It’s Complicated: Tips for Dealing with a Rough Patch
A healthy relationship or marriage can be hard work and even the strongest and most solid couples can experience tough times now and then. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve been going around in circles about the same subject over and over and perhaps even seem like it might be easier to just throw in the towel rather than stick it out.
But if you’re not quite ready to give up, there are actions you can take to help your relationship emerge unscathed and stronger than ever. Here are some things you can do to guide your relationship or marriage through a rough patch.
Give each other space after arguing
It can be tempting to stand your ground in a fight and keep having it out until one of you has “won,” even when you’re both past the point of listening to each other or saying anything constructive; but giving each other space to calm down and reflect is the really the better way to go.
Psychologist and marriage therapist Dr. Nathan Cobb coaches his patients to give each other times outs “to create space to calm down, to get into a different state of mind to find solutions.” That’s not to say that you should give your spouse the cold shoulder, but rather drop the subject, set your anger aside, and try to get on with your day until you’re both in a better place to revisit the discussion.
Be responsive, not reactive
An effective piece of advice that’s often given in a work setting to managers and employers is “be responsive, not reactive.” This is great advice to follow not just at the office, but at home too.
Often when we find ourselves in situations of conflict, our natural inclination is to quickly react to opposition in a way that’s emotionally charged with anger, frustration, or hurt. Responding on the other hand is a more positive action that’s rooted in thoughtfulness and reflection. “Problems arise when the immediacy of a reaction — as opposed to a response — causes interpersonal difficulties for the reacting individual,” says psychotherapist and Psychology Today contributor Richard B. Joelson. “Those things that we all sometimes say that we wish we could take back are probably reactions, rather than responses.”
Instead of firing back from a place of emotion, take a moment to weigh your words and respond in a more positive manner to avoid saying something you might regret later.
Pick your battles
If you and your partner have been fighting, it’s natural for you to feel irritated with them and for other resentments to bubble to the surface. Perhaps you’re fighting about how your partner doesn’t value your time enough and the fact that they’ve now left a sink full of dirty dishes behind for you to clean just proves your point even more. But try to resist the urge to pile problems on your partner or else they’ll probably just tune out. “The listener stops listening and will either block out the criticism or become angry and defensive so the interaction is hurtful,” says psychotherapist Lois Messinger.
Communication in a relationship is important, but that doesn’t mean you have to communicate your every thought the moment it pops into your head. If you’re relationship is already strained, try to focus on the big issues and let the small things slide for the present.
Try to compromise
Even when you’re convinced that you’re right and that you shouldn’t have to give up any ground, compromise is a valuable tool that both partners should be willing to use in order to avoid a one-sided relationship that will breed resentment in the long run. True compromise is when both partners try to meet in the middle to resolve a problem.
“Before you ask for your partner to give up something, be prepared to offer something to the table yourself,” says sex and relationship expert Dr. Gabrielle Morrissey. “That shows balance, a sense of fairness and a willing to compromise yourself – not just ask for compromise.”
Try to see their point of view
When you’re riled up after a fight, it can be difficult to try and see the other side of the argument because you’re so focused on your own viewpoint. It’s important to not just listen to what your partner is saying, but to actually try to understand and acknowledge their perspective.
Psychologist and Director of the Behavioral Sciences Institute Dr. David Chan emphasizes the importance of empathy in a relationship. “Sometimes, two perspectives may be completely opposite – but each is yet completely valid in different ways,” says Chan. “If we do not understand a person’s perspective, what is very meaningful and sensible to him may look absurd to us. But if we are going through the same situation, we may behave just like the person did, and think it is perfectly normal or the right thing to do.”
Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that while their perspective might oppose yours, it’s informing their behavior and is valid in its own right.
Be honest with your partner
Sometimes when you’ve been fighting with your spouse, it might seem easier to keep your true feelings to yourself rather than risk stoking the fires and causing a further rift in the relationship. But bottling up your thoughts and emotions isn’t helping either of you and won’t bring you to the point of reconciliation.
“Honesty is a key component of a healthy relationship, not only because it helps us avoid harmful breaches of trust, but because it allows us to live in reality as opposed to fantasy and to share this reality with someone else,” says psychologist Dr. Lisa Firestone of the Glendon Association. “Honest and direct statements may feel uncomfortable at times, but they come from a place of vulnerability and openness that can actually lead to more closeness and intimacy.”
Be honest with yourself
Much like how you should try to see your partner’s point of view, you should try to see yourself through their eyes and be honest with yourself about how you can improve in order to heal the relationship. While it’s possible that your partner is the one who needs to make changes, nobody is perfect, and chances are that some of your behaviors are at least part of the problem.
“Relationship problems don’t happen in a vacuum,” says Michelle Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting: A Step-by-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again. “When the relationship is going well, it takes two people to make that happen. When things are going poorly, it’s both people’s responsibility to work on it.” Ask yourself honest questions about how you can communicate better, fight cleaner, and show more love and appreciation for your partner then try to make turn those thoughts into actions.
See yourself as a team
When you and your spouse are navigating a rough patch, it’s common to view the situation as a “me versus you” problem, but instead you should try to see it as an “us versus the problem” problem. You and your partner are a team and if you’re not united, you’re divided.
Psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Steve Stephens emphasizes the importance of viewing your spouse as an ally, not the enemy: “Allies communicate and defend each other. They coordinate their efforts and help each other out … Marriage is like a three-legged race: Try to push ahead without your partner’s cooperation, and you both fall. Work together, and you both do well.”
Appreciate the good things
It’s easy to focus on the negative when you’re experiencing tough times with your partner and lose sight of the good things in your relationship. Try not to zone in on the things that need work, but rather take the time to appreciate the things you love most about your relationship and your partner.
Husband and wife psychologist team Suzann and James Pawelski emphasize the power of positivity in their book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts. “Focus on what’s going right with the relationship rather than what’s going wrong,” the Pawelskis say. “Research shows that couples who work on growing the good in their relationships tend to have stronger and more satisfying unions than those who predominantly focus on fixing problems.”
Go to couples therapy
Couples therapy might seem like a last-ditch effort that’s only meant for relationships that are on the brink. In reality, therapy can be a great tool for any partnership and shouldn’t be viewed as an emergency solution reserved for the eleventh hour. Not only can a relationship expert offer a neutral, third party perspective, but they can also teach you several effective tools to help strengthen your bond, your communication skills, and your love for one another.
As this article has demonstrated, there are a ton of relationship experts out there with great advice to give, so consider finding someone to help talk you through your rough patch to make your relationship even stronger than it was before.