It goes without saying that it’s easier for couples to get along when life is running smoothly, but it's inevitable that throughout the course of a relationship, you will experience challenges and come across bumps in the road. Challenging times can make holding on to harmony infinitely more difficult for many couples, and can really test the strength of your relationship and your connection to one another.
We all go through moments of suffering and uncertainty in our lives, whether big or small. Financial problems, job loss, illness, death of a loved one, mental health struggles, family conflict and parenting are just some of the things that can put strain on a marriage or partnership.
On top of this, the global events of the past few years have left many couples and families under intense stress and financial pressure.
Relationships are as much about the valleys as they are the mountain tops, but during challenging times, it can be easy to forget to prioritise your relationship and your own needs. Here’s what couples able to weather struggles together tend to have in common, and how to strengthen those qualities in your own relationship.
Show empathy and understanding
During challenging times, many people experience heightened feelings of anxiety, worry, overwhelm or sadness. Everyone reacts differently to stress and uncertainty, so it's important for partners to be understanding and show kindness to each other. Instead of thinking, you have a problem, or your partner does, realise that you’re in it together. Supportive partners can unite to identify problems, work on solutions and find efficient ways of coping together.
Establish emotional safety
Couples who are able to overcome difficulty tend to have established emotional safety. A sense of safety and security lets people feel they can be exactly who they are in the moment and still be accepted and understood. Couples who are emotionally accessible to each other prioritise making the other person feel valued and safe, which requires respect as well as acceptance.
Build on resilience
One of the most important qualities you can have in a relationship is resiliency. A couple is resilient when each hold the other at a high value and are willing to do what it takes to make their relationship thrive, even when times are tough. Couples who are resilient know that it's important to consistently work at their relationship each and every day. According to experts such as Dr. John Gottman, it's the things couples do on a daily basis when everything is good that really sets them apart and helps them navigate challenges more easily.
Couples who struggle to address and communicate through problems as they occur are more likely to find tough times to be catastrophic. Healthy communication is not only in how you speak to each other, but also in how you listen to each other. Couples that communicate openly and honestly with each other and who engage in active listening will naturally feel more connected than those who don't. Healthy communication builds a deeper connection and stronger foundation.
Create a sense of teamwork
When people are going through a hard time, they can feel isolated, overwhelmed and helpless. Coming together as a team helps both partners to feel connected and supported. This could look like sharing in household tasks, or having regular relationship check-ins to see how you are both going.
Voice appreciation often
What Gottman Institute researchers have found in decades of studying relationships is that couples in happy, long-term relationships tend to have five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Couples able to weather tough times tend to be mindful of pointing out the good in their partner and provide regular appreciation. For appreciation to have a real impact on a relationship, it needs to be deep and authentic. This is the difference between thanking them in passing for their help with a task, and taking the time to stop and voice love and appreciation for their effort, kind gesture, thoughtfulness etc. While a quick "thank you" is great when acknowledging something specific, the latter really allows your partner to feel recognised, appreciated, valued and loved.
Here are some relationship connection questions that you can work through with your significant other. By taking turns to ask and answer each of these questions, you might find ways further elevate your relationship amidst challenges thrown your way.
In your opinion, what traits make for a strong relationship?
Do you feel we each possess these traits?
What are your top 3 relationship values?
How do those values show up in your actions, decision making and in our relationship?
What does "teamwork" in a relationship mean to you?
What do we do if we can’t agree on something important/big?
In what ways can I be a better partner in times of conflict?
Are you happy with the way in which we communicate with each other?
Do you think there are areas that we can improve on? What are they and how can we improve?
In moments when you feel angry, hurt, or upset, what do you need from me?
What does good support look/feel like to you?
Do you feel safe and comfortable in communicating your needs and feelings with me?
Are you comfortable with telling me how you want to be supported?
Are you comfortable coming to me with problems, or for help and support?
Is there anything I can change or do differently to help you feel more comfortable?
When you have a problem, do you prefer I offer help and solutions, or just listen?
If you are having a bad day, would you rather have space, or spend time together?
If you are going through a tough time, how would you like me to show up for you?
When you are struggling within our relationship, what can I do to make things easier?
What are 3 things within our relationship that you are thankful for?
What things do I do or say that help you feel supported, loved and appreciated?