What do you do when your partner seems stressed by issues at work or feel down by the world? If you are like many others, you will try to help them solve the problem or maybe try to cheer them up.
But surprisingly to most these common sense approaches will often backfire, and may even lead your partner to get annoyed with you, stop talking to you, or tell you how unhelpful you are.
So why is it that our well-intentioned efforts to be of help sometimes only make things worse?
The answer is simple but will require a little bit of explanation
Before we get to how you can best be of help to your partner when they are going through a difficult time, let us first understand some common missteps that tend to lead to bad results. These are things many of us do in our intent to be helpful, but are also things we instinctively know don’t really feel that good when the shoe is on the other foot.
Mistake #1: Have you thought of…
Okay, so you have had a bad day at work. You had a disagreement with a coworker and you don’t really know how to move forward with the person. You come home and share your dilemmas, your feelings, your frustrations, and immediately your partner starts doling out advice and solutions: “Have you thought of talking to your boss about it?”, “Why don’t you just ignore your co-worker?”, “I would let them know what they did is not okay”. However logical this kind of advice might be, most of us are not really looking for solutions when we are frustrated or distressed. Problem-solving takes us away from our emotions into the realm of analytical thinking, and while there is a place for that, we usually don’t welcome it when we are still trying to sort through what we are feeling. In addition once we have sorted through our feelings and have a clearer sense of where we stand, solutions tend to reveal themselves naturally and to be much more uniquely suited to our situation and values than general advice from someone else. So why is it that we are so quick to forget this when it is our partner who is in distress?
Mistake #2: Look on the Bright Side
Another response we might be met with if we have had a bad day is someone trying to cheer us up. Maybe you felt inadequate at work today and got stuck in a funk of self-doubt and rumination. Yet when you come home your partner tries to cheer you up by telling you that you are being too hard on yourself, that you are generally doing a good job at work, or that you will feel better tomorrow. In that moment you feel like you are being argued out of your emotions While that can work at a later stage in a conversation about your feelings, if your original feelings are not first honored and given space, it can feel like you are alone with them or that you are being asked to not feel what you are feeling. In other words, the message can be “just deny your feelings and choose to be happy”. Nobody is ever really going to like that response unless they enjoy lying to themselves and pretending things are fine when they are not.
Mistake #3: They Probably Didn’t Mean it that Way
Another frequent mistake when someone is sharing about a stressful situation is to have them consider the other person’s perspective. Maybe you felt your co-worker tried to take credit for your work, and when you come home your partner immediately challenges your perception by saying: “Are you sure they didn’t just forget to mention your name by accident?”. In John Gottman’s couples therapy approach this is called “siding with the enemy” and it is one of the definite no no’s of learning how to best be supportive of your partner. Again, while there might be a place for critically examining one’s assumptions about a situation at some point in a conversation, it is not helpful if your partner immediately plays the devil’s advocate. What we most need in our partner when we are distressed about a situation is a friend and supporter, not a challenger or prosecutor.
These are just a few of the mistakes we can make when trying to help our partner feel better about a situation…
Why These Responses are Unhelpful… and What to Do Differently
What each of the responses have in common is that they are out of sync with where you are. Instead of the other person joining you and making room for who you are and what you are feeling right in this moment, the other person is telling you to be elsewhere. They are telling you to solve a problem analytically when you are experiencing the problem emotionally. They are telling you to think happy thoughts when you are sad. They are telling you to look at a situation from another perspective than your own.
None of these responses are ultimately helpful, because what we are really looking for when we are down, frustrated, overwhelmed, or anxious is for someone to join us right where we are. This joining, which makes room for exactly what I am feeling, is profoundly healing and stress-relieving. I no longer feel alone, I feel validated and understood, and in that moment my feelings begin to become more manageable. As one partner said to another: “I don’t want your solutions, I want YOU”.
Staying present with your partner where they are, walking alongside them not ahead of them, and being willing to help them make sense of what they are feeling and what they are thinking, is what that looks like. It may feel like you are doing nothing, and offering nothing, or that you are not helping pull your partner out of their hole, but by simple being there with them while letting them be, their load becomes a little bit lighter and their emotional distress a little bit less.
For more context about what I am talking about, have a look at the following video which explains the importance of offering presence rather than solutions when supporting someone through their difficult times.
In essence, it really boils down to this:
“Most people need love and acceptance much more than they need advice”
How to Support A Friend Going through a Difficult Time:
How to Be Your Partner’s Greatest Stress-Reliever:
Now that we know what not to do, what are some things that we SHOULD do. Here are few pointers that will help you be and stay present with your partner to help them transform or get through their difficult or stressful moments:
Validate your partner’s feelings:
“It makes sense that you feel that way, I think we all would…” or “that IS really hurtful” (this conveys to your partner that their feelings are legitimate, understandable, reasonable, natural, and human)
Reflect back your understanding of what your partner is going through:
“It sounds like you are feeling really upset about how your co-worker treated you” (this is a way to actively listen, it shows that you are trying to get what your partner is experiencing, not by projecting your own feelings, but by really trying to see things from your partner’s perspective)
Share your resonant reactions to what your partner is sharing:
“That makes me really angry to hear your boss talk to you that way” or “I hate that you feel so beaten down” (here you are sharing the emotional impact on you of what you are hearing, and are conveying that you are right there with your partner)
Take the lead from your partner:
“Let me know what you are needing from me right now”, “do you just want me to listen or are you looking for me to help you problem-solve?” (If you are not quite sure how to be of help, it is okay to ask. Sometimes advice might be what your partner is looking for, and then of course its okay to offer it.)
Try these approaches the next time you want to be there for your partner… Once your partner feels comforted and helped by your new-found presence, attunement, and understanding they are a lot more likely to open up to you and this in turn will work wonders for the closeness and intimacy in your relationship.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a licensed psychologist and certified EFT couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I offer therapy appointments on-line and in-person. Click here to visit my therapy website