This week a listener emailed and was asking for advice on how they could help support their partner who had been having a few problems. It can be hard to give a simple answer to such questions without seeing the partner, or the couple face to face in person or online, but it gave Ed and I plenty to think about and talk about.
When I was thinking about it the first thing that occurred to me was how many people, who come to see me, are actually talking about the problems of another person, usually their partner. Or more specifically how their partner’s problems are effecting them. In such cases the drive to help the partner also involves the drive to help them self.
We all need support and that involves both listening and sharing. In psycho speak we talk about active listening which is a whole size bigger than simply listening. In actively listening we are looking for the meaning behind the words and the relationship between words used and the associated body language. If someone says ‘yes’ while shaking their head there is something wrong.,
Reflective listening might be just checking out what your partner meant by maybe paraphrasing what they just said to check that you did actually hear correctly what they said. Mirroring is saying back to the person the same words that they used to you. This can be annoying if done insensitively, however it does give your partner the chance to hear what they just said and perhaps see the true meaning in what they are saying. Let’s say your partners says “I want to end it all” the mirrored response might simply be “You want to end it all?”. The fact that it has now become a question requires an answer or explanation.
Listening is one half of a transaction, sharing is the other half. If in a relationship both parties understand the positive effect of both listening and sharing then everyone’s needs have a good chance of being met. Willingness to share may involve personal vulnerability. It may also be affected by what it is that we feel is right or appropriate to share. Certainly some of the things that I deal with I would never share because they may be too difficult or even horrendous and require a professional relationship to be dealt with. In a general sense when there is permission in a relationship to share difficult issues or feelings this can be bonding just as not sharing can drive people apart.
It all depends on the issue. If your partner is feeling down, or is having a tough time at work or with the kids a simple chat might just crack it. If the problems of feeling down are developing greater levels of depression or anxiety professional help or even medication may be required.
Let’s assume that all is well and together as a partnership we are dealing with the normal everyday stresses of modern day living, what do we need to be doing for each other? Support for me means appreciation, gratitude, being helpful and doing what you can for each other, covering each other’s backs and trying not to do things that undermine each other.
Time together time apart
For me time together is a vital part of my relationship. We go away quite a lot so that we can just be together. Some couples that I work with like to spend time apart perhaps going on holidays on their own or with other people. I guess it is whatever works for you as a couple and if you don’t ask you don’t know.
Fun and laughter are great therapy. Couples that laugh together stay together, or perhaps families that laugh together stay together. What is fun for you as an individual? What is fun for you as a couple? What is fun for you as a family? Having fun is often a choice. On the basis that what you feed grows and what you starve dies we can make those things that happen to us into ever bigger problems or they can become challenges and learning opportunities. Changing what can be tough situations into positive ones is a skill, but we can all develop it.
Helping your partner
So, let’s say that your partner is going through tough stuff, maybe they are depressed or suffering anxiety, perhaps they have lost their job or are suffering grief and bereavement, whatever it is and what other help they are getting we can still be supportive.
Develop a plan, agree a gentle push to help them get going again. Encourage them to talk and do things and develop positive coping strategies.
Tone down the stressors, reduce those things that they find most stressful and difficult, simplify life.
Move, the healing power of simply getting some exercise, even a slow walk around the block can energise your body and in turn energise your mind.
If you feel overwhelmed by it all get help. Your partner may need therapy to deal with their issues but you may also need therapy to help you deal with your partner.
Take care and be happy