No marriage is perfect. At some point, months or years in, you’re going to hit a rough patch. And then, once you get through that one, you’re going to hit another one. It’s a totally normal part of any relationship—and it’s part of the reason people emphasize that relationships take work.
But according to the The Rough Patch, Daphne de Marneffe’s insightful new book, marriage isn’t work—or, if it is, it shouldn’t feel like work. Instead, she emphasizes that relationships require consistent and compassionate emotional connections—and that means being vulnerable with each other.
She is also the author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life and an expert in how to navigate marriage through its most difficult periods. “I’ve studied the life course of marriage and where the difficult moments are,” de Marneffe tells Brides. “In my work as a therapist, I see people who say, ‘I’ve chosen my life partner, I have a job, and the structure of my life is built. But I feel lost or empty.’ In a ‘rough patch,’ people feel conflict between the fact that everything's in place and they still feel unhappy.”
And, for de Marneffe, the way to navigate through these patches is emotional vulnerability. Whether it comes in the midlife, which The Rough Patch focuses on, or any other point in a relationship, we need to stop thinking that dealing with problems means just plowing through them. “We are taught that being an adult means we need to suck it up and hide our emotions," she says, "but in reality our emotions are the most important thing about us when it comes to how we connect with a partner.” If your relationship has any chance of making it through difficult times, developing emotionally is a must. “People aspire to these long, loving relationships—and that is going to require dealing with the mess and the inconvenience and sometimes the pain of sharing emotions.” That’s how you make it through—by being open about problems, being willing to share what’s going on, and connecting with your partner.
How To Stay Vulnerable
So how do you do it? It comes more naturally for some people than others. But it’s important to understand that the closed-off feeling that some people have is, in some ways, very natural. “People have all sorts of stumbling block, including self-protection,” de Marneffe explains. “I wrote the book because people need help finding a way to tune into those deeper emotions.”
And that’s the key for dealing with a rough patch. Before you start tackling things as a couple, you need to be honest with yourself. “It starts with yourself,” she says. “Marriage is ready-made to make people blame the other person for their own emotional stuff. The first step is to say ok, what am I dealing with, what am I feeling? Look at yourself, then try to express your emotions in a skillful way so that you can be heard.”
Even though it may feel a bit alien at first, if you commit to communicating your emotions as they come up, it will keep them from spilling out in other ways. “So many people suppress their emotions until they explode. They don’t know what they’re feeling, or they can’t communicate it—and then they blow up,” she explains. “Their partner is going to get defensive, counter-blame, or shut down. They get into a cycle. Both partners need to learn how to clue into their emotions early in the game, and then be willing and brave enough to express vulnerable emotions in a skillful way.” If you find yourself unable to tap into your emotions, a therapist or couple’s therapist can help you tune into and understand those feelings.
A Culture Shift
One important point is that, while some people still struggle to open up, there’s a shift towards more emotional awareness in our culture. “We’re starting to see so much more understanding about emotions and intimate relationships,” she explains. “There’s more scientific research, and a language being developed. As a result, we’re starting to expect and demand a level of emotional intelligence in relationships.” There is far less of a divide between men and women, everyone is being encouraged to become more emotionally aware. And it’s important that we open ourselves up to working on our emotional intelligence—because it’s not something that happens over night. “It’s internal work—and it's a lifelong project. No one is an expert.”
So, if you’re going through a rough patch, it’s time to look inward—and then talk to your partner. It’s not about being perfect. “Be generous with your apologies,” de Marneffe says. “The two wonder drugs of marriage are self-awareness and self-responsibility. It helps a lot if you can say, 'I see what I am doing that's difficult, and I am trying to change it.'”
Even though you might face issues as a couple, the solution starts with you.