How to Deal with an Unsatisfying Marriage of 38 Years?

A reader asks:

My wife and I have been married for 38 years. By all accounts we have a good life—we’re financially pretty well off, we each have hobbies we enjoy, no major health issues, and we have several grown children who are happy and successful. And yet, we both seem unhappy with our relationship and marriage. We’re not close. Conversations rarely go below surface level and mostly just focus on logistical matters. We’re almost never physically intimate any more, and when we are, it tends to be pretty mechanical. We don’t fight much. But we also rarely laugh together or enjoy each other’s company much. We’re like very civil roommates. Early on, it was a bit better than it is now, but it’s never been the way I hoped marriage would be. I realize this is a huge problem, but any advice would be appreciated.

I’m very sorry to hear that. 38 years is a long time to be unsatisfied in your primary relationship.

Maybe the most helpful piece of advice I can give is this:

Try to stay focused on specifics, not the whole.

Because this unsatisfying marriage has been going on for so long and has so many different aspects to it, I imagine the thing as a whole feels overwhelming and even a little hopeless. As a result, you might have trouble working toward (or even thinking about) how to move forward in a productive way.

Paralysis is a common response to overwhelm.

On the other hand, if you focus on—and try to stay focused on—one particular aspect of your marriage that is unsatisfying, your odds of making some improvements go up because it feels more doable.

For example, one of the specifics you mentioned was not laughing together. When viewed as simply one of many things that are wrong in the relationship, it’s just another thing to feel bad, ashamed, or hopeless about.

On the other hand, imagine this:

  • You temporarily ignore every single aspect of your relationship that is unsatisfying except for your lack of laughter.
  • Then for a period of time—let’s say a month—you focus exclusively on creating more moments of shared laughter and humor in your marriage.
  • Researching funny movies and watching them together in the evenings. Buying tickets to a comedy show. Bringing up funny shared memories from your past during dinner. Etc.

If you did that—and I mean really committed to it for a month—a bet you would laugh together more. I’m not saying you’d be rolling in laughter multiple times a day. But the amount of humor in your relationship would increase measurably—10, maybe 20%. And while that might not seem earth-shattering, it would be a very real, if modest, improvement in your marriage.

Okay, that sounds nice, but how is laughing a little more going to fix 28 years of an unsatisfying marriage?

Sure, laughing together 20% more won’t itself fix your marriage.

But what’s far more important about this little experiment is what it represents…

It would be proof that your relationship can get better and be more satisfying as a direct result of your efforts.

And that proof would be motivating. It would, however slightly, increase your confidence that you could try something similar in another aspect of your marriage—maybe physical intimacy or emotional vulnerability.

Imagine the result of a full year’s worth of such experiments…

  • January: 20% more laughter together
  • February: 15% more emotional vulnerability
  • March: 23% more shared projects
  • April: 12% more physical intimacy
  • May: 19% more trips/adventures together
  • June: 10% more sex
  • July: 25% more spiritual connection
  • August: 15% more shared creativity
  • September: 9% more healthy conflict
  • October: 18% more shared playfulness
  • November: 22% more expressed gratitude each other
  • December: 20% more acts of service

Looks a little different from that perspective, right?

So don’t lose heart.

It’s counterintuitive, but by shrinking your focus of change, you’re likely to make far more progress in the end.

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