, you need to compromise, but at the same time know what your boundaries are and be comfortable enough to be able to stay true to who you are while allowing someone else in. Its difficult, Its work.
  • not all people are cut out for marriage in the first place, even if they take the time to make things work. Some people seem to have this natural resilience, where they can remain faithful and loyal to one person without becoming extremely bored, so that their eyes aren’t wandering. Other people seem less resilient by nature and just give in to feelings of boredom and discontentment, as perhaps they need more than one person every few years. For these people, marriage just isn’t something for them. It’s a social construct which merely forces them to suppress their natural tendencies and feel socially inadequate.
  • It sounds cliche, but I think that if both people had great relationships with themselves before they got married, their would be a better chance the relationship would work out. If you depend on someone else to make you feel complete, when they don’t live up to your expectation, you will just end up resenting them, when really it is your own issue.
  • I find that communication is a huge factor in any relationship and I think the lack of communication along with finances, stress, infidelity and any sort of negativity can ruin a marriage in a heartbeat
  • There’s so much societal pressure to have a bf/gf as a means to validation and self-worth that it’s not hard to figure out how horrible marriages result.
  • A society that teaches independence instead of interdependence and also, teaches that emotional vulnerability is a weakness
  • if a couple told me they’re married I subconsciously question how much of the relationship was based on freewill versus societal and parental pressures/expectations
  •  in a lot of cases, a person will try to alter their partner, who they see as kind of fitting the mold of their “ideal partner”, they just need a little bit of fixing and it will make them both happier.

You’ll find similar responses over at City-Data Forum, along with, “My spouse is more like a room-mate (friend, maybe, I’m not sure) than a lover these days. We just exist in the same house, and that’s it.

So, we have the whole shebang — unrealistic expectations, including a need for “romance,” communication issues, societal and internal pressures and the lack of knowledge of how to maintain a healthy marriage.

Which brings up the question of whether we are expecting our relationship to make us happy, or whether we are bringing our happiness into our relationship. I wish it were as simple as that, but it appears to be much more complex; even happy people with fulfilling lives can marry and find out that they made a mistake — and then feel trapped in a marriage that crushes their spirit.

What Susan Pease Gadoua and I are trying to do in our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, is get people to marry more consciously and avoid these problems, plus create marital models that set them up for success. As Shapiro says:

“I don’t think a marriage that ends in divorce is a failure. It could be good, loving, you raise kids together, and maybe 20 years down the line it’s not working, and that’s okay.” tweet

We’re saying that, too.

Beyond that, I do think people need help understanding how to maintain a healthy relationship for the long haul. We are able to do that with friends — generally. Can we glean things from those relationships to make our romantic relationships work better? And that might be related to what someone notes above — our society encourages independence, and that creates conflict with intimacy (which Andrew Cherlin explores in his book, The Marriage-Go-Round).

  • Why do you think so many people are unhappily coupled?
  • How would you solve that dilemma, if it’s even able to be solved?


Photo © Iban Salvador/Fotolia.com

28 Responses to “Why are so many people in an unhappy marriage?”

  1. Deauna says:

    I think so many people are unhappily coupled because they don’t take time to get to know the other person fully. Someone once told me that it takes at least a year to get to know someone. I think it takes that long to at least figure out if the person you are with is a positive, neutral or negative addition to your life.

    As for solving the dilemma, I think it really is about paying attention to our inner voices (the quiet voice, not the ego voice) and not feeling pressured to meet some social standards by a certain age or stage in life. I think people who know they’re not ready for marriage shouldn’t get married because they’re pressured. On the other hand, I also think people eager to get married should also step back and really think about the long-term effect of the commitment and not marry that person who clearly isn’t ready or is only marrying because they feel pressured (lightly or heavily) into doing it.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for writing, Deauna. I agree that people shouldn’t feel pressured to marry; we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, especially women as we enter our 30s, the baby-making years. All of us need to step back, as you say, and think long and hard about why we really want to marry, what we expect from it, what we can bring to it and how we really feel about it (and why we feel that way about it).

  2. Black Iris says:

    I think the stats you use are wrong.

    For one thing, the Daily Mail seems to be talking about relationships, not just marriages.

    1. The Daily Mail study actually found that 60% of the couples said they could do a lot to improve their love life. That is not the same thing as being unhappily coupled, especially when they also found that 60% of the people thought their partner was kind, funny, and had a good personality!

    2. It is actually pretty striking that 60% of the people polled had not ever considered leaving their partner. Having considered it at some time is not at all the same thing as being unhappily coupled.

    3. Shapiro has no idea what he’s talking about – I think he’s making numbers up out of his head. He ran around the country interviewing hundreds of divorced people and concluded that most married people are unhappy. Not a good scientific method. In any case, the number he gives is actually that a third of couples are unhappily married – that is not the majority.

  3. OMGchronicles
    Twitter: OMGchronicles

    You bring up some good points, Black Iris. And if “60% of the couples said they could do a lot to improve their love life” and they don’t do anything, well, it’s their own darn fault and a new person won’t solve their problem!

  4. Ben Dover says:

    This article make me think of all my ex’s who got married, and it brings a smile to my face; especially the one’s with kids. Double smile for any of them with more than one.

  5. Leisha Young says:

    I think there are a lot of things going on with people not able to make their marriages work. I think very often people don’t actually discuss marriage until after the fact. Many people marry someone without knowing what their expectations are for the future. I also think a lot of people ignore signs that their relationship is not strong enough to cope with marriage, or they think getting married and having children will make the relationship stronger (or they just want to have a wedding…but not the ensuing 50 years of marriage that follows), where as both should be a fitting accompaniment to an already strong relationship.

    I think many people enter marriage with the receipt. If it doesn’t work out we’ll just go our separate ways. Entering marriage should always be entered into with a mindset of ‘no-return policy’ as much as possible. If you can’t honestly say to yourself that you think there’s a pretty good chance of making it…then why bother?

    I also think many people get married too young. I married when I was 2 months shy of my 30th birthday and I was well and truly ready to marry the guy I had been with for as long as I could remember. Our relationship had already gone through a lot of peaks and troughs before we walked down the aisle and it had leveled out, and the song ‘Happy to be Stuck With You’ was were we were at; where as a lot of people go through those peaks and troughs after they’re married.

    It is so very important to marry someone who shares your ideals and views on how life should be lived. If you’re both going to be steering the ship it needs to be heading in an agreed direction.

    That kind of feeds into my next point. You have to be willing to share everything you have with your partner. How can you have a strong relationship if everything is split between his and hers. This is mine and that is yours. It’s like you’ve already preempted that the marriage won’t last and you are just being prepared. If you can’t share your bank account, you can’t properly share your life. It’s almost like saying “I don’t trust you so keep your hands off my stuff”. Keeping your identity in marriage is important but I think people confuse keeping their identities with keeping all of their stuff and essentially just sharing the same roof and the same bed. You have to think of it in terms of a union, not two individuals sharing some space on the planet.

    Communication! Learning how to say “sorry”, and “I was wrong” is also incredibly important, there is no room for silly pride and power games in a marriage; everything has to be honest and out on the table…even if it’s is difficult to say…and hear.

    A lot of couples fall into the trap of being passive aggressive and mocking of their partner rather than honest and supporting and loving. Be nice to each other! Compliment each other! Give hugs and kisses just because…not because you want something; do it in front of other people as well so your partner knows you really mean it and don’t care what others think.

    Look I could go on-and-on (clearly), but I also think families can cause problems in marriages as well. If you’re marrying someone who’s family doesn’t like you, perhaps it’s time to be honest with yourself and walk away, because it’s highly likely that they will never like you and that some form of family feud will erupt at some point which is almost always marital suicide. Even though Hollywood tells us that love can conquer anything, IMO, it can rarely conquer a horrible mother-in-law or father-in-law…or both!

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for commenting, Leisha. While marrying young has been proven to be problematic, marrying later doesn’t always guarantee a better/happier marriage. You are right in stating that people should marry someone who “shares your ideals and views on how life should be lived.” But I don’t think marriages should always last forever, nor will working on it always make it better. A bad match is a bad match, and those marriages need to end. And, never, ever believe anything Hollywood tells us about love! 😉

    • Alex says:

      Loved your post Leisha! I don’t hope that your marriage is a success or a failure…I just hope you’re happy forever.

  6. Lamar says:

    The problem with the whole idea of “marrying for love” is that you can also “fall out of love” with your partner. I never understood how someone can honestly make a life-long commitment with a partner based on a static set of emotions and set of circumstances at a specific time period in ones life; who you are today and your state of mind won’t be the same five, ten, fifteen years from now. Why is that so hard to understand? Marriage works for some, but that subset of the population is in the minority. We can argue all we want about “getting to know your partner”…”working at it”…”communication”….”compromise” and whatever other cliche buzzword or catchphrase you want to throw into the mix, but If marriage was meant to be then divorce attorneys, marriage counselors, therapists, family courts, etc., would all be out of a job. Facts don’t lie my friends. The aforementioned professions are thriving for a reason.

    I once saw this video on youtube from an anti-marriage advocate who said that statistically more than half of marriages fail (not including murder, suicides, and those who end up in institutions), and the other half that decides to stick it out makes a sport out of making each other miserable by fighting like Israelis vs. Palestinians. Hilarious.

  7. Karmen says:

    I think we are definitely trying to make something work that human nature is generally not capable of. From caveman days, men and women had sex with each other to procreate of course, but little did they know that they were getting a heck of a lot more out of it than that! They were never with the same person, everybody raised there children together, social circles were big, etc. Nowadays we live in our own little worlds comprised of ourselves, our spouse and just our own children. It can be a very lonely and boring existence. We can drive each other crazy! Most of us have moved away from extended families to discuss things with or socialize with, so our little petty problems and annoyances with each other take on a bigger life. There’s just not much to detract us, except for technology such as the internet, which in turn can become a meet up service to find some one else.
    That being said, there are still, by luck, those few people who morally, physically, socially, etc. that it works for and who grow together with age instead of apart.
    I’ve given this some thought before, and I think that in this day and age we are made to change partners every 15-20 years. I think I’m stretching it by giving that many years!!

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for commenting Karmen. The anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested people only need to stay together to raise their kids. After that, who cares if they do or not (well, maybe their kids)? In our book, “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” we promote time-limited marital contracts. Personally, I think it’s rather romantic to choose over and over to be with the same person!

  8. The Truth says:

    Well when you compare years ago to today, most marriages did certainly last very long since many men and women were very Committed to one another. And today there is so much more Cheating going on now more than ever before. The Divorce rate is so out of control now more than ever before too.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Actually, the Truth, it was less commitment than the fact that up until no-fault divorce, it was really hard to divorce. Only 1 in 4 marriages end in diorvce for college-educated couples; there’s more divorce among the high-school-only educated. What does that tell us?
      Also, how do you know there’s more cheating going on? Could it be we’re just hearing about it more? Show me some facts and I’ll listen.

  9. David says:

    They fail because people growing-up never see a real relationship……they have no idea what one really is. I’m certain that the TV told them what one was, right?

    Also, If women want kids, then have kids. If they want a career, then have a career……I’m telling you that having both will destroy your marriage and turn your kids into the worthless kids we see today.

    You cannot have it all….that’s the problem. Women were told you can have it all……how did that work out? Not good at all….that’s how.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      David, do you know that women worked throughout history? Couples had kids to work with them on the farms, etc. Did those kids turn out “worthless”? And is it just women’s fault? Do dads not matter?

  10. Ir says:

    Well, if we were another study done, I am pretty sure that there would be very high correlation that those people who are able to manage themselves independently(with less misery–although this is subjective and lengthy to discuss) and are able to manage their relationship with other people (family members, friends, co-workers) with out making so much trouble or enemies in a daily basis are most likely to end up having better romantic relationships. So, it’s really: if you can’t make a good relationship with yourself, or with your neighbors, why would you really think you can make a very good one with a partner?? I think the idea that commitment is unnatural and so on is more on the crappy side of reasoning, and most (though not all) who adhere to that idea are really just people who frequently fail on any form of relationships including the relationship they have with their very own selves.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      The problem with that sort of thinking, Ir, is that we aren’t having romantic love and sex with our family members, friends, co-workers (at least I hope not!). Once you throw love and sex into a relationship, it adds all sorts of expectations. That’s the problem; all too often we look for someone to “complete” us or a soul mate. No one else can “make” us happy; we need to be happy first, then bring that happiness into a relationship. And lighten up on the expectations. Thanks for commenting

  11. sharon says:

    Many excellent comments have been made here. The one that I can relate to the most is that we need to know and love ourselves first. That’s my story. I tried putting the cart before the horse. It didn’t work. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life becoming my own best friend. And, I’m fine with that. Enjoying the journey…single.

  12. Jill says:

    That’s it in a nut shell. Love yourself. Me & my 2 best friends~myself & I.
    I’d rather be happy & alone than with someone & miserable. I don’t need
    anyone to bullshit me or do me wrong. I will be good to ME!

  13. Joe says:

    Great points/comments. The Nuclear family as we know it will never be the same. Knowing this, and the divorce rates, when will Family Courts nationwide allow Equal Shared Parenting? Children Deserve BOTH Parents. Period. Try best to work out an arrangement that allows children access to both parents, equally, and not reserve one parent as a “2nd Class Parent” (ie. Non-Custodial Parent). The current system is certainly NOT “in the best interest of the child”, because it is currently, quite obviously I might add, in the best interest of the mother, and the feminist agenda. They got what they wanted.

  14. Truth says:

    With so many women cheating these days that certainly is no surprise to me.

  15. lacebra says:

    Could never figure out why people bother with marriage. I can’t help but laugh at all the misery and problems they cause themselves over such an outdated, useless, unrealistic situation. Marriage is a disaster created by man, NOT NATURE. Never been involved and don’t intend to be. GOOD LUCK to all of you who are creating your own misery!

  16. Anon says:

    I am Asian and if your not married by 25 your a rejected turd in our culture, however the amount of depressed Pakistani women I see makes me laugh and wonder if I even should bother. Also to add to that the women that work are far happier and can afford alot more of her own luxuries even if she works part time. I see alot of Pakistani women depressed as Pakistani men seem to over rule the womans decision on almost everything, a marriage is supposed to be about love and the man and woman are equal that makes a successful marriage.

  17. Dave says:

    There are marriages that are born of adultery and betrayal. The people that engage in this sort of thing find that the initial “feelings” wear off – and then they’re left with a so-called marriage that is the product of wicked, insidious, adulterous wrong. Many of these destined-to-be-empty marriages last for decades after the people can no longer stand each other. They put on a façade for the world – but the whole thing is built on sickening, sinister betrayal and adultery – then they wonder why they end up unhappy and miserable. These types of people are constantly thinking of how they could leave and betray – just as got them into their current position in the first place. Many times they left loving spouses only to later wallow in misery with the one they found so compelling at the start – whom they now can hardly stand.

  18. Shanti says:

    Marriage was created by humans as a legal way of having sex, staying faithful and having legitimate children. Not everyone is made for marriage and it’s as that we give in to society pressures first to get married and then to stay married.

  19. DeCaf says:

    I’ve been miserable with our marriage for almost 50 year’s. My husband after having once that he hated to the point of throwing up. I wanted to help and suggested he should talknow to a shrink. But he refused that idea and he was alright. And things between him and I just fell apart and things have been changing for years. Now life between use just don’t exist. We should have broke up , now we’re in early 70s and we just don’t care any more. We wasted every thing and that’s my short story

  20. Reality says:

    They should have Never married to begin with.

  21. David says:

    And these are just the ones that ADMIT to being unhappy. There are far more in addition where the woman claims to be happy but is actually miserable.

    Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. MOST married women pretending to “celebrate” it are unhappy as hell in their so-called marriages. Many are having affairs as they pass the cranberry sauce and pretend everything’s OK.

    Even in marriages that (to this point at least) have stayed together. Eight out of ten are probably unhappy as hell and most of them will eventually end in divorce – even after twenty or thirty years.

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