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Is Your Marriage Going Through a Normal Rough Patch or Something Worse?

Here's how to tell the difference.

A few months ago, a friend opened up about his new relationship. The perpetual bachelor, he sounded content in his new status as an attached man and especially proud of one specific difference between his new flame and the past relationships that all ended in towering infernos.

“We never fight,” he bragged. “It’s been six months and never once has there been anything more than a slight disagreement.”

Having experienced more than a few unsuccessful relationships, including a recent separation, I wanted to comment that avoiding confrontation is a bad idea. Instead, I smiled and ordered another round.

No personal relationships come without conflict, and this is especially true for marriages. When two people share a life, children, and responsibilities, disagreements are unavoidable. In fact they’re healthy and avoiding them leads to more contention down the line.

Beyond daily disagreements, every relationship, no matter how sturdy, faces a rough patch every now and then — a period of time when things just aren’t all sunshine and Maitais. It can be caused by a variety of issues, including money problems, issues with in-laws, and the general stress over raising the kids.

But what’s the difference between a rough patch and a deeper problem bubbling under the surface?

Rough patches usually occur when something in the relationship is causing a disconnect. Either one or both of the partners are shutting down or purposely distancing themselves from one another. Rough patches are a failure to connect that ultimately lead to resentment.

“A rough patch has a beginning, middle, and ending,” notes relationship expert and best-selling author, Susan Winter. “A real marriage ‘issue’ never finds a conclusion and is never truly resolved.”

The easiest way to spot a disconnect or real issue is to focus on exactly why you’re always butting heads with a spouse.

“Knowing the difference between a rough patch and a real issue in the marriage should be obvious. Sadly, being able to spot the bigger issues isn’t easy for some people, especially men,” explains Patrick Wanis, a world-renowned human behavior expert.  “The three most common reasons for a disconnection are clashes in parenting styles, money problems, and intimacy issues.”

People often consciously choose not to speak their minds in an effort not to make a bad situation worse. They also decide to withhold specific information in an attempt to control the situation or get so wrapped up in the story they’re telling themselves inside their heads that they aren’t aware of what’s happening in real life.

So, it’s important to focus on how our partner honestly feels. Wanis suggests the simple exercise of putting yourself in your partner’s shoes to get to the root issue.

“Ask yourself ‘Why does my partner want things to be this way?’ and ‘Why does she see it the way she does?’ After putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, ask yourself ‘is this something I’m willing to concede to or is this something I’m dead set against?” If her wishes clash with your fundamental values, then it could be a much bigger problem.

Surviving a rough patch isn’t a daunting or insurmountable task, especially once you recognize the source of contention. Resolution happens by focusing and fixing the heaviest anchors sinking the love boat and clear communication is vital to resolving any conflict.

To weather the small squalls, both you and your spouse must be open and willing to put in the work and time required to improve the situation. And, it’s the little things that make a big difference.

“Show them how important they are to you by leaving notes of appreciation. It doesn’t have to be a sonnet, a post it will suffice,” says Bucci. “Send a funny meme or text during the day to let them know they’re on your mind or plan something fun for the two of you. Takeout pizza can be the most romantic meal ever if you’re both putting in the effort.”

When knee-deep in relationship quicksand, it’s important to be vigilant in keeping relationship repair at the top of your daily to-do list. Focus on the commitment you’ve made to each other, even when your partner feels like the most annoying person on earth. If you want the issues resolved, continue making them the epicenter of your world by sharing information, soliciting their opinion, and focusing on their life.

Fighting with a partner isn’t a sign the relationship is doomed. If you never fight and never hash out your issues, those problems go unresolved and will inevitably pop up again in the not-so-distant future. Constructively dealing with conflicts helps couples gain a better understanding of your partner and arrive at a solution that works for the relationship.

“All relationships endure ups and downs,” Winter adds. “This is normal. Remembering that takes off some of the mental pressure and fear. Remember what worked last time when you got through a rough patch.”