This piece was originally published on Gottman.com and is republished here with permission from the Gottman Institute.
You and your partner are in a tough place. You have a hard time feeling connected and don’t feel understood. You worry if this is the beginning of the end of the relationship. You fantasize about what life might be like starting over, being single, and what dating someone new might be like. Maybe you even started searching for divorce attorneys.
Many couples experience similar situations and come out stronger, more connected, and more in love than ever before. That statement probably sounds idealistic or even unimaginable if you are experiencing a rough patch in your relationship. It can happen, though, and it takes work. There is no sugar coating the situation. You will have to make the decision that the relationship is worth being in and working on. If so, you must commit to rolling up your sleeves and doing your part.
If that’s your intention, here’s how to do it.
OWN YOUR PART
Recognize your role in how the two of you got to this place in your relationship. There is the “we” stuff that impacts a relationship, but there is also the “me” stuff. Decide if you are willing to do some personal inventory on the internal work that you need to tackle. Do you need to change your attitude about your partner and allow yourself to notice the good things they do? Can you find something you appreciate about your partner and let them know? You may need to forgive or accept some things you cannot change about your partner to open up your mindset. There may be work that you do (possibly in your own personal therapy) that allows you to hold your partner in a positive perspective again.
HAVE SOME FUN TOGETHER
When was the last time you two went on a date or had sex that wasn’t functional? Great relationships need tending. Shared positive experiences lead to shared positive emotions. If you don’t invest in quality time with each other, don’t be surprised when you start to view your spouse as a “business partner” that you are in the “business” of being in a relationship with.
Sexual connection and real intimacy are ways to create vulnerability with each other. If you want to add a charge of positivity to your view of the relationship, then you need to behave in ways that generate affection, physical connection, and shared vulnerability.
REFRAME THE SITUATION
Relationships can be hard work. Rough patches usually represent the consequences from a time when the relationship wasn’t a priority for one or both of you. Reframe this time as a wake-up call that lets you both know that you need to do a reset.
Many couples experience periods when they haven’t prioritized the relationship, not because they didn’t care about it, but because they got busy with jobs or family responsibilities. Rough patches can be those “aha” moments that serve as reminders that there is work to do.
You can get the relationship back on track, but you need to see the consequences in the right light. This rough patch does not mean you are a failure as a couple and should throw in the towel. It signals that you got off course, and you can still do something to turn it around.
REMEMBER THE GOOD TIMES
Your relationship has likely had some really amazing times when you felt loved, cherished, and seen. If you never experienced those times, it’s unlikely you would still be in the relationship. Instead, you likely fell into what is referred to as negative sentiment override. What that means is that you both are so hyper-focused on your problems that you have a hard time remembering the good parts.
This negative sentiment override can keep you stuck in a pattern of negative emotion influencing negative responses. Can you remind yourself of the things you like about your partner or of the times that things went well? What were you each contributing to the success of your relationship during those times? Can you find ways to recreate some of those positive emotions?
Getting in touch with some of those prior positive emotions may generate warm thoughts about your partner. Feeling positive about the person you are in a relationship with can help restore genuine positive energy that leads to positive interactions. These balanced perspectives about the good parts that are also happening can help even out your view about the value of the relationship.
ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED (IN A POSITIVE WAY)
Have you asked for your needs in the relationship or do you assume that if your partner really loved you that they would just KNOW? Have you asked in the right way? If the Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) crept into your conversations, then it might be time to learn how to ask for your unmet needs in a positive way.
Learning how to use a gentle start-up or finding a way to accept some of the responsibility for how a difficult conversation got off course are both good places to start. Aska Gottman Method-trained couples therapist if the tools you and your partner use to ask for your needs are sending mixed messages.
This time in your relationship might be temporary, and you and your partner need different tools to navigate. There is no guilt or shame involved with hitting a rough patch. It can be the jolt your relationship needs to come out stronger and more valued on the other side.