Often we think a couple who is unhappy has only two options: 

  1. Stay together and be miserable.
  2. Get a divorce.

But there is a third option, and many couples successfully take this other road. In an exciting new study, couples participating in a national survey were asked to rate their marriage on a scale of one to seven, with one being very unhappy and seven being very happy. Those who rated their marriages a "one" had incredible turnarounds just five years later – if they stayed together. In fact, 77 per cent of those giving their marriage a very unhappy "one" rated their marriage as a "seven" after five years.Was there some breakthrough therapy involved? No. In fact, many did relatively little – they just "stuck it out" and things got better. 

Average marriages

As mentioned earlier, another recent study found that about 60 per cent of marriages that ended in divorce were not bad marriages, but average.They had average levels of positive interactions and average levels of conflict. Basically, these marriages were "good enough" but could be improved. Most marriages go through emotional ups and downs – times of great happiness and times of boredom and fatigue. To have good marriages, we need to ride out the "lows" and learn from those times so that the relationship can be strengthened. If your relationship is at a low point and you wonder what happened to the spark, there is good news. It's not too late to revitalize your relationship. 

How to turn it around

Researchers followed up on those couples who rated their marriages as unhappy at first and happy five years later. Here's what the couples told them were the reasons for the dramatic turnaround: 3 

  • Waiting. Since many couples have unhappy marriages due to outside pressures (like a job loss or the demands of young children), the passage of time changed those circumstances. Things just naturally got better again.
  • Working at it. Many of the problems in marriage are a result of poor communication. Some couples told the researchers they simply learned to take small steps – like listening to each other – that resulted in happier marriages. For example, husbands learned to compliment wives and wives learned to encourage husbands.
  • Personal happiness/perspective change in one spouse. Sometimes, one spouse simply decided not to base all of his or her happiness on the mood of the other spouse. Instead, one spouse took up a hobby or simply made an attitude adjustment that allowed him or her to be more patient and accepting of the other.
  • Credible threat of consequences for bad behaviour. Some of the marriages were initially very unhappy because the husbands were engaged in "bad behaviours" – out late drinking with the boys, infidelity or even occasional abuse. 4 Just as Dr. James Dobson advises in his book Love Must Be Tough, these wives took firm action and let their husbands know they would not tolerate such behaviour. The husbands changed.

There are many ways to improve your marriage. Today, there are hundreds of tools focused on ways to build strong, healthy relationships. A few examples include weekend getaway-style marriage conferences by Family Life Today or Marriage Encounter, film series and seminars hosted by local churches under the title "marriage enrichment" and mentoring programs through local churches.

Regular maintenance

The key is to understand that marriage is like a luxury sports car. You wouldn't spend your life's fortune on a new, shiny, red sports car and then stop changing the oil. Marriage also takes regular maintenance to run properly. If it is left virtually ignored for a period of time, warning lights will come on. If those are ignored, it will break down. The good news is that when a breakdown occurs in a marriage there are expert mechanics who can help you rebuild the relationship. You just have to be willing to work on it. (But unlike a car, you can't simply trade it in for a new model. The old problems tend to follow you when they are not addressed. And, if you stick with it, your marriage will become an enviable "classic" you would never even want to sell.)

Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 148.

Paul Amato and Alan Booth, A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 220.

While women are also known to exhibit these negative behaviours, in this particular study it was the men who were "misbehaving."

While women are also known to exhibit these negative behaviours, in this particular study it was the men who were "misbehaving."

Amy Desai has a Juris Doctor degree. 

From Troubledwith.com, a Focus on the Family website. © 2001 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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