“Distance makes the heart grow fonder,” “this too shall pass,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” are pieces of relationship advice you may have heard, implying that whatever tough time you are going through with your partner is temporary. But is that always true? What if the lesson you are meant to take from the experience is that you and your partner are not as compatible as you thought?
When times are tough, it can be hard to know when to keep putting in effort to make a relationship work versus when it’s no longer worth the effort. Sometimes, afterall, it might be better to go your separate ways. While there is no magic fix for every couple, there are specific themes that seem to help couples navigate difficult times together.
Here are five things to keep in mind while working through tough times as a couple.
Not All Relationship Conflict Is Created Equal
Learning to discern the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict is critical to any relationship. It can be confusing to distinguish one from the other, especially when love is involved. Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP, and Virginia/Texas-based Talkspace therapist finds that for many couples, difficult times pass, so long as there is good communication and the issues are not recurrent.
However, she notes that if the issues become recurrent wherein they affect one’s emotional wellbeing and there is a lack of respectful communication between partners, it might be best for the couple to separate. The presence of abuse is another surefire way to tell if unhealthy conflict is present and an indication that it is time to seek professional help to make sure you are safe and able to exit the relationship.
You Are Not A Couple’s Counselor
When your partner is in pain, it can be natural to want to swoop in and be their savior. Especially when depression and anxiety are present, it’s important to remember that you are not your partner’s counselor. While you can honor the difficulties they might be going through, it is up to your partner to seek the professional help he/she/they need. You are only in control of your own behavior. “Be patient, be understanding…and most of all be respectful,” advised Catchings.
Catchings also recommends meeting with a couples counselor to learn good communication skills and understand how to get through any tough times together as a team. “[Couples therapy] might be one of the best investments you make to ensure your relationship improves,” advises Catchings.
Tough Times Are Universal
All couples go through some sort of tough time during their relationship. According to Catchings, the most common examples of relationship difficulties include finding out that one partner is being unfaithful, inability to meet financial needs, long-distance relationships, tensions with in-laws, and different needs around sex. As heartbreaking as each of these are, none of them automatically means your relationship is doomed. As mentioned previously, effective communication and couples counseling can help.
For example, the findings of one 2007 study suggest that some long-distance relationships are in fact more stable than geographically close relationships, showing a greater overall sense of idealism, positive reminisces, perceived agreement, communication quality, and romantic love. Having done close to six years of collective long-distance with my now-husband, I can personally attest to how long-distance has strengthened instead of weakened our relationship. Additionally, some research suggests that married couples who work through difficulties together are likely to be happy in the long-run and do not experience a decline in relationship quality as a result.
You Know What’s Best For You
It’s human nature to seek out the support of friends and family during difficult times. Surrounding yourself with people who love you unconditionally can be enormously helpful in times of need. However, it’s important to keep in mind that only you know what’s best for you.
Finding people who can simply be there for you, without telling you what to do, will help you to feel empowered during this tough time. As Catchings reiterated, “Sometimes being there, even if it is in silence, is more appreciated than a hundred words.”
Up Your Relationship Game With Expert Resources
There are a lot of wonderful resources available to help you and your partner enhance your relationship. Here are two of Catching’s favorites:
- The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide for Building Better Connections with Family, Friends, and Lovers by John Gottman, PhD, and Joan DeClaire
- The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman
I am constantly amazed by how much our relationships teach us about ourselves — our greatest fears, deepest desires, relentless courage, and steady resilience. Choosing to “do life” with someone else is not easy. There is no handbook. No one can promise you it will work out. All you can do is trust, communicate with respect, and hope for the best.
If it turns out you are meant to go your separate ways, that’s okay too — you’ll have a support system to rely on.