Unhappy Couples Are All the Same (Don’t Be One of Them)

Unhappy Couples Are All the Same (Don’t Be One of Them)

Tolstoy was wrong.

He penned one of the greatest opening lines in literature:  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

But the unhappy families I know look a lot alike.

I was recently in an office building waiting for an appointment, alongside a couple who was waiting for their own appointment–for marriage counseling.  I was reading my book when a man walked in, talking loudly on his cell phone.  His wife comes in a few minutes later; he doesn’t look up.  He finishes his call; she immediately says “Who was that?  Was it about the check?  Did you send the check??”

He nods.  And she flips out:  “You’re such an idiot.  You were supposed to send it last week.  You always botch these things.  I wish you’d answer me!” And all the while he’s sinking lower in his chair.  Not answering.  But how are you supposed to answer that?

I’m trying to mind my own business, but it’s impossible to ignore a conversation like that unfolding 10 feet from your face.  Their bickering has my skin crawling.  If their conversation is this painful for a stranger to listen to, how painful is it to actually be in the relationship?

I’m glad they’re at marriage counseling.  I hope this is their first appointment.  I wonder what their counselor will say.

I know what John Gottman would say:  this is a typical example of nasty marital communication.  The conversation begins with a harsh startup–almost always from the wife.  (Check.)  Contempt is evident.  (Check.)  Both sides are defensive.  (Check.)  And the husband stonewalls.  (Check.)

I marvel at the sameness of their unhappiness.  It looks like everybody else’s.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only unhappy couple I’ve seen this year.  Friends and neighbors are fighting, despairing and divorcing over the same old stuff.  I used to regard all those doomsday statistics with a skeptical eye, showing what seemed to be astronomically high percentages of couples dealing with credit card debt, internet p*rn addictions, infidelity, workaholism, and contempt.

But this year I’ve known a lot of those couples.  I’ve been stunned at the number of my own acquaintances who are dealing with the same. old. stuff.  Credit card debt.  Gambling addictions.  P*rnography.  And terrible marital communication.  Their relationships aren’t falling apart in unique ways; these couples are unhappy in the same ways everybody else is.

And it’s the sameness of their unhappiness that surprises me.  But perhaps it shouldn’t.  After all, one of my favorite quotes on happiness testifies to the truth of my observations.

You know I love Pinterest, right?  After witnessing that awful conversation in the waiting room, I was inspired to create my own Quotable Quote:

Now that is a quote worth pinning!

I’ll hope for the best and say a prayer for that couple in the waiting room–and for the oh-so-many other couples I know who are unhappy because of the same old stuff–that they can find their way back to the new, marvelous, intoxicating Real Good.

Pin It


  1. It makes me want to cry when I hear about couples like that. I was on the phone with my little sister last night and she told me about a couple from our congregation–good friends of the family–who are getting a divorce. (This was a second marriage for both of them.) My little sister, twelve years old, knew why their marriage had failed, though, and she put it beautifully: “It’s because they didn’t make Jesus the most important part of their marriage.”

    Forgiveness is SUCH an essential part of any healthy relationship, and real forgiveness is only possible when one accepts and knows the forgiveness of Jesus. I know my husband and I desperately need Christ’s and each other’s forgiveness every day!

  2. DFrazzled says:

    I too have had a year of watching marriages break apart around me. We had an unexpected visitor last week who asked to speak with my husband about his decision to divorce his wife, talking about her disengagement from the marriage, addiction, and how he loaths even the presence of her in the same vicinity. How did their marriage go from happy to contemptible? Eight years of the same old stuff.

    On the plus side, at this point this couple needs a miracle, and that is exactly the kind of miracle that God loves to perform. Please keep D+M in your prayers.

  3. Wow, so true! I’m at an age where I know a lot of people who are dating and marrying, and what’s sad is that I see this pattern in many of their relationships. They think that something will change once they get married, but unless they DO something drastic to change it, those patterns will still persist until someone tires of them and leaves. I have a family member that is in a relationship like this and it hurts me so much to see it, because neither person in the relationship is willing to do what it takes to change it – or even acknowledge the problems. I worry their relationship is doomed before they even walk down the aisle.

  4. Amy says:

    This is very sad, but I do see a lot of it. I think a lot of folks get wrapped up in theirown frustrations and they don’t even realize how their patterns of communication hurt their marriages. It takes effort to speak to one’s spouse gently and lovingly sometimes, but it does pay off in the long run.

  5. Audrey says:

    It is amazing how it’s often the same old story, and it seems so easy to think, ‘Wow, they shouldn’t do that’ or ‘They need to change’ when you’re on the outside. Then after you’ve been married awhile, you fall into patterns with your spouse that are unproductive too, and it’s real work to change! My mom used to say, ‘Nothing good is easy’ and I she was right.

  6. Jenilee says:

    It is so sad to see marriages like that! I’m incredibly thankful for my husband and what God has blessed me with… we do need to pray for marriage as a while in our culture

  7. Christine says:

    Scary thing is . . . we’re all able to fall into those traps that start the slippery slope of marital unhappiness. Bitter words, bad attitude, biting comments, taking our frustrations out of our spouse. I have noticed that I have to be on gaurd to watch my attitude with my hubby. Our “happy relationship” will only be “happy” as long as we are both putting in the effort. It didn’t happen by accident. Thanks for the post!

  8. Chloe says:

    I love the quote. And I think your thoughts about this are right-on. I’m seeing the things you’re seeing and maybe even doing some of these things myself right now.

    Now I’m going to go have a look around. I like your concept.

    Nice to “meet” you. Thanks for dropping my blog and commenting.

  9. Cari says:

    How sad. I don’t understand why couples have to fight in public, let alone talk to each other this way in private. We all have moments of frustration and anger in a marriage but I can honestly say that in 2 years of dating and almost 2 years of marriage, my husband and I have never talked to each other like that or even yelled at each other. Yes, we have had disagreements but we communicate and work things out.

  10. Josanne says:

    I’m actually doing a series on my blog right now about marital submission. I had someone comment on how they believe that submission is slavery, and how can you stand to live with a master, even if it’s a nice master…..it’s funny how when I woman fulfills her role as a godly woman, one who is meek and shamefaced, and who also practices the beleifs that a soft answer turns away wrath, among the other teachings of love, that you won’t hear these types of conversations.
    It truly is sad-and I absolutely hate seeing a man being treated like he is stupid-by his wife, of all people.
    Such a shame when respect flies out the window in marriage. Just a little biting of the tongue, being a true lady, and being meek and humble, can make a world of difference. Men need to do their part as the leader, and keep his respect for his wife, as well, but I’m mostly speaking about wives because I am one. =)

  11. EAustin says:

    Wow! Bet the wife didn’t have a clue how she sounded to others….it’s a great check to listen to yourself speak to others and try to process how it might come across to someone else…especially the one you are speaking to. Thinking about Jesus listening in on the conversation is another way to tune in to how you come across. Unfortunately, I’m one of those guilty parties….had to work really hard at changing my tone, chosen words, etc…took a lot of work and a lot of I’m sorry statements. I was brought up in a family that spoke harshly and it was “normal” or rather familiar to me…I honestly didn’t realize how I came across. Christian marriage counseling is a great thing IF a person is ready to change.

  12. sarah beals says:

    Two thoughts. We all live with the delusion that we are mostly right and that they(spouse) need to change. But, sinners marry sinners. 🙂 Peter and I were just discussing two nights ago how SIX of our friends from college are divorced and in every case the WIFE left her husband and kids. I don’t think that 50 years ago this was the case. Now, that would make an interesting study. Do women leave their families in greater numbers today than in our grandparents generation, and if so, why?
    Thanks, Anne, for another great article.:)

  13. Amanda says:

    It is so sad that we have forgotten love is a choice. My husband and I were that couple arguing and separated after 2 years of marriage. When we each came to the end of ourselves, that’s when we decided to work on us. We went to counseling for months. 11 years and 4 kids later, we can honestly say we are happily married. Putting Christ first and communication are key. Also, remember that love is a choice that we need to make daily. Thank you for your post!

  14. Julie says:

    My husband and I are “separated” now because of behaivor similar to this. I didn’t support him, didn’t trust his judgement and didn’t realize it. This is such an easy trap to get into, as I found myself with 3 babies under 5yrs and my husband got a promotion that included much traveling.

    I’m now in control of my emotions, I look to my Best Friend when I start to feel “down” and realize He has chosen me to serve Him in this very unique way. I’m standing and praying for my family to be put back together in God’s perfect time.

    Nice blog. Thank you for sharing. The only way things like this can be avoided is thru God changing someone’s heart. Actually, by someone ALLOWING God to change their heart.

  15. Kettie says:

    I have to say that I think it was actually the man who started the conversation on this one. He ignored his wife when she met him for an appointment. That’s communication. She responded by bad attention-seeking behavior. Both are at fault, but in this case, I think this conversation started with him. I don’t see what good it does to blame the wife for a situation that they are both clearly cultivating.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.