9 signs your marriage isn’t as happy as you think it is

Marriage can be hard — even harder than you expect. Bogdan Sonjachnyj/Shutterstock.com
  • Marriage is always hard, and it’s tempting to ignore problems in your relationship and hope that they will go away.
  • But some problems could spell trouble down the road – and will only get worse the longer you put off addressing them.
  • Those problems include experiencing a lot of dramatic downturns in your marriage, having a good “alternative” partner, and shutting down during conflict.

It’s easy to brush stuff under the rug.

Maybe you didn’t realise until recently that your partner’s obsessed with earning money and you’re not; or maybe the magic of that first year after the wedding is starting to wear off, laying bare a less exhilarating existence. Whatever it is, you’re hoping that if you ignore it, it will go away.

Below, we’ve listed nine research-and-expert-backed problems that probably won’t go away – and that could portend disaster in your marriage.

A word of caution: Many of these problems are fixable (if you want to fix them, that is), so don’t panic if you notice one or more in your own relationship.

You were overly affectionate as newlyweds


Having to be practically dragged apart in the months following your wedding could spell trouble down the road.

Psychologist Ted Huston followed 168 couples for 13 years – from their wedding day onward. Huston and his team conducted multiple interviews with the couples throughout the study.

Here’s one fascinating finding, from the resulting paper that was published in the journal Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes in 2001: “As newlyweds, the couples who divorced after 7 or more years were almost giddily affectionate, displaying about one third more affection than did spouses who were later happily married.”

Aviva Patz summed it up in Psychology Today: “Couples whose marriages begin in romantic bliss are particularly divorce-prone because such intensity is too hard to maintain. Believe it or not, marriages that start out with less ‘Hollywood romance’ usually have more promising futures.”

One of you withdraws during conflict


Sure, you’re not screaming in a fit of rage – but if one partner refuses to talk at all during conflict, that’s not a good sign.

A 2010 study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that husbands’ “withdrawal” behaviours predicted higher divorce rates. This conclusion was based on the researchers’ interviews with about 350 newlywed couples living in Michigan.

Meanwhile, a 2014 study, published in the journal Communication Monographs, suggests that couples engaged in “demand/withdraw” patterns – i.e. one partner pressuring the other and receiving silence in return – are less happy in their relationships.

The lead study author, Paul Schrodt at Texas Christian University, says it’s a hard pattern to break because each partner thinks the other is the cause of the problem. It requires seeing how your individual behaviours are contributing to the issue and using different, more respectful conflict-management strategies.

You don’t think about your partner when you’re apart


Sorry, Bob who?

In 2007, researchers randomly dialed nearly 300 married people and asked them a series of questions about their relationships and how in love they felt.

Results showed that certain relationship characteristics were linked to stronger feelings of love. One especially interesting finding: The more often people reported thinking about their partner when they were apart, the more in love they felt.

The same study included a follow-up experiment with nearly 400 married New Yorkers, which found that difficulty concentrating on other things while you’re thinking about your partner is also linked to strong feelings of love – especially for men.

You don’t spend any time apart with your own friends


Give yourself the chance to think about your partner when you two are apart.

According to Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern University and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, many modern couples place too-high expectations on their marriages.

We expect our partner to be our lover, our soul mate, our best friend, our therapist, our intellectual sparring partner – and more. And, realistically, we’re bound to be disappointed.

The alternative is finding friends, coworkers, and family members who can fill those seeming gaps in your relationship. Spend time with them in addition to spending time with your partner and you’ll likely feel more satisfied with your life.

Your relationship is like a roller coaster


Yes, the bad times are bad – but the good times are so good! Doesn’t that count for something?

Er, maybe.

Researchers recently looked at nearly 400 dating couples and used their feedback about their relationships to identify four patterns of commitment in a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Marriage and Family: dramatic, conflict-ridden, socially involved, and partner-focused.

As psychologist and relationships expert Gary Lewandowski explains on Science of Relationships, dramatic couples showed a lot of fluctuation in their commitment to their partners over time. (Interestingly, they also constituted the largest group in the study.)

Partner-focused couples saw their partners positively and mostly experienced fluctuations in commitment when they couldn’t spend as much time together.

Socially involved couples usually experienced fluctuations when their friends and family changed what they thought of the relationship.

Finally, conflict-ridden couples fought often and had a lot of mini-fluctuations in their level of commitment.

As it turns out, partner-focused couples were most likely to get more serious in their relationship – but dramatic couples were abou twice as likely as couples in other groups to break up.

You see your partner exactly as they are


Put on the rose-coloured glasses.

A growing body of research suggests that partners who have “positive illusions” about each other are more likely to stay together. In other words, in stable, satisfying relationships, each partner somewhat idealizes the other and sees the best in them.

For example, you might rate your partner as more attractive, kinder, and smarter than they would rate themselves.

On the other hand, if you still see your partner as meh in the looks, intelligence, and kindness departments – and as totally different from your ideal mate – that’s probably not a good sign.

You think you have a good ‘alternative’ partner


If you think you might be happier dating one of your friends, and that that person might want to date you, too … you could be in trouble.

In one study, published 1987 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, undergrads in relationships answered questions about their best alternative to their current relationship, their best imagined alternative, and how easily they thought they could find someone to replace their current partner.

As it turned out, participants who had more desirable realistic or imagined partners, and who thought they could find an alternative partner more easily, were less likely to be in the same relationship three months later.

Interestingly, a more recent study of college students, published 2018 in the journal Communication Research Reports, found that most – single and attached – had “back burners,” or potential relationship alternatives.

The researchers attribute that pattern largely to digital technology, which makes it easier to stay in touch with acquaintances and former flames.

Yet as the authors write in an article for The Conversation: “Surprisingly, the number of back burners people reported did not predict how committed they were to their partners.”

You insist that you ‘balance each other out’


Opposites may attract initially – but over time, too much difference can start to wear on a romantic bond.

Couples therapist Rachel Sussman previously told Business Insider that she sees many such cases in her New York City practice. From her perspective, “Opposites attract and with the passage of time, a lot of couples tend to resent the things that are opposite.”

Sussman used a hypothetical example of a couple in which one partner is highly social and outgoing and the other is more of a homebody. Initially those tendencies might complement each other, Sussman said; the couple might even say, “we balance each other out.”

The problem is, Sussman said, over time “people get more set in their ways” and there’s less opportunity for compromise or mutual understanding.

Your values are fundamentally different


Do you want kids? Are you religious? These are just some of the questions it’s important to cover before getting serious – and if your answers differ, that’s something to explore.

Peter Pearson, a couples psychologist who is the cofounder (along with his wife) of the Couples Institute, previously told Business Insider that finding someone who shares the same core values as you is the “holy grail” of relationships.

Values are different from interests, Pearson said. If you, say, love going to concerts and your partner doesn’t, you can probably find a friend to go with you instead.

But if you’re obsessed with earning more money and power and your partner is OK where he or she is – a situation Pearson has seen before – you may run into problems.