The Stages of a Dying Marriage and How to Save Your Relationship

Bring your marriage back to life, again.
watering can with flowers
Photo: Yaroslav Danylchenko | Stocksy
Hayley Folk
Hayley Folk
Hayley Folk
Hayley Folk
The Knot Contributor
  • Hayley writes articles on a freelance basis for The Knot Worldwide, with a specialty in sex and relationships.
  • Her work has appeared in The Knot, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29 and more.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Hayley was a full-time editor at a business publication.
Updated Mar 06, 2024

Here's the thing: every marriage will go through rough patches and hard times. That's just part of life. But if it goes beyond that—deep unhappiness, a lack of emotional connection or even deep relationship betrayal—you may wonder if you're going through the stages of a dying marriage, and even more so, how to save your marriage and come out stronger on the other side.

"The only meaningful indicator of the success of your marriage is your emotional experience! No two relationships look alike, and no two couples have the same needs or desires," Dr. Lindsay Jernigan, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert shares, "So what matters is your own sense of fulfillment, ease, safety, happiness and connection."

With over twenty years of experience in working with couples, Jernigan says that the stages of a marriage breakdown look different for everyone. Even when it feels like all is lost, there is a way to learn how to save your marriage when it seems impossible—you've just got to both be willing to search for it, for the right reasons.

To learn how to revive a dead marriage, read more, below.

In this article:

What are the Stages of a Dying Marriage?

But first: how do you know your marriage is dead, anyway? According to Jernigan, a dead marriage is something you'll know you're in mostly because of how you feel.

But as we know, sometimes it can be hard to validate the things we are feeling as legitimate signs of distress, and it can be helpful to have a guide as validation. Here are some of the bigger signs of a dying marriage, below:

  • A lack of emotional or physical intimacy and affection
  • Difficulty talking through problems and finding resolution after conflict
  • Patterns of avoidance
  • Feelings of loneliness or resentment
  • Feeling like you can't safely be yourself

"Just like no two marriages are the same, no two marriages struggle in exactly the same way," she tells The Knot, "But if a couple doesn't get help rebuilding, they may start to feel like the only way to reclaim their individual happiness is to decide to split up."

And we don't want that. Luckily, though, knowing what to watch out for with dead marriage syndrome can be helpful to save your marriage.

Expert Advice for Saving Your Marriage

Let's say the phrases 'dead marriage' or 'dying marriage' ring a bell for you. If so, it may be time for both you and your spouse to take matters into your own hands, and learn how to save a marriage—with our help, of course.

1. Tend the Wounds

"If you've been struggling for a while, grief and anger have likely accumulated. You both have pain that you are each nursing, and moving forward will first require some repair," Jernigan explains, "As a couples therapist, I of course believe in the power of couples therapy. We often need help seeing beyond the stories we are accustomed to telling ourselves, discovering our blind spots and finding new ways to relate to our partners."

She recommends looking for a therapist who offers Intensives or retreats — which can provide more efficient healing and change than what can be done in the 50-minute session — and to also look for a therapist who will work deeply with both of you on your dynamic, your emotional connection, and even your energetic patterns, if you're into that sort of thing.

After all, communication and compromise are important skills in any relationship, says Jernigan, but they are just the tip of the iceberg of what can be explored in marriage counseling.

2. Focus on Differentiation

Where can you start with how to save your marriage? Differentiation.

"Instead of feeling like you have to end a relationship in order to be yourself again, focus on bringing your whole self into the marriage and see what happens. There may be more space for you there than you think, and it may be the key to developing the intimacy and joy you are craving," she explains.

Give it a try and see how the stages of a dying marriage dissipate and joy returns.

3. Bring the Change You Desire

"If you are feeling lonely, bring affection to your partner, plan a date night or choose to cuddle up close on the sofa rather than sitting in that farther-away chair. Feeling bored?

Take the initiative to plan a new experience together… or apart," she suggests, "Take time to see friends, separately, pursue your hobbies and get your own creative juices flowing. That gives you some zest to bring back to your partner."

The key, according to Jernigan, is to not wait for your partner to bring the change you desire. Listen to your own cravings, and take responsibility for getting the ball rolling.

4. Listen to Understand

Remember: There are two experiences of this relationship, and they are both valid, even though they are not the same. So listen to understand.

"You and your partner both need to feel seen and understood to move

towards repair and rebuilding. This means you will want to express your feelings and feel heard and your partner needs the same. There are two people *in* the relationship, and two experiences of the relationship. Marriage is not a boxing ring where you are trying to knock out the other person's perspective so yours can be the last one standing. It's a union between two people, and there has to be space for two separate experiences."

5. Hug More!

We love this one. Did you know that science shows that good things happen in our brains and our bodies when we hug for at least seven seconds? We get hits of serotonin and dopamine when we hug, which are the hormones that lead to feelings of happiness, and they don't just make us feel happy but also bring us closer as partners.

6. Seek Novelty Together

Early in a relationship, everything we do is new and heightened, more exciting even Over the years, we can fall into norms and routines. This is only natural, Jernigan shares, but it can lead to the relationship lacking.

"We stop having a chance to see ourselves in a new light, or our partner in a new light. And the patterns we are used to can become mundane," she says, "So shake it up a bit. Travel, take a class together or set a new goal you have to work together to accomplish, like raising money for a charity walk or hiking every major New England peak. And don't be afraid to think small! Pick up a pizza and watch a movie sprawled out on the floor instead of sitting in your usual spots, or invite a new couple out to dinner. The smallest tweaks to your routine can lead to open minds and open hearts."

7. Make a Dream Board

As life partners, you have agreed to steward each other's paths. But when was the last time you sat down and talked about what needs nourishing?

"Have deep talks about what you each value, your hopes and dreams, your long and short-term goals, and your far reaching fantasies," she suggests, "Share your own visions as honestly as you can, and ask directly for the kinds of support you wish for along the way."

What better way to make a dream board than with your life-long partner?

8. Remember to Have Fun!

This may be the most important of them all to killing the stages of a dying marriage and bringing it back to life. Have fun!

"Married life is full of chores, challenges and mundanity of adulthood, but laughter and playfulness are like the glue that holds those heavier bricks in place. Don't forget to make time to share your light and silly sides."

9. Be Planful and Intentional

Remember at the beginning of your relationship when all you wanted to do was connect? You would set dates, flirt by text, book restaurant reservations, wash your favorite outfit, and think about the music you wanted in the background. That is called intentionality, and to save your marriage, you need more of it.

"Pretend you are dating again, and get planful and intentional," Jernigan reminds us, "You might be surprised by what can flow between you "spontaneously" when you purposefully make space for it!"

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