“Why Can’t You Just Be On My Side?”
Updated: Jul 4
One incredibly common source of frustration and disappointment for couples comes up when one member of the couple expresses their hurt, anger, frustration, or disappointment about something outside of the relationship and their partner doesn’t respond in a way that leaves the upset partner feeling supported and understood. Frequently, this disconnection stems from the listening partner’s feelings of helplessness when they can’t solve their partner’s problem - when they don’t have the “magic answer” to make the situation better. The great irony is that in the vast majority of these interactions they don’t need to actually make the situation better. They just need to support their partner in feeling better. And almost all partners do have the capability to “magically” do this, they just don’t know how to do it because their own sense of frustration and inadequacy at not being able to solve the problem paralyzes them from giving their upset partner what they truly need: understanding, validation, empathy, and support.
To shift these situations from sources of disconnection to opportunities for unification the listening partner simply needs to adjust their own expectations of their role - from needing to be the “fixer” to serving as a source of comfort and understanding. Fortunately, this alternate role is not only more appreciated by the upset partner, with practice it is actually much less difficult and demanding for the listening partner than solving the problem would be.
The first step for the listening partner is to express curiosity about their partner’s experience. As the upset partner is describing the situation, their thoughts, and their feelings remember that however hurt, angry, or upset they are that it is not your responsibility to make their difficult feelings or the challenging situation “magically go away.” Rather, your role is to create space for your partner to unload their pain and their upset, for your partner to have an opportunity to express themselves fully and vulnerably. Your partner needs the opportunity to share their experience and to know that you can handle their feelings of pain, that they are not alone, and that you are on their side. You can do this by prompting them to share with simple phrases such as:
“What else happened?”
"What else did they say”
“What else did you feel?”
“Say more about what you’re feeling.”
“Say more about why this was so upsetting.”
“Say more about what you’re thinking.”
The second step is to fully and clearly acknowledge your partner’s frustration and upset. Let them know that you see why the experience is hard for them and that their experience is valid. Often a simple “Wow. That’s awful.” or “That sucks.” or “What a shitty situation.” is enough.
Share your own capacity for pain and vulnerability by letting your partner know that you don’t only understand and appreciate their experience, but that you would feel similarly in an analogous circumstance. Even if you wouldn’t feel exactly as they would in precisely these circumstances, if their feelings around the incident echoes what you can imagining feeling in a circumstance that would have similar meaning for you let them know that you understand their feelings by telling them “I’d be really upset, too.”
Once you’ve verbally encouraged your partner to share their experience, and you’ve validated and empathized with that experience be there for your partner by connecting with them physically. Tell your partner “I’m here. Let me hold you.” Then hold them for as long as they need.
By following this process your partner will have the opportunity to feel heard, understood, and accepted, even with no solution to their problem. And these periods of hurt and upset will shift from sources of rupture and disconnection to opportunities for greater intimacy, understanding, and appreciation.
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