It's very easy for problems to snowball in a relationship. One minute you're happily eating ice cream in bed together — the next, you're bickering every day.
And it's a hard pattern to break. Each attempt to talk turns into a point-scoring match where barbs are thrown with little concern for the consequences. Amid all the hostility and cross-fire, it's hard to catch breath or see light on the horizon.
"The problem with a rough patch is unless you work on it, it just gets rougher and rougher," said marriage counselor Rachel Sussman.
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That's why — assuming your relationship is otherwise healthy and non-abusive — it's vital to stop and take stock if you want to last the distance.
Here are five strategies that experienced relationship therapists suggest for getting your partnership back on track. They may not work, but at least they'll help both of you to pause for thought and re-tap your empathy nerve.
This may sound obvious, but in the heat of an argument, our ability to listen is eroded. So, if you and your partner have spent the last few months fighting, you may well have forgotten what each other's biggest fears about the relationship are.
Take it back to basics and make it very clear to your other half what's bothering you, suggests marriage therapist Sherry Amatenstein. "You may think that you have communicated, but your partner may not have really heard," she told the New York Times. "Research shows that people hear only between 30 to 35 percent of what is said to them, because we’re so full of, 'I’m going to say this to them.'"
Julia Crabtree, a UK-based relationship counselor, agrees that transparent conversation is key. "People come with all sorts of problems, but common to most of them is that they’re not listening to one another or they can’t express what it is they want," she told the U.K.'s The Guardian about her clients.
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Put aside a block of time to speak the absolute truth to your partner — and vice versa — without interruption, point-scoring, or fear of judgement.
Armed with the knowledge of what each other wants, you can build a clearer picture of the road forward. You will have the foundations to build a blueprint of how you two can improve your dynamic. If that's not possible based on what comes out of your conversation, at least you know that you've given it your all.
Understanding that we all adapt and evolve in the course of a long-term relationship is key to navigating a rough patch.
"We all shift and change," said relationship psychotherapist Pam Custers. "When one partner is exposed to things in the world that make them grow in a certain way, and the other partner hasn’t come along on the ride, you can wake up and discover that you are sleeping with a stranger."
Instead of seeing these changes as the death knoll on a relationship, it's better to accept them and view them as another turn in a never-ending road.
Custers says it really helps when couples realize that — broadly speaking — their problems are not unique, but something everyone in a long-term relationship must confront and adapt to.
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The very fact of life means no relationship can stay the same over the course of time. Those who can roll with the turbulence and have faith that ups follow downs are more likely to see their relationships last.
"All of us may have two or three significant relationships in our lives — and often with the same person," said Custers.
A lack of sex is a common warning signal in troubled relationships, but physical intimacy extends far beyond what happens in bed.
"Touch plays a crucial role in generating and enhancing love," explained philosophy professor Aaron Ben-Zeév. "People feel more satisfied in a relationship in which physical affection is a significant part."
From hugs to holding hands, it's the little gestures that count; and not paying attention to them usually spells the point at which relationships start to fracture.
"Many people in unhappy relationships say that they can’t recall when they stopped kissing at greetings and goodbyes; it just slips away without effort," said psychologist Dr. Samantha Rodman. "When you make the time to make eye contact with your partner and kiss them, it shows that you prioritize your relationship even during the busiest of mornings or evenings."
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Even if you are furious with your partner, and all your instincts tell you otherwise, you should try reaching out to them — physically — as you go about trying to revive your bond.
"When your relationship is on the brink of ending, the last thing you want to do is snuggle up to each other or whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ear," therapist Aaron Anderson told the Huffington Post. "But do it anyway. Yes, when your relationship is in trouble, showing affection feels forced and robotic. But if it felt natural, you’d be doing it already."
"Your relationship thrives on affection and love, and you want to get to a point where it starts feeling more natural. Send your partner that sappy text or send flowers to her work. They’ll know it’s forced, but they’ll usually appreciate the gesture."
Warring couples can all too easily build up a long archive of perceived slights. They can rattle off the exact time one other said something hurtful and what was said. They know when the other person missed a special occasion, came home late, or failed to be kind and responsive in a time of crisis.
When a relationship goes south, couples pull out these instances and hurl them as ammo in their arguments.
"It's exhausting and unproductive to go over the same ground again and again," said relationship therapist Dr. Lisa Firestone. "When a couple enters therapy, they are often brimming with complaints about their partners," she told Psychology Today. "The difficulties and dynamics have become so complex that it is hard to sort through the many offenses of which they’ve accused each other. Chances are, in most cases, both parties are right, and both are wrong."
"Thus, my first piece of advice to couples is simple: Drop it. Stop the blame game and start taking responsibility for your own actions," she continued. "In order to resolve real issues, it’s helpful to abandon the case you’ve long been building, address your part of the problem, and start fresh with a clean slate."
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Taking responsibility for your role in the relationship and the conflicts you have is tough — but it's so much better than letting resentment tear you apart.
"Blaming is toxic to any relationship," life coach Kali Rogers told Bustle. "Unity and trust are what make a relationship sustainable, and blaming pretty much annihilates any chance of either."
Having high expectations of a relationship isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it can become corrosive if you judge that your partner isn't meeting those standards. This can lead to frustration and passive aggression, neither of which work to move your relationship in an upward trajectory.
In this type of scenario, you or your partner will likely end up confused and wondering what on earth is wrong. Getting angry about failed expectations without expressing what they are "conveys discontent without providing the partner with clear information about how to address the underlying issue," said James McNulty, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who recently conducted a study into the role of expectation in marriage.
McNulty's team found that newlywed couples who were able to talk openly about their expectations of each other, and how they wanted these to be fulfilled, were far more likely to be happier than those who resorted to sarcasm and hostile jokes to express their frustration over failed expectations.
"Instead of bottling up issues about expectations, have the conflicts that you need to discuss them," said psychologist Terri Orbuch. "If you aren’t having conflict, you aren’t talking about the important issues in your relationship," she said.
"Have you and your partner separately write your top two expectations for your relationship (i.e. how you think your partner should treat you, your deal breakers)...This simple activity allows couples to see what’s important to each other. If your partner isn’t aware of your expectations, how can they meet them?"
"It's important to have healthy expectations that reflect your own worth and guide you toward the interdependence that allows for intimate connection," said social psychologist Theresa E. DiDonato. "It might be an opportunity for conversation between you and your partner about what is and isn't working, to see if your relationship has the potential to move closer to (both) your expectations."
This post was written by Anna Brech. For more, check out our sister site Grazia.
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