Rocky patches can arise in any relationship. We look at research-backed tips for getting through difficult times together.
Life stressors and transitions — such as job changes, financial difficulties, or mental health challenges — can interfere with even the happiest relationships.
These difficulties or “rough patches” can manifest as temporary breakdowns in communication or incompatibilities. You might notice they start to affect your lifestyle, parenting, romance, or sex life.
According to research by Dr. John Gottman, there are four predictors of divorce and relationship distress, often called the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”:
Empathy and understanding on both sides are usually needed to get through difficult times. To tackle life’s challenges effectively as a team, couples can focus on developing healthy communication styles and adopting more effective ways of resolving conflict.
During tough times, it’s important to hold space for each other’s grief, anxiety, and sadness while also being proactive toward solutions. This can look like validating your partner’s feelings and providing them with emotional or practical support.
Findings from a 2015 study suggested that effective dyadic coping may predict relationship quality and stability.
Dyadic coping is when you and your partner cope with stress together. It’s when you:
- talk with your partner about issues you’re facing
- help your partner deal with their stress
- use strategies to cope with stress together
The study looked at data from 17,856 people, finding that this relational style led to better relationship satisfaction regardless of gender, age, or nationality.
Rather than avoiding conflict, it can help to talk about the issues you’re facing together. It can be tempting to sweep issues under the rug — but conflict avoidance can lead to disconnect and resentment in the long term.
Understanding each other’s emotional needs is important for resolving conflicts. It can also enhance your sense of intimacy. You may feel safer being transparent with your partner when you know will be seen, heard, and supported.
In times of stress, it can help to avoid:
- micromanaging your partner’s emotions
- dismissing or invalidating their feelings or experiences
- shutting down or stonewalling them
Even if you disagree, you can still try to empathize and see your partner’s perspective during discussions.
When conflict arises it’s easy to focus on the negatives — but research shows that celebrating good news together can strengthen your bond.
When your partner tells you about something good that happened, responding with joy, enthusiasm, and interest can boost the well-being of both of you. For example, if you share how excited you are about a promotion at work and your partner says they’re proud of you, you both feel good. This is called active-constructive communication.
This communication style can improve relationship satisfaction whether you’re sharing good news or in a conflict with your partner.
Celebrating each other’s wins can provide an emotional buffer during strenuous times. Consider making it a daily practice to express genuine excitement and interest in each other’s goals and accomplishments.
You might consider keeping a gratitude journal, either together or separately, where you both record what you are grateful for in the relationship, your lives together, and what you believe your partner adds to your life.
Overcoming life’s adversities often means working toward shared goals with a mindset of “we are in this together.”
You may not agree on everything, and you may need to make some compromises if you want to continue toward a shared future. However, knowing that you have each other’s back during life changes can be a powerful remedy for getting through them together.
It can help to write down a list of issues you are currently facing and brainstorm possible solutions as a couple.
For example, if one person feels the other is not spending enough time together due to the pressures of parenthood, perhaps a weekly date night is in order. If one person is having trouble managing too many domestic duties, the other person may volunteer to take on more to ease the burden.
It’s not always possible to navigate complex challenges alone, even for the strongest of couples. Some of life’s challenges can bring up immense emotional stress, such as:
- losing a loved one
- miscarriage or trouble conceiving
- job loss or career changes
- financial difficulties
- developing physical or mental health conditions
- substance misuse or substance use disorders
If you are experiencing particularly stressful or traumatic times, you may want to seek professional guidance from a couples counselor.
A couples therapist or counselor can help you:
- identify problems
- learn effective communication skills
- develop coping mechanisms
Stressful times sometimes call for reevaluating the status of your relationship. It may be time to think about your individual goals and your shared goals as a couple.
When considering your relationship and goals, try asking:
- Are we approaching conflict in healthy ways — or are we avoiding conflict?
- Which of our core values and goals align — and which do not?
- Does our communication style still need work?
- What communication techniques have been successful for us in the past?
Though it may be painful, not every relationship can make it through tough times. Both partners must be proactive and put in the effort to make a relationship work.
If you believe your relationship is causing you more harm than joy, or that it contains fundamental incompatibilities that cannot be overcome, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship status.
But if you and your partner are both willing to develop the emotional tools to work on your relationship, you’re already halfway to your destination.
Solutions are possible when both partners:
- are empathic to each other’s needs
- share core values
- are dedicated to handling life’s challenges as a team
Patterns of abuse vs. temporary rough patches
There’s a difference between rough patches that come and go and long-standing patterns of abuse.
Certain dynamics are not indicators of a temporary rough patch, but rather a cycle of intimate partner abuse, such as:
If you are experiencing abuse, manipulation, or coercive control in a relationship, consider reaching out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for anonymous, confidential help at any hour through the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 (TTY).
The National Domestic Violence Hotline also offers an online chat feature and the option to text by sending “START” to 88788.
Many couples experience periods of strain. Surviving tough times in your relationship is possible if both partners are willing to work as a team.
Adopting healthier ways of communicating can help you get through difficult times, such as:
- validating your partner’s feelings and experiences
- dealing with conflict directly
- emphasizing and celebrating your partner’s wins
- practicing gratitude
Sometimes, couples may find themselves in difficult situations they don’t feel equipped to navigate alone. Reaching out to a couples counselor can make all the difference in times of intense stress, loss, or trauma.
Want to learn more about starting therapy? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.