We all want to feel safe and loved in our relationships. We want to feel free to share our deepest emotions and feel understood. Yet we can sabotage this very safety by taking on the responsibility for our partner’s emotions. Our efforts to care for the people we love inadvertently creates conflict, distance, and misunderstandings.
The problem is often based in romantic ideals we have that intimate partners should be able to feel one another’s emotions, read one another’s mind, anticipate one another’s needs. We expect to not only be in tune with each other’s feelings, thoughts, and needs but to also be responsible for managing these in our partners. When our partner is stressed, we feel stressed too. We want to fix the problem, cheer up the feeling. We want to make it better. This expectation that we are responsible to manage our partners’ feelings is a set up for disappointment and resentment.
We can love one another deeply and compassionately without absorbing or being responsible for each other’s feelings.
When your partner approaches you in a state of emotional difficulty, you yourself may feel so uncomfortable witnessing this pain that your urge is to quickly resolve it for him/her. You just want to fix it, make it better. And this very response tends to dismiss your partner’s feelings and send the message that you believe he/she is incompetent to manage these feelings.
The discomfort we feel witnessing our loved one’s struggle becomes a catalyst for causing more suffering.
Our urge to help our partners during times of struggle is born from a place of love. We want to be someone they can lean on and seek comfort from during difficult times. Yet we sabotage this very effort when we are unwilling to sit with that feeling of discomfort in ourselves and our partners. When we focus on problem solving and changing the mood, we communicate that we don’t want to hear about the painful feelings and can’t handle it. It no longer feels safe to talk about painful feelings.
There is an antidote to this. It is possible to feel emotionally connected without feeling emotionally responsible for our partners. This is a model of healthy emotional interdependence.
When you see your loved one showing signs of emotional struggle, invite him/her to share the full experience. Listen with an open heart that is focused on understanding. Offer empathy. Let your partner know you hear him/her and the feelings that are surfacing. Do not rush this process. Allow moments of silence. Allow emotional expressions, such as tears or cursing. And, most importantly, sit with your own feelings of discomfort as your partner opens up.
Rather than trying to fix your partner’s pain, focus on being a companion inside it.
Resist the urge to problem solve, dismiss feelings, or pressure a different feeling.
Things not to say:
- It’s not that bad.
- It’ll get better.
- It could be a lot worse.
- It’s time to move on.
- You gotta get it together.
- I thought you’d be over this by now
- We need to cheer you up.
- Here’s what we should do.
- I know how to make it better.
Focus instead on supporting the feelings that are being shared and communicating your confidence that your partner can handle whatever is happening.
Things to try saying:
- That sounds really hard.
- I’m sorry you’re struggling.
- I hear you.
- I’m here with you.
- Tell me more about this.
- I know you can handle this.
- These are tough times.
- You’re carrying a heavy load.
- I’m glad you feel safe sharing all this with me.
As you listen to your partner share painful feelings, it is natural to want to help. However, offering suggestions too quickly can actually do harm to the feeling of safety in the relationship. Make certain you’ve fully heard and understood your partner before offering help. Avoid offering unsolicited help or advice because this communicates that you’re an expert who can fix the problem. And by default, it communicates that your partner is a problem to be fixed or is incapable of figuring out a solution on his/her own. Rather than make assumptions about what would be most helpful, ask what your partner needs. Empower your partner to identify his/her own needs and express these to you when he/she is ready.
Offering help compassionately:
- Do you want help with this?
- Can I support you in some way?
- I’m here when you need me.
- I’m here to support you in this.
- I’m on your team in any way you need.
- Do you want to hear my thoughts on how to deal with this?
- Ask me for help when you know what you need.
When we allow our partners to express their feelings without worry that it will emotionally burden us, this creates a sense of security. We can each be responsible for our own feelings and asking for help when it’s needed. No one needs to read each other’s minds. We can trust that if help is needed, it’ll be requested. This is the foundation of healthy emotional interdependence with boundaries. Each person is free to be emotionally open and honest without needing to minimize, edit, or avoid expressing feelings. Each person can ask for and receive help in ways that are empowering.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in reading more posts about mental health, wellness, relationships, perinatal mood, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Lakefront Psychology, LLC for a psychotherapy consultation, please call 216-870-9816.