How To Make An Unhappy Marriage Happy Again Without Ignoring Your Needs
Are you in an unhappy marriage? Are you sacrificing your needs in an attempt to fix the relationship? You, like many people may not realize just how an unhappy marriage affects you. Or maybe your bigger question is how to make an unhappy marriage happy again, without ignoring your needs.
If you’ve endured years of being in an unhappy marriage you’ve likely disconnected and learned to adapt. You’ve stopped believing that your needs can be met inside of the marriage. So you’ve turned to your children or your friends to meet your need for connection. Or you’ve given up. Maybe you’ve had an emotional or a physical affair.
This is a dangerous, and painful, place to be. Relying on your self and others, rather than on your partner will cause you to put walls up. You’ll become reluctant to trust your partner with your needs. You’ll have difficulty letting your partner in close if and when he does begin to open up and show that he needs you. We will call you the reluctant rock.
Understand how unhealthy marriage affects you.
You may have been in a relationship where you felt too concerned with your partner’s needs. Unselfishly you ignored just how an unhappy marriage affects you. You wanted to keep your partner happy. So you did the lion’s share of housework and childcare while holding down a full time job outside of the home. You may have developed an unhealthy pattern of trying to be nice on the outside. Instead you were hurt and resentful on the inside.
Ignoring your needs has backfired on you. It’s become more and more difficult to not be irritable. You find yourself exploding about little things. As much as you try, you cannot hide the hurt of not having your needs met. You are wearing out, trying to be the nice and needless person. We will call you the toasted marshmallow.
In this article, I will help both the reluctant rock and the toasted marshmallow to understand how to heal your marriage. I will help you understand how an unhappy marriage affects you and how to make an unhealthy relationship happy again without ignoring your needs.
So, are you ready for a healthy relationship, where yours and your partner’s needs are being met? It’s imperative to understand and adapt these 4 foundations for personal and relationship health. Once you understand and internalize these 4 foundations, you can create a healthy lifetime love relationship that will meet your needs for the rest of your life. Let’s do this!
How an unhappy marriage affects you & 4 foundations for healthy lifetime love
1. Learn constructive dependency vs. co-dependency.
Attachment scientists and Emotionally Focused Therapists will tell you that, “You are as needy as your unmet need”.
It’s likely you have been highly influenced by pop-psychology co-dependency phobic culture. You may believe that it is dangerous to need anyone too much and that doing so could enable their bad behavior.
Please remember that the pop co-dependency concept was never grounded in research, or intended to be applied to how we as healthy human beings are wired to get our needs met.
Attachment science has made it clear that human beings have deep needs for emotional connection with one special person from cradle to grave. Emotional communication and reciprocation are core processes for psychological and physical health.
Sue Johnson and other attachment researchers refer to your healthy need to have your needs met by the person you love as constructive dependency.
Dependency without enabling.
Constructive dependency is not enabling. And it’s not being a toasted marshmallow. It’s not about disengaging and being a reluctant rock. Constructive dependency is solidly and unapologetically owning and expressing your need to be loved, cherished, and protected. You NEED the person that you love to do this.
There are a thousand ways that you depend on the person that you pair bond with. Denying the importance of your internal needs for love and validation is crazy. As is denying the external needs you share for parenting, food, fun and shelter.
You and your partner both have needs that must be met. Being afraid or unwilling to acknowledge those needs is the foundation for dysfunction.
Both of you must be honest about what you truly need from the other. From there, you must become intentional about meeting those needs. Only then will you stop looking and feeling, as many say, overly needy.
You can begin to make your unhappy marriage happy again by opening up conversation about what your needs really are and how much you rely on each other. Many people are afraid that this kind of vulnerability will lead to their being taken advantage of? If so, you may need a therapist to help you with this conversation.
If you do not make your unmet needs explicit, and feel that they’re being met your relationship will remain at risk of eventually failing.
A skilled Emotionally Focused Therapist will help you get to the place where you can get your needs met and meet the needs of your partner.
So let’s move on to the second of 4 foundations for healthy lifetime love.
2. Learn emotional self-regulation and co-regulation.
Emotions are the heart that provides the source of bonding and need-fulfillment. Infants bond with parents and get their needs fulfilled with emotional communication. While adults do not like to admit it, their need for emotional communication are no different.
Unless you are blocking them, or have a neurological condition, your emotions tell you when you are afraid or need to be held. Emotions tell you what disgusts you and what makes you happy. Sue Johnson says they are energy in motion, the chief driver of your thoughts and behaviors.
Both infants and adults rely on others to help them regulate their deepest emotions. You naturally turn to lovers, family and friends when you have strong emotions. There’s an expectation to be emotionally understood and reassured, especially by the person that you love the most.
You’ll not be able to express your own needs, or meet the needs of your partner, if you struggle with anxious, depressed or withdrawn emotions. If you have chaotic up and down or easily triggered emotions, others will mistrust, avoid and even become angry with you.
Emotional language is powerful.
The poetry and promises of love are nearly always expressed in emotional language. It is a person’s sincere emotions that move us to care for, support and protect. We all want to feel loved, so understanding how an unhappy marriage affects you is a huge piece of that endeavor.
Emotionally cut-off clients try to convince me that emotions are not important. I ask them this question. What is the one thing that separates an A movie from a B movie? Most clients reply that it is the quality of their acting. Then I ask what is it about the quality of their acting that makes B actors less believable? My answer – it is the authenticity of their emotional expression.
Emotional sincerity is what makes you believable to your partner. You need to dig deep and find those real and raw emotions if you want to warm your partner’s emotions.
If you get angry and defensive when you’re feeling hurt or sad your partner will not trust you or warm up to you. If you attack and shame, rather than express how small and stupid you feel, your partner will probably attack you back. But what you really need is their holding and reassurance.
You are self-regulating when you learn to express real authentic vulnerable emotion without blaming or shaming others.
You are co-regulating emotion when you are able to feel compassion for your partner’s emotional insecurity and provide comfort.
Expressing your soft vulnerable emotional needs is vital if you want to master the next healthy relationship foundation.
3. Believe that your negative cycle – not your partner – is the enemy of your relationship.
Why does the person that you love and cherish start to feel like your most dangerous enemy? In most cases it is not because your partner does not love you. And it is not because your partner is dangerous. Your partner is not your enemy.
What makes your partner feel like your enemy is the negative cycle of arguing that it takes both of you to create. When you criticize, shame and blame your partner, he or she will get angry. And you will get angry back. This is the negative cycle. And it can go on for hours. Sound familiar?
You trigger each other because you love each other and cannot bear to be viewed in a negative way.
Stop the negative cycle.
By learning how to slow your arguments down, and by stopping yourself before you get angry and defensive, you can stop the negative cycle. You need to remember how to self-regulate and co-regulate your emotions. You must remind yourself that even though your partner’s misunderstanding feels like a threat, he or she is not your enemy.
He or she is still the honey bunch, lover pie, that you have given your heart to.
You have a need to be heard, understood and loved. You cannot get your deepest needs met if you are constantly in negative cycle arguments that you are making your partner’s fault.
4. Find your way out and up – A.R.E.
A.R.E. stands for accessibility, responsiveness and engagement. This is the foundation for maintaining and growing secure attachment bonds. I have written about A.R.E. in more detail here.
A – Accessibility:
In a nutshell, you will heal your marriage, and get your needs met by being accessible when your partner needs you. You will return that text. And you will remember to let your partner know how you can be reached. You’ll let them know if you will be home late.
Accessibility is about making your primary relationship primary. Your partner must be your primary source of love and comfort. All other relationships, even your relationship with your children, must be your second level of emotional support.
R – Responsive:
Being responsive is the magic part of the dance of love. You will be in flow with your partner’s needs when you learn to naturally be responsive to them. Every responsive move you make will be returned in loving responsiveness to your needs.
Loving responsiveness is a way of making love through the normal routines of life. It is hearing and responding to the heart-felt needs and desires of the one you love by giving her or him the gift of your attention.
E – Engaged:
You can only sustain your responsiveness by staying engaged. So many people in relationships have the best intentions to be great lovers. But they find themselves falling short over and over. Intention without sustained engagement is a lost cause.
You cannot stay tuned in to your partner when you are distracted by social media, T.V. or other competing priorities. The quality of your time together depends on your ability to keep focused on the signals that your partner is sending you. You will not be able to respond to your partner’s needs if you are not engaged.
When you “ARE” accessible, responsive, and engaged, you will meet your partner’s needs. And this is the way you will get your needs met. The result, you will be given back everything that you give.
How an unhappy marriage affects you & why these foundations work
The brains of human beings are wired to constructively depend on other human beings. There is a theory that humans survived and Neanderthals didn’t because they didn’t learn to depend on others the way humans did. When we teach our children to depend on us they thrive by constructively depending on others. Healthy couples are very aware of how much they need and depend on each other.
Emotional self-regulation and co-regulation is essential if you want to make your needs known. Sending clear authentic signals allow your partner to see and respond to your needs. This of course is foundational to relationship health.
Nearly all unhealthy couples get trapped in negative cycles of conflict. Playing the blame game is destructive to the fabric of your relationship. In time, it will destroy your attachment bonds and leave you alone with your unmet needs.
By realizing that the negative cycle arguments, not your partner, are the enemy of your relationship you can place your focus where it needs to be – joining with your partner to understand how you trigger each other. Then you can both communicate your needs to each other in a vulnerable authentic way that you can be heard and responded to.
Lastly, the holy trinity of accessibility, responsiveness and engagement are the way to keep paying attention to and meeting each other’s needs. We do this through the ups and downs of day-to-day living.
Practice and patience.
Some of this may be new or overwhelming for you. You may be thinking it’s too late to change things. Absolutely not. Understanding how an unhappy marriage affects you is the first part of the puzzle. And your new understanding of these 4 foundations, along with courage and desire, will take you far. It’s okay to take it slow. It’s okay when you don’t get it right the first time around. Practice and patience! Are you ready to make an unhappy marriage happy again without ignoring your needs?
Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, California. He and his wife Paula are authors of the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love. They have developed an online learning course based on the science of attachment and healthy relationship.