It can be very hurtful and frustrating when your spouse constantly complains about a certain level of unhappiness despite improvements that you've tried to make. You might think that you've addressed his concerns, only to turn around and find that he is sullen and unhappy again. It can begin to feel like there's really nothing that you can do to brighten things. Which is when you start to wonder if it's not you or your marriage that is the issue – but him.
A wife might say, “it's probably been about eighteen months since my husband has been telling me how unhappy he is all of the time. At first, I thought that maybe he was just going through a rough time and blowing off steam, but he never stopped complaining. So, I really tried to make our home life less stressful. I tried to be cheerful and upbeat. But it doesn't seem to matter what I do. It's like he's a broken record with his unhappiness. And recently, I've noticed that it isn't just me or our marriage – it's everything. If we go to a restaurant, he finds fault with the food. He talks behind his coworkers' backs, which he never used to do before. He acts like his favorite sports team loses on purpose just to make him angry. It's like he's just sour about everything. I'm starting to think that he is just a miserable person and I don't know how to deal with him anymore.”
I understand your frustration. When my husband and I were separated, he went through something similar. It was like he found fault with every aspect of his life. We spent a short amount of time in counseling and the counselor told him that he had to find a source of happiness within himself rather than expecting it to come from other people, external sources, or his marriage. She told him that a marriage can't “make” you happy. But it can add or enhance happiness. At the time, he did not want to hear this. But now that time has passed and he has some additional perspective, he can see that she was right. At the same time, I am not sure what I could have said or done to shake him out of this. It was something that he had to realize, tackle, and navigate on his own. I could only provide support, which I tried very hard to do.
I tell you this to validate your suspicions. When someone finds fault with literally everything, then they are struggling with more things that your marriage. Sometimes, there are very valid and unavoidable reasons for this. For example, my mom recently went through a health crisis and her personality completely changed. She went from being patient and relatively content to someone who was constantly angry, bitter, and critical. I now realize that most of her behavior was due to the fact that she was in physical pain (from which she got no relief.) But many people can have the same reaction when they are stuck in emotional pain.
So how can you help him if he's in emotional pain? I'm not sure if he would go to counseling, but that is usually the most effective option. If he is resistant, you could tell him that you are going for your marriage and then you could mention the issue to the counselor, who would hopefully help you to effectively address it. This might also help you both to get to the real source of the unhappiness. I am not a mental health professional, so all I could really offer to my husband was to listen and to support. And I learned that it was not helpful to debate with him. It always backfired on me when I tried to point out that his perceptions were harsh or negative. That just made things worse because he would get defensive. I learned to not make judgements and to tell myself that he was just looking for someone to listen to and validate him.
That said, if he's truly being cruel and disrespectful, then you can certainly say something about it. You don't have to constantly be the source of his criticism. Sometimes, if you try really hard to have an empathetic conversation, you will get more important information. You might try, “honey, I hear you. And I've been hearing this for a while, which is why I feel like I'm not effectively addressing the problem. Can you share with me the biggest source of your unhappiness? What can I do to make things better? What actions could I specifically take to increase your happiness levels? If I better understand the issues, then I can better address them.”
By asking for very specific details, you're trying to limit his ability to just vaguely complain. Because that gets you nowhere and frustrates everyone. At least if you can get him to be very, very specific in his complaints and in his unhappiness, you can try to effectively address it. But at the end of the day, it is his unhappiness. And sometimes, the real changes need to come from the person who is unhappy. Unfortunately, they can sometimes take a while to see this clearly. Until then, your best bet is to try to find professional or self help and to be their unconditional support system. Because usually, if they become more happy within themselves, they magically become more happy within the marriage.