What to Do If You’re in an Unhappy Relationship

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It can be difficult to admit, even to yourself, that you are not happy in your relationship with your partner. Whether it’s constant fights, a growing distance between the two of you, or just a gnawing feeling in your gut that something’s wrong, unhappiness can take different forms. 

Partners in unhappy relationships tend to stay together because they hope things can return to how they used to be, or they try to change each other through criticism and critique, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

This article explores the causes and consequences of unhappy relationships, as well as some advice from a psychologist on how to improve it.

Causes of Unhappy Relationships

These are some of the reasons that could cause unhappiness in relationships, according to Romanoff:

  • Holding on to the past: People tend to find themselves in unhappy relationships when they are reminiscing about the golden days or times in their relationship when things were easier and they weren’t so stressed. People hold on to these memories instead of channeling their energy into being present and fixing current conflicts.
  • Trying to change each other: Another significant factor leading to unhappy relationships is partners who set out to change one another. The other person will begin to feel as if they must justify their every decision and response to their partner.
  • Having different beliefs and values: Partners who do not share core values and beliefs might have been able to navigate the early stages of their relationship but will experience more tension as they learn more about each other and how they operate in the world.
  • Feeling held back: Partners might find themselves feeling held back in their relationships. They may feel as if they have to choose to stay in the relationship or continue to grow and achieve their goals beyond their partner.

Impact of Unhappy Relationships

Below, Romanoff explains how unhappiness can impact your relationship:

  • Emotional pain: An unhappy relationship will begin to cause more depression, frustration, irritability, and exhaustion than happiness.
  • Conflict: Partners will begin to view each other through the lens of contempt, frustration, and criticism. Instead of finding refuge in the relationship, they begin to armor themselves during interactions with their partner. Emotional or even physical conflict in unhappy relationships can make it harder to function and uphold responsibilities in other roles.
  • Withdrawal: Not only do people experience more tension and conflict due to the relationship, but they feel as if they are managing it all on their own. In unhealthy relationships, partners become adversaries, and the other person will usually begin to withdraw effort into helping things to get better.
  • Frustration: People in unhappy relationships tend to hold on to the fantasy of what it could be by distorting their reality. Their efforts to distort reality, and not accept each other for who they are, contribute to frustration and constant disappointment.
  • Negativity: Your relationship will begin to feel like it's weighing you down or imbuing negative energy into how you approach work or other relationships. 
  • Less focus on each other: In an unhappy relationship, you will notice a desire to deprioritize your partner, and instead will want to focus your time on other interests and relationships. 
  • Reduced intimacy: In unhappy relationships, partners also tend to not make time to connect intimately–either physically or emotionally. 
  • Broken communication and connection: Communication is markedly broken in unhappy relationships as partners will not be able to work through problems or address hurt feelings. Because there are significant problems in genuinely connecting, these partners will begin to live parallel lives from each other. 
  • External focus: Partners will begin to seek support and get their needs met through other people and areas. 

"If people in unhappy relationships were to do a cost-benefit analysis on their relationship, they would probably come out in a deficit," says Romanoff.

Improving Unhappy Relationships

Romanoff shares some strategies that can help you improve your relationship:

  • Identify what’s wrong: First, identify what all is not going well in the relationship and determine whether these are deal-breakers
  • Decide whether your relationship is worth saving: You need to decide whether you want to invest energy into salvaging your relationship. This requires honesty on your part and is particularly difficult when you’ve devoted considerable time to the relationship and are hoping it could return to its previous functioning.
  • Communicate honestly with your partner: Shift your defensive stance of critiquing and blaming your partner to being more vulnerable. Share the aspects of your relationship you would like to improve and ways in which you both contribute to its current status. Research also suggests that showing gratitude in your relationship more often helps both parties be more comfortable speaking about relationships issues.
  • Find solutions together: Be solution-oriented. Remember that you and your partner are aligned against the problem. That means that when a problem arises, you must consider how you will get through it as a team. Don’t let problems separate you both.
  • Take time apart: If things don’t get better, time apart can provide distance and perspective on the relationship. By giving each other space, you can create a new path–either alone or together. Time apart can allow each of you to grow, discover what you really want, and choose for yourselves how you want your life to look, instead of defaulting on your relationship out of convenience. 

A Word From Verywell

Several factors can cause you to be unhappy in your relationship with your partner, leading to pain, conflict, negativity, and frustration. This can cause a downward spiral in your relationship, and also affect other aspects of your life, such as work.

If you are unhappy in your relationship, you need to identify the issues that are bothering you, discuss them with your partner, and work together to find solutions. If you feel like you need help, you can seek support from loved ones, or start going to a therapist or couples counselor.

Eventually, you have to decide whether your relationship is worth saving. Taking some time apart can help you and your partner put things into perspective and make this decision.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Lambert NM, Fincham FD. Expressing gratitude to a partner leads to more relationship maintenance behaviorEmotion. 2011;11(1):52-60. doi:10.1037/a0021557