Why “Are you happy?” Should Not Be Used To Decide Divorce

You’ve heard it. A friend of yours is complaining to others about their partner and the discussion ultimately leads to the same question “…but are you happy?” as the gauge for whether or not they should remain in the relationship.

But what if that isn’t the right question. What if you need to be asking something else. What if offering support looked different.

What if it may be more beneficial to help an ailing friend keep their relationship alive.couple in long term satisfying relationship

Aside from being in a relationship where you or your children’s safety is at risk, unhappiness may not actually be a good reason to end a relationship. Our partner was not created to make us happy, just like we are not expected to make our partners happy.

Believe it or not, many couples go through seasons where they do not necessarily feel happy but remain committed and ultimately have a satisfying relationship in the long term.

Happiness does not determine a successful relationship.

Happiness is temporary. Happiness can be worked on. Couples who end relationships because they are unhappy often continue to find themselves unhappy outside of the relationship, as well.

So while it can be easy to blame your unhappiness on your partner, it may not be all of their fault.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman share that when you marry someone, you marry a set of problems. Some of those problems may be solvable, however each couple has a set of unsolveable problems they will manage throughout the course of their relationship.

Just because these problems are unsolveable, it’s still recommended to talk about the conflict as it arises. You just have to make a shift from having the goal of solving the problem to consistently navigating those problems as they come up. 

It requires accepting that this may be something you will have to perpetually address.

Gottman found that a majority of marital problems (69%!) are perpetual.

This means couples studied long term were found to be fighting about the same thing years after they were originally evaluated.

Dan Wile in his book After the Honeymoon, and mentioned in the book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says as it relates to marrying a set of perpetual problems,

“Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that.
But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about.
If Paul married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail, when Paul does not help, she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul, Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about.”

Often times when someone gets a divorce, it can be normal to even remarry someone with a very similar set of perpetual problems. The thing that person was originally trying to escape from, finds themselves facing the same dilemma all over again.

Life has a way of putting us in the same position until we have learned the intended lesson.

While we are all searching for the perfect person who will never cause us any heartache, unfortunatelycouple getting over an argument those do not exist. Conflict is unavoidable. Negative emotions will be unavoidable…And negative emotions are not wrong.

It’s possible our standards may be too high.

High standards in a relationship are good. Research has found that high standards  in a relationship can lead to things like more kindness and respect.

So while this is not a bad thing, our standards are higher than ever for our partners and we have to remember just like our partners can’t be perfect, neither can we.

As shared in the advice column, Are My Relationship Standards Too High?

“John Gottman’s four decades of relationship research informs us that expecting unending bliss is unrealistic. Instead, he argues, we should strive for the “good enough” relationship. By good enough he means that there is honesty, respect, affection, trust, and commitment. It is unrealistic to expect your partner to heal your childhood wounds or to have a conflict free relationship.”

Conflict is not an indicator of a happy or unhappy relationship. The goal in a relationship is to learn to manage the inevitable conflict that arises.

Dr. Gottman has said, “Although we tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness, a lasting relationship results from a couple’s ability to manage the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.”

Why work on it?

You are right if you are concerned that you are unhappy. It is important to address your unhappiness. An unhappy or volatile marriage can significantly increase your chances of getting sick. It also has an impact on your children. The extreme stress children experience in homes where there is consistent marital hostility could lead to enhanced risk for truancy, mood disorder, aggressiveness, social challenges and struggles in school.

Working on your marriage is worth it. Happy or “Good Enough” marriages may actually make you physically healthier and decrease your chances of getting sick. A happy marriage may mean a longer and happier life.

Your health is worth it. Divorce is a very stressful process. While you and your children can be and ARE very resilient, the divorce experience can have major implications on your family’s health. Even couples who have good intentions often end up having divorces that are not peaceful.

In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman reports that couples who remain married live 4-8 years longer than those that don’t.

If you are considering divorce based on your unhappiness, it may be worth trying other things first:

Try other ways to manage conflict: It’s possible you and/or your partner are getting flooded during arguments.  This means your body physically gets too overwhelmed to the point where you become incapable of both hearing each other and also properly expressing yourselves. Your relationship may benefit from learning how to self soothe and how to take healthy breaks.

Go inward to see if you may be feeling critical or defensive towards your partner. Try expressing what you need using “I statements” instead of focusing on where to place blame. 

Do something different: Couples get stuck in their dance and find themselves in a rut that feels inescapable. We keep doing the same things and hope our partner changes.

Like the ripple effect that happens after throwing a small pebble into a still pond, sometimes even making little changes can have a great impact.

Trying reacting differently – even opposite – to what you usually do.

Even if you don’t do anything different, your relationship could benefit from just adding more positive interactions with your partner. Work towards becoming an emotional millionaire. This can be hard when you are unhappy and not feeling positive towards your partner, but sometimes it can be the thing needed to shift your perspective. Sometimes our partner has not changed, it is our perspective that has changed and we need to see our partner the way we did when we first got together.

couple remembering how they met Remember WHY you married your partner: Often it is the thing we are most attracted to that ultimately can be the thing that tears us apart. For example, a partner may be initially attracted to how “easy going” and “flexible” their partner is. Years down the road, this can shift into the perspective that their partner is “lazy” and DOESN’T CARE ABOUT ANYTHING.

Focus on how the qualities of your partner that are currently driving you nuts may actually be the strength you saw in them early on. 

Work on yourself: Engage in self care and find ways to find happiness on your own. Pick up a new hobby. Go back to the things that have made you happy in the past that you may no longer do. You may find your your relationship still benefits from you making positive changes.

Speak the partner you want into existence: When things feel negative, it is so easy to focus on the negative and give our attention and energy to the things we do not like…which then ultimately leads to more negativity.

Instead, try to shift your focus and acknowledge the things your partner is doing right.

If there are things you want them to change, instead of naming what you don’t like, you could say something like “you know I really love it when you…” or let them know when historically they have gotten it right by saying, “I really appreciated the time you…” to focus on the behaviors you want more of.

Find things to be grateful for and say them out loud…often.

Solve the problem together: Be open. Talk with your partner about where you are at and what you are feeling. Be vulnerable using a softened startup. Externalize the problem and take a team approach to address the concerns in your relationship.

couple solving the problem as a team

Offer grace: I often get the question, “what if my partner does not deserve respect.” Again, in the context of safe relationships where there is no abuse present, respect is offered simply because that is what love demands. Sometimes you respect in spite of your partner, not because of your partner. You offer dignity to your partner even when they may not deserve it. Assume goodwill in your partner.

You may be seeing your partner as an adversary, and possibly even for good reason. You may have experienced betrayals or regrettable incidents that have affected how you now see the relationship.

Assuming goodwill was likely much easier earlier on in the relationship. Just like we want grace, getting what we don’t necessarily deserve, from our partner when we have messed up, we need to be willing to offer the same.

Take some level of responsibility: It can be easy to get stuck in the negative perspective and feel everything is your partner’s fault. When we start to look at ourselves and how we may be contributing to the problem, it levels the playing field a bit and helps lead to the change you so desire.

Not all advice is good advice: While it is good to be talking with others and open about your concerns, make sure you are listening to the advice of those you love and trust… and who trust you. People often give advice based out of their own life experiences, and while your situation may be similar…it is not the same. Remember you are the expert on your own life and in your relationship. It is OK to trust yourself to know what is best for your family.

Find your spiritual grounding: For couples who agree on their faith, getting back to your foundational beliefs and value systems can be helpful. Establishing rituals of connection by attending your preferred place of worship together can lead to growth or even some shifts in the relationship. Engage your faith community if it is a safe place for you to be struggling. Find support from like-minded individuals and determine how your beliefs and values can inform what you feel is best for your family.

Try couples counseling: Couples often seek couples counseling when they are on the verge of divorce,  and while this can work, couples counseling can actually be more effective beforehand. Therapy becomes more challenging when one partner already has one foot out of the door. Don’t be afraid to try couples counseling when your relationship starts down a path you don’t want it to go.

Be OK with not being OK: Being unhappy in your relationship is OK, even normal, but it does not mean you have to feel that way forever. If your partner is not willing to engage in couples counseling, you can still go! Many people attend individual counseling to work on relationship goals and experience positive changes in their relationship based on the changes they’ve made.

Research also indicates just reading the book Seven Principles for Making Things Work can have a positive impact on a relationship …even without counseling!

So go ahead and ask your friend if they are happy in their relationship. But if they say no…

  • Don’t jump to recommend separation or divorce
  • Be quick to support whatever they choose is best – regardless of whether you agree
  • Ask questions and come from a place of curiosity – don’t assume you are the expert on their life
  • Encourage they seek professional help before making big decisions that impact their family

unhappy couple contemplating divorce

Feel as though your relationship could use some additional support? Couples Therapy or Workshops at Thrive Therapy can be a great place to start.

Want more tips and techniques for a healthy and satisfying relationship? Subscribe to the Thrive Therapy newsletter.

1 reply
  1. Linda
    Linda says:

    Love this! This is excellent advice and from someone who has been married over 35 years, the ‘best’ comes when you’ve walked ‘through’ the difficulties and challenges of any relationship,


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