All marriages go through ups and downs, but if yours is beginning to take a toll on your mental and physical health, it may be time to reevaluate if it’s the right one for you. “If a person stays in any long-term relationship in which their needs are being grossly undermet, they will experience some symptoms of anxiety or depression,” says marriage therapist Virginia Williamson.
Meet the Expert
Virginia Williamson is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Collaborative Counseling Group in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Though Williamson notes that people manifest symptoms differently, anxiety can show up as gastrointestinal issues, heaviness in the chest, or heart palpitations, while depression could lead to weight gain or inexplicable lethargy. While all relationships hit rough patches, experiencing these feelings—and their physical symptoms—over a prolonged period of time might be an indication that something bigger is amiss.
Read on to learn more about the signs of a bad marriage, and what to do if you find yourself in one.
Signs of a Bad Marriage
You feel contempt for your partner.
This extreme feeling of loathing or disgust is different from being annoyed by certain behaviors in certain situations. It often includes eye-rolling and huffing in conversation, and dismissing or invalidating almost all of what the other person has to say, regardless of the circumstances. “At its worst, contempt looks like one or both partners are crawling out of their skin having to be in each other’s company, and it’s clear they cannot see a single good thing in the other,” says Williamson.
Though you might feel that contempt is deserved—especially, if, say, your spouse has had an affair—it can be a relationship killer if not eventually addressed. “Couples that show contempt for one another consistently have a low likelihood of successfully repairing their relationship, unless they can begin to recognize it and change the pattern,” Willamson adds. If you cannot acknowledge the good qualities your partner possesses independent of your marital struggles—that they’re a great parent, friend, or professional, for example—then you may have reached the point of no return.
Your partner makes you feel bad about yourself.
“Researcher John Gottman, who has studied couple interactions for many years, outlines that there should be five positive interactions to every one negative interaction in healthy relationships,” says Williamson. If you’re feeling especially down on yourself within the confines of your marriage, she suggests doing your own work first to determine what of that is caused directly by your partner, and what may be the result of outside stressors (i.e. past trauma or ongoing insecurities that you’ve experienced in relationships outside of your current one).
Confront your partner about the issues caused directly by their behavior, especially if that behavior involves harsh criticism, name-calling, or minimization of your feelings or experiences, and, per Williamson, “make a clear and assertive request for it to stop.” If it doesn’t, that is a glaring sign your marriage isn’t a healthy one.
You feel controlled by your partner.
“In a healthy relationship, both partners should have the ability to influence the other’s perspective, and each partner should be open to the other’s influence safely,” says Williamson. “Your partner should be able to help you see things from their point of view, and then you should have the freedom to either alter or maintain your position, and vice versa.” If your spouse limits your options or manipulates your choices, that is an indication they don’t view you as an equal.
This control can be overt, and come in the form of limiting access to finances or financial information, asking for access to your phone or personal communications, deciding who you can and cannot speak with, and blocking opportunities (like, say, refusing to take on childcare duties during an important job interview). It can also be more subtle, in that they might constantly second-guess you or indicate you’re not equipped to handle new ventures you’d like to take on.
You’re more concerned with how leaving the marriage will affect others.
“It’s normal to think about how others will respond to your choice, but it should not be at the top of the list of what’s keeping you there,” says Williamson. If you’re staying in your marriage to minimize negative impacts on your family, your children, or even your partner, you aren’t taking good care of yourself—and that can show up in ways that could be even more painful for those you’re trying to protect down the line. “Bottom line: If over an extended period of time, you have to convince yourself of reasons to stay, it’s time to explore the possibility of what it means to go,” Williamson adds.
You might be having an emotional affair.
While it’s totally normal (and healthy!) to seek validation and connection outside of your marriage, it’s important to maintain boundaries that are respectful of your spouse. “Some factors that might point to an emotional affair are if you feel you have to repeatedly hide your interactions with the person you are venting to, if you find yourself spending a good amount of time and mental energy on that person, or if you are de-prioritizing your marriage in order to make more room for this person in your life,” says Williamson.
When seeking connection outside of your marriage becomes more important than finding it inside your marriage, it can be a sign that the relationship may not be offering the environment you need to fully thrive.
You’ve stopped arguing entirely.
Conflict is tough in any relationship and can take a high emotional and physical toll if it’s happening all the time. But it can also be an opportunity to air the frustrations that need mending, and, in its own way, show that both partners are still invested enough to hash things out. If you’re avoiding conflict entirely because you’re afraid of how your partner handles arguments, or because you don’t think it’s worth the energy, that can be a sign it’s time to move on.
Your body language shows disinterest.
The way we speak without words can also contain multitudes. In her counseling sessions, Williamson looks for physical cues to indicate that couples are still capable of tenderness towards one another, even when difficult matters are being discussed. “If couples still turn toward each other on their own, sit in close proximity, or turn to talk to one another without being directed to, that can indicate that there is still a desire for connection,” she says. “Similarly, if one person becomes tearful and the other reaches for their hand, knee, or shoulder to provide comfort, it shows that they are still affected by their partner’s feelings.” If, however, a couple turns their bodies away from one another when speaking, or they do not reach out when their partner is experiencing a difficult moment, it can be a sign that they are no longer invested in the relationship.
What to Do If You’re in a Bad Marriage
Work with your partner to right the course.
More often than not, the biggest difference between a rough patch and an end point is a couple’s willingness to work through their problems. Drastic changes in a relationship are often the result of many small changes—like, say, greeting each other with eye contact at the beginning and end of each day instead avoiding each other. These changes can make a world of difference, but they require concerted effort. If one or both members of the couple isn’t interested in doing the work, then they likely aren’t interested in salvaging the relationship.
The good news: you don’t have to go it alone! “Always seek help, which can be through a number of avenues: therapist, mentor, spiritual leader, life coach, family or friends in relationships you view as strong,” says Williamson. “Do your own work as well, so you understand what emotional wounds you are coming to the table with, and, if you are in a safe relationship, offer love even when you don’t feel like it.” By continuing to talk to each other, with and without the help of an outside perspective, you’ll continue to create opportunities for real, impactful change.
Or: Start taking the steps necessary to move on.
By the time you’ve reached the point where you’re considering divorce, your partner should not be surprised by your dissatisfaction, so you do not have to spend hours justifying your decision. “Speak openly and genuinely about where you are in the relationship, and give yourself permission to leave the conversation if it becomes significantly unproductive, hostile or abusive,” says Williamson, who often advises individual clients who have reached this stage to set up an informational consultation with an attorney or mediator so they don’t put off the decision because they are intimidated or overwhelmed. “Speaking to someone with expertise helps you to better understand the process, as well as what is likely and unlikely to occur,” she explains.
From there, do your best to unwind yourself from the relationship in intentional, planned ways, and be respectful of how you share the news with the outside world. (Though it seems de rigueur for celeb couples to announce their separation on social media, you by no means have to—and especially shouldn’t do so before your partner has fully grasped what’s happening.) Also important: creating a consistent self-care routine during what will inevitably be a stressful time, and seeking help from trusted sources, of both the professional and personal varieties, when necessary.