Whether it’s because of things uncontrollable (money issues, losing a job) or because of things entirely controllable (working late hours, infidelity), rough patches are an unavoidable part of married life. But while every couple has arguments, not every relationship makes it out to the other side unscathed.
So, how can you distinguish between a normal rough patch and something that’s much, much worse? For starters, happy couples are able to work through issues and keep the flame alive, through strong communication, a willingness to change, and, of course, undying love. But spouses destined for a split-up tend to ignore their problems until they’ve collectively grown into a malignant third wheel. If you’re curious about which path you’re on, read on, because we’ve rounded up all the surefire tells.
There’s stress going on outside of the relationship. (Rough patch.)
If external factors are affecting your relationship, then it’s more than likely that you and your partner are just experiencing a rough patch, according to Emily Mendez, MS EdS, a mental health expert and psychotherapist. “Certain life stressors, like the loss of a job, can strain a relationship,” explains Mendez. “It may take some time and work on both partner’s part, but a strong relationship will overcome these rough patches.”
You and your spouse no longer fight. (Something worse.)
When you and spouse just stop fighting altogether, this (ironically) signals that you might have reached a point where “something vital has been placed on hold, or even lost,” according to Mark Borg, Jr., PhD, a psychoanalyst and co-author of Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships. “A repetitive pattern of avoiding friction or hostility may reveal an ‘irrelationship’ dynamic that the couple unconsciously uses to shield themselves from frightening aspects of intimacy: empathy, mutual emotional investment, and the vulnerability that comes with such investment,” says Borg, Jr. “This is more than a rough patch; it is a state of chronic and sustained disengagement that may not end the marriage but can sustain mutual isolation for years.”
This is your first time doubting your relationship. (Something worse.)
If you’ve never had doubts about your relationship before, then it’s probably strong enough to withstand whatever rough patch you’re going through. If you’ve always felt like your spouse is your soulmate, and you’re just now—after years of being together—starting to question that, then rest assured that your relationship can and will overcome whatever obstacle it’s facing with enough TLC.
You ignore all talk about the future. (Something worse.)
Be careful if you or your spouse avoids talking about things down the road—because if you can’t talk about the future, then there might not even be one, says Bethany Ricciardi, a sex and relationship expert with adult website TooTimid. “It’s unlikely it’s just a rough patch if your partner never discusses your future together,” says Ricciardi. “If you can’t picture growing old with someone but you’re staying in the relationship, it’s a force.”
Your fights last for days at a time. (Something worse.)
Even a good relationship has its fights, but these fights tend to get resolved within the day. When spouses are unable to find a middle ground during their arguments, it’s a sign that they aren’t on the same page—and might not ever be. “If your fights frequently tailspin into several days of the silent treatment and resentment, it’s a bad sign that your marriage is in trouble,” says Amica Graber, a relationship expert for TruthFinder, a website that helps online daters stay safe.
“If you argue, communicate, and resolve, on the other hand, that’s a sign that you have an overall healthy marriage that’s just in a rough patch.”
You’re putting your kids before your relationship. (Something worse.)
Being a parent is important, of course, but so is being a partner. And when you unconsciously neglect your relationship to focus entirely on your family, you and your spouse become more like roommates than lovers. “Don’t get so into your role as parents that you forget to be partners,” says Tina Tessina, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and author of How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together. “This is why so many couples break up as soon as the kids are grown. Your [marriage] relationship is vital—it’s the foundation your family is built on.”
You aren’t spending enough time with your partner. (Rough patch.)
When you put other responsibilities ahead of your relationship, you risk losing it altogether. Of course, sometimes work is going to occupy your time, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t always value your spouse and their needs. “You may be hitting a rough patch if you are swamped at work or dealing with family drama and you aren’t putting your spouse first,” explains Rori Sassoon, a relationship expert and co-founder of Platinum Poire, a match-making service.
You can’t let go of the past. (Something worse.)
Your marriage is going through more than just a rough patch if what you’re dealing with is something from the past that you just can’t seem to forgive or forget. “There is no creating a future together if you’re coming from the past,” says Sassoon. “Grudges come from unexplored, unexpressed, and powerless complaints of the past.”
Your partner doesn’t respect you—or vice versa. (Something worse.)
If this is the case, it’s safe to say that what your marriage is experiencing is more than just temporary turbulence. Things like not trusting what your spouse says are an indication that there are issues in your marriage brimming below the surface, and they “may be more serious than a rough patch,” according to Mendez.
There are more good times than bad ones. (Rough patch.)
Don’t let a little rough patch ruin a good thing. If your partner is still the person who you want to see after a hard day—even though they’re the one stressing you out—then there’s still something left in your relationship to be salvaged, and you shouldn’t let them go without a fight.
You can’t find common ground in the bedroom. (It depends.)
“Sex is the biggest thing to differentiate your personal and romantic relationships,” explains Ricciardi. “Yes, problems in the bedroom could possibly be a rough patch and if you start communicating honestly, maybe you can work past them. But it’s something more serious if you aren’t attracted to each other in that way, and you’re better off not forcing it.”
You’re dealing with financial issues. (Rough patch.)
Money issues are stressful enough as it is without the added bonus of a marriage rough patch. But luckily, many financial struggles get resolved eventually (a study by Ameriprise Financial, Inc., revealed that 82 percent of couples say they work quickly to resolve their financial differences), and couples with a strong bond are able to weather this tough time with the right support, communication, and action plan for getting your bank account back on track.
You’re making any excuse to pick a fight with your spouse. (Something worse.)
When you find yourself hurling insults at your significant other for something as trivial as forgetting to take out the trash, then it might be time to call it quits. There is a fine line between complaining and criticizing, and if your arguments are more often direct attacks on your spouse than they are well-meaning complaints, then you’re probably just picking a fight for the sake of being hurtful—which isn’t healthy.
You threaten to end the relationship during every fight. (Something worse.)
Using this as your go-to during an argument with your spouse is going to escalate issues and further drive a wedge in your relationship. “You should never bring up ending the marriage unless you are serious about it,” says Sassoon. “This can evoke fear of abandonment.”
You have to force the relationship. (Something worse.)
It should be obvious that a forced relationship is by no means a happy one. While a rough patch is caused by a specific issue and has a temporary and has a definitive beginning, middle, and end, a failing marriage is often the result of longterm issues that have gone neglected. “Rough patches are just that: patches,” says Ricciardi. “If these issues are bleeding into your entire relationship and aren’t getting any better, there’s something more serious going on. At some point, you won’t be able to force it together.”
Your partner repeatedly cheats. (Something worse.)
With enough attention and counseling, a strong marriage can get through a bout of misguided infidelity. But if you find that your partner is continuing to stray from your marriage despite his or her promises not to, then it might be time to consider leaving the marriage for good.
There’s zero willingness to work through issues. (Something worse.)
Hardships will arise in any and all relationships, but what truly differentiates a marriage rough patch from something worse is each partner’s willingness to tackle and overcome the issues in the relationships. As Carla Manly, PhD, a relationship expert and author of Joy from Fear, explains: “A deeply negative attitude can shift a challenging time into a struggle that results in the end of a marriage. If one or both partners feel ‘done,’ resentful, or are stuck in anger, then the marriage is usually headed for failure regardless of the symptomatic issue.”