In my counseling practice, I’ve heard these comments or similar ones thousands of times in an initial session:
“After hurting each other, neither of us apologizes, much less forgives.”
“We’ve lost our emotional connection.”
“We no longer express our love for each other.”
“When we have disagreements, things escalate quickly into yelling arguments.”
These comments represent just a few of the top unhappy marriage signs. In general, daily loving words and behaviors are absent in a joyless marriage.
So how can you fix an unhappy marriage? You develop effective, yet simple habits for marital happiness.
Recipe for a happy marriage
Since every healthy spouse wants a happy marriage, why do most couples live in unhappy marriages? Because simply wanting a great marriage isn’t enough to make it happen. You need a recipe for a happy marriage. Thousands of spouses shared in counseling that they want to know “what to say” and “what to do” daily to have a happy marriage.
Unfortunately, most books share only in general terms about concepts such as communication, respect, love, humility, and selflessness without providing specifics. Couples need to know exact words, behaviors, and practical knowledge they can use to build happiness in their relationship.
Thousands of spouses have immediately improved their unhappy marriages by using a recipe of loving words and behaviors. Couples who follow the simple habits I’ve written about in my book, Simple Habits for Marital Happiness, develop a clear sense of how to improve their marriage.
Why not try these five habits or “fixes”? Each one includes three specific words and/or actions so spouses can easily remember them. Eventually, these habits can become as natural as breathing in and breathing out.
1. Apologizing and forgiving
Just as forgiveness is at the center of the Christian faith, forgiveness is at the heart of a happy marriage. Without repentance, apologizing, and forgiveness, couples will often live in an unhappy marriage.
Repentance will benefit a marriage but regret alone never will. When spouses are truly repentant, they desire to improve their behavior by moving in a godly direction.
Apologizing and forgiving involves three necessary steps. The first step is to say, “I’m sorry I hurt you by…” Be sure to name your hurtful words or disappointing behavior.
The second step is most important and requires humility. A spouse always needs to ask, “Will you please forgive me?”
The final step takes courage and involves using the “forgive” word by stating, “I forgive you,” or after a deeply painful hurt, “With God’s help, I will work at forgiving you.”
When both spouses can repent, apologize, and forgive, a couple usually does not have to be concerned about the future of their marriage.
2. Stay-in-love habits
While they’re dating, most couples are terrific with the “3 Ts”— time together, talking together, and touching (hugs and kisses) together. The “3 Ts” (time, talking, touching) are almost absent with nearly every unhappy couple I’ve counseled.
To fix an unhappy marriage, spouses have the privilege of doing “Three 10s” daily. The Three 10s are a 10-second hug, a 10-second kiss, and a 10-minute eye-to-eye talk. All three together require only 10 minutes and 20 seconds each day.
To avoid power struggles, the wife can initiate the Three 10s on even dates and the husband can initiate them on odd days. Hopefully, the practice will become natural.
Lingering lengthy hugs, meaningful kisses, and focused looking into each other’s eyes keep a couple committed as well as emotionally connected with each other. Other words and behaviors are important components of the recipe for a happy marriage, but without the Three 10s, it will be difficult to fix an unhappy marriage.
3. Daily essential habits
When spouses say “I love you” infrequently or almost never, that’s a bad sign. Loving words and caring actions never stop in a happy marriage.
Couples living in a satisfying marriage practice three daily essential habits:
- Whenever a spouse leaves the house for any reason he or she says, “Goodbye, I love you.” Then the other spouse responds by saying, “I love you.”
- Whoever goes to sleep first always says, “Good night, I love you.” Then the other spouse replies, “Good night, I love you.” This guarantees four “I love you” statements every day.
- Avoid frequent corrections and criticism, which are major signs of an unhappy marriage. The first five minutes of every day must be positive without any corrections, criticisms, or complaints. Having a stress-free, encouraging first five minutes develops a positive attitude for each spouse personally as well as for the relationship.
4. Respectful disagreement discussions
Respectful disagreement discussions happen in happy marriages, but couples in these marriages rarely have intense fights and yelling arguments. Smart couples have disagreement guidelines to keep the “bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
Here are three terrific parameters that help keep disagreements respectful and have saved hundreds of marriages from divorce.
Inside the 9s
Couples should only discuss serious matters or tense topics inside the nines, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Rarely can I remember a couple sharing that they had a respectful, solution-focused dialogue before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m. Early in the morning or late at night, feelings are more sensitive. When spouses lack energy, that often leads to attacks rather than a solution-focused conversation.
When couples have a name-calling fight or yell during an argument, almost 100% of the time one or both spouses report they were standing. Standing makes listening difficult and is also an intimidating posture. Instead, sit so you both can be attentive listeners to understand reasons for the hurt and search together for a solution.
Begin with “I need your help”
What begins badly with each other will often end badly. Harsh beginnings to disagreements often culminate with bitter feelings, and that’s a major predictor for an unhappy marriage. The best phrase for a soft start-up is, “I need your help.” Christian people want to be helpful. Saying “I need your help” requires humility and makes both spouses more ready to listen and discuss the issue.
5. Three “Ds”for financial purchases
One of the major reasons for marriage unhappiness is irresponsible or impulsive spending. The three “Ds” — disclose, discuss, and decide — have helped thousands of spouses overcome this damaging relationship problem.
Here’s how it works. Spouses set an amount or “approval limit.” If a purchase is above the limit, they need to discuss it before spending. If a spouse wants to buy an item above the “approval limit,” he or she discloses the wish. Both spouses then discuss the pros and cons of such a purchase. Then, together they decide if the item is a need or want and whether it’s within the budget.
This article is just a brief overview of habits you can develop to fix an unhappy marriage. Find additional effective habits and more detail in my book, Simple Habits for Marital Happiness.
If both spouses make a commitment to follow these simple successful habits every day, it will be a turning point for their marriage. Resolve today to be the very best spouse you can be by developing these simple, yet effective habits.