Kelly Gonsalves


November 12, 2022

Kelly Gonsalves

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

By Kelly Gonsalves

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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November 12, 2022

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Maybe the realization just suddenly hit you like a ton of bricks. Or maybe you’ve known for a long while, but you just haven’t wanted to name it. Either way, recognizing that you may be unhappy in your relationship can bring on a mixture of confusion, sadness, and even fear. What comes next? Can the relationship be fixed, or is it all over? Is it just a stressful time, or am I truly just unhappy in this relationship overall?

Ahead, we offer advice from couples therapists as to how to recognize signs of an unhappy relationship and what to do if you find yourself unhappy in a relationship but scared to leave. 


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Signs of an unhappy relationship:

“I believe we know when we are unhappy,” says Jessa Zimmerman, M.A., a licensed couples counselor and sex therapist in Seattle.

Happiness is an emotion, after all, and we’re all familiar with what it feels like to be happy. Unhappiness can be considered the absence of that feeling, or it can present as feelings of sadness, frustration, stress, apathy, or even boredom. The point is, something feels off.

And remember, unhappiness is about how you feel–not about whether or not something is actually “wrong” with your relationship. You don’t need to find a “valid reason” for your unhappiness. You can be unhappy in your relationship even if nothing is technically “wrong” and even if you still love your partner.


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If you’re not sure whether you’re unhappy, it helps to check in on the basics: For example, it’s impossible to feel happy if you don’t feel safe. According to licensed marriage therapist Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, feeling unsafe–physically or emotionally–doesn’t just make your relationship unhappy–it also means it’s unhealthy. “If you do not feel safe, if this is a safety issue, meaning you are physically [or] emotionally being abused, this is a sure sign that the relationship is toxic and unhealthy,” she tells mbg.

(We’ve got a five-minute quiz that will tell you if you might be in a toxic relationship.) 


You don’t really want to be around your partner these days. 

According to Zimmerman, you know you’re unhappy with your relationship when you don’t feel like being around your partner and don’t want to engage with them like you used to. You may feel comfortable being around them because of familiarity, but their company doesn’t exactly bring you joy–in fact, you sometimes even breathe a sigh of relief when you get to have time away from them. Sometimes you may even actively prefer to avoid them. 

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You’re less interested in sex than you’ve been.

Another sign of an unhappy relationship? “We may not be as interested in sex,” says Zimmerman. Of course, sex in long-term relationships often goes through phases, and it’s perfectly OK to not want to have sex sometimes. But if you’ve enjoyed sex with your partner in the past and that has dramatically changed–to the point that you’re almost repulsed by the idea of having sex with them–that can be a sign that something has shifted for you internally.

(Here’s our full guide to sexless relationships.)


Communication is non-existent. 

Nonexistent communication is another sign of an unhappy relationship, says Jackson. If you and your partner don’t talk much these days, and you’re not particularly moved to share your thoughts and feelings with them like you used to, that could mean that you’re emotionally pulling away from them and losing interest in truly sharing your life with this person. 


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You feel like your relationship isn’t balanced.

A lack of reciprocity can contribute to feeling unhappy in a relationship, says Jackson. “And that can be in any capacity – if you’re giving more love, if you’re cleaning up more, if you’re helping the kids more, if you’re giving more communication, if you are exhausting yourself to no end, and your partner is not reciprocating or at least trying to attempt to reciprocate, then that is a massive problem that needs to be addressed.”


You feel your boundaries being crossed. 

Even romantic partners need boundaries. “If you find that your partner is consistently crossing your boundaries without any type of remorse, without any type of explanation, then that is an indicator that this relationship is unhealthy as well,” says Jackson. “We have boundaries around everything – we have boundaries around our time, around our money, around our physical space, around our communication, around our phones, around all of the things. And if you are expressing your boundary and it’s constantly being ran over, then that’s a sign as well.”


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Sometimes unhappiness in a relationship presents as distance, according to Zimmerman. You don’t feel as close to your partner as you used to be, or perhaps they feel like they’ve pulled away and that distance feels palpable to you. “You can watch for signs of distance, for increased frustration, for a lack of connection, for less interest in sex,” she says. “Given that we grow and change over a lifetime, we can’t just assume that because things were good when we started, that will maintain over time. We should check in regularly.”

You’ll know you’re unhappy in your relationship if you are feeling constantly disrespected by your partner or like they’re consistently doing things that make you feel bad about yourself or about the state of the relationship, says Jackson. “If our person is consistently breaking your trust or putting you in a position where they are just not caring about the relationship and not prioritizing that, that is really, really unhealthy.”


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You feel like you’re losing yourself.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, sometimes unhappiness looks like a loss–the feeling of losing yourself. 

“That means you’re probably being drained, you’re probably being sucked dry, that means your partner has probably demanded or you’ve had to change so much to the point that you don’t even recognize your own self anymore,” says Jackson. “You stop having wants, needs, goals, desires, passions, hobbies, and all of those things, for the sake of the relationship and/or for the sake of children.”

In a healthy, happy relationship, you shouldn’t have to give up all the things that make you who you are and all the things that make you feel alive.

What causes unhappiness in relationships?

It’s normal to be unhappy in a relationship from time to time, even in relationships that are healthy and loving. According to Zimmerman, we won’t be happy 100% of the time in any part of our lives, relationships included.

“In relationships, we tend to go through ‘comfort cycles,’ where we enjoy what’s happening and get the benefit of whatever work we’ve done. We can coast, in a way. Then we are thrown into ‘growth cycles,’ when one or both partners are unhappy with something,” she explains. “This is when we are called on to work, to grow, to change. To care about what our partner needs, and for them to care about us. This is a natural flow through our life together.”

Unhappiness in a relationship can be caused any number of issues, including: 

  • An ongoing, unresolved conflict
  • Stress from other parts of life impacting the flow of the relationship
  • Unhealthy communication patterns
  • Enmeshed or codependent relationship dynamic
  • Loss of individuality or independence
  • Lack of appreciation, respect, or positive regard for one another
  • Lack of trust or honesty 
  • Insecurities related to the relationship
  • Personal insecurities
  • Lack of affection or intimacy

What to do if you’re unhappy in a relationship.


Figure out what’s not working. 

“If you realize you’re unhappy in your relationship, it’s time to take an internal evaluation to dig a little deeper,” says Jackson. “The first thing is knowing that you’re starting to feel unhappy, but the next part is unpacking and digging a little deeper to figure out why you’re unhappy.”

She suggests taking some time to reflect on what’s been going on in your relationship and identifying any concerning situations that may have arisen recently, any moments where your partner has made you feel some type of way, or anything that you feel is missing and causing you to feel differently about your relationship.


Talk to your partner about what needs to change. 

Next, it’s time to talk to your partner about what you’re feeling. Zimmerman emphasizes the importance of coming in with a nonjudgmental and non-accusatory attitude, instead focusing on teaming up to find solutions together

“Share your concerns without blame,” she says. “Approach them as a partner, getting on the same page to solve the issues.” 

This isn’t a “here’s all the things you’re doing wrong and all the things you need to change” conversation. This is a “here’s what I’m feeling and what I need to feel happy–what do you think we can do?” conversation. 


Look for change behavior. 

Things won’t change after one conversation; it will likely take several check-ins over time and active adjustments on both people’s parts for change to start to happen.

According to Jackson, what you’ll want to be on the lookout for during this time is change behavior from your partner. Are they putting in the work to try to get better at meeting your needs? Are they open to growing and learning? 

“You need to figure out if this person is worth committing to and staying with and seeing if you can grow and evolve with them, seeing if they want to change,” she explains. “Seeing if there’s some type of change behavior is crucial. And if that person does not want to do that, if they don’t want to better themselves, then it’s time for you to make the hard decision to let the relationship go because clearly it’s no longer serving you.”

Change behavior can look like: 

  • No longer repeating behaviors that have contributed to discord and drama
  • Going to therapy consistently
  • Reading books about relationships or childhood trauma

“It’s important to show change behavior, and not just for a day, not just for a week–I’m talking about months. Long-lasting change,” Jackson adds.

One of the biggest examples of change behavior is taking accountability, says Jackson. 

“One of the sexiest things that a person can do is to be honest with themselves enough to say ‘You’re right. Oh my gosh. My bad. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that that hurt your feelings. Next time I won’t do that. I’ll try this,” she says.

She adds that you’ll also need to take accountability yourself for your part of any issues that have come up in the relationship. “Taking accountability for what you can is probably one of the most important things, and it shows your partner that you’re self aware enough to know when it’s important to apologize for yourself and for the sake of the relationship.”

Jackson also notes that going to therapy, whether individual therapy or couples therapy, can be helpful during this time wher you’re working on making changes to the relationship. It can be helpful to help you two figure out what’s not working, what solutions are possible, and how to move through these conversations with as little pain and drama as possible.  


Recognize when it’s not working.  

How do you know when it’s truly time to give up and end things? 

“If your partner consistently won’t come to the table to work things out so you can both be happy, if they diminish your concerns, if they shame you, if they always turn it back on you, if they show no sign on care and concern for your well-being, that is not a situation where you can likely get what you need,” says Zimmerman. 

“And before you end the relationship, it’s worth making sure you’ve done everything well on your side of the court. That you have expressed yourself well, without attacking your partner. That you’ve tried repeatedly to express your concerns. That you’re equally interested in your partner’s happiness.”


Give yourself permission to leave.

Trust your gut. Give yourself the freedom and the flexibility to let things go that are no longer serving you, says Jackson. 

“You can love someone very deeply but still choose to let them go,” she says. “And I think that’s a really powerful dynamic of duality–of like, I still love this person, I might internally want to be with them still, but I know that this isn’t healthy for me, and so the healthiest choice is to let them go so they can find their person, and so I can be free and find the person that I’m supposed to be with.”

You don’t need to wait until things are so bad that they’re unbearable. If you’re unhappy, that is reason enough to leave. You have the right to chase your happiness–even if it means letting go of someone you love. 

A note about the connection between happiness and relationships. 

Relationships can have a huge impact on a person’s overall happiness. That said, Jackson points out that it’s important not to depend on your relationship for your happiness.

“Happiness is an internal job, which means that nobody can make you happy. Nobody can steal that from you,” she says. “That is something that you have to find within yourself, and while outside factors in a relationship can contribute to it, like some stress or some drama or things of that nature, you should never solely depend on your partner for happiness in the relationship or happiness in life.”

If you feel like you can’t be happy if your relationship doesn’t work out, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate how you’re thinking about the role of relationships in your life. “We need to go back to the basics and dig a little deeper to figure out why your happiness is attached to another person and another human being in the first place,” she says, adding that the bottom line is this: “You have to find joy and happiness and excitement and purpose and passion and all of those things of life within yourself, by yourself.”


Is it normal to be unhappy in a relationship?

Relationships, like all aspects of our life, will often go through phrases–some good, some bad, some exciting, and some kind of dull. In that sense, it’s normal to have periods of unhappiness in a relationship. However, a relationship should not be consistently or predominantly unhappy, and if you are more often unhappy than not, then it’s important to evaluate whether the relationship is really serving you–or if it may be time to leave.

Can you love someone and still be unhappy?

Yes, you can love someone deeply and yet still be unhappy in the relationship. Sometimes we love someone who isn’t right for us, whether because your lifestyles or needs don’t align, because you’re in different places in your life, or because there’s simply some other factor missing from the relationship that is too important for you to go without.

What if I’m unhappy in the relationship but scared to leave?

If you’re scared to leave your relationship, start by reaching out to someone you trust who can support you in figuring out your next steps–whether that’s a friend, family member, a therapist or other care professional, or an advocate from a women’s shelter. When fear is in the mix, it can be immensely helpful to talk to outside parties who can help you see your situation more clearly and with fresh, objective eyes.

Don’t let the fear of the unknown keep you trapped in a situation that’s ultimately draining you. Breaking up is often the hardest part–but what you’ll find on the other side of your breakup is often relief, freedom, and new opportunities for joy and connection. Those are things that you deserve, and they’ll be there waiting for you whenever you’re ready to take that first step.

What do you do when your partner is unhappy in the relationship?

If your partner is unhappy in the relationship, it’s important to talk to them about what exactly is causing their unhappiness and whether there’s anything that can be shifted in the relationship to help better meet their needs. There may be solutions that can help your partner find joy in the relationship again. Or, you may find that what they are wanting isn’t something you can provide, and it may be in both people’s best interests to part ways. After all, you both deserve to be in happy relationships–with someone who is happy to be with you. 

The takeaway.

To some extent, experiencing brief periods of unhappiness in a relationship is inevitable. People and their needs will always change over time, and the tides of life can shake up even the sturdiest of relationships.

That said, unhappiness should not be the norm or the accepted status quo. We all have the right to be happy, and the people who we choose to share our lives with have an immense impact on how we feel in the day-to-day flow of our lives. If your relationship is no longer serving you, despite your best efforts to make changes together with your partner, know that it’s okay to lovingly let them go in your pursuit of happiness. 

“Remember that a relationship should be a win/win situation,” says Zimmerman.

If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.