3 Ways to Really Be There When Your Partner Is Hurting
3. Resist the urge to give unsolicited advice.
Posted December 6, 2016
A couple walks into my office on a Tuesday morning, pain immediately apparent on their faces. He sits down on my couch first, followed by her on the opposite end—arms crossed and eyes lowered. She seems to be a universe away.
After a few seconds of silence between the two of them, he shifts in his seat and begins:
“Things haven’t been the same between us since the accident. I know she’s hurting, and I want to be there for her, but I don’t know how. She keeps telling me how scared and alone she feels, and I’m so confused. I mean, I’m here—and what happened is in the past, anyway! Isn’t that enough?”
When the person you love most has experienced something deeply painful and traumatic, it can be difficult to know how to respond. Even though you want to be there for them, you find that many of your efforts seem to be in vain. After a traumatic event has occurred, you may begin to feel like there’s a third person in your relationship—there's you, your partner, and the pain leftover from what has happened.
Trauma occurs when you experience some sort of stressful event that creates an intense emotional response like fear, helplessness, or horror. Because of this, there is a fundamental shift in your worldview, sense of identity, or relationships with others. As a result, your life changes. Traumatic events come in many different shapes and sizes, each with varying impact depending on your history, support system, and relationships. Experiences like an auto accident, major illness, physical assault, unexpected job loss, infidelity, infertility or miscarriage, or deaths of loved ones can all be traumatic. Additionally, experiences from your early life, such as childhood neglect or sexual abuse, may create difficulties for you or your partner on into adulthood.
Unfortunately, many symptoms of post-traumatic stress can contribute to problems in even the most loving and committed relationships. Your partner may experience heightened anxiety, irritability, agitation, mood changes, guilt, an ever-present sense of fear, a strong desire to isolate, or feelings of mistrust. You, too, may have some of these symptoms as a result of your partner’s experience. Any of these symptoms can increase the possibility for miscommunication or a disconnect between the two of you. Additionally, traumatic experiences can diminish your overall sense of safety in the world and with others, causing you to either anxiously seek out the care of others or to avoid it altogether out of a fear of personal vulnerability.
Your partner’s journey toward healing after a traumatic experience is entirely their own, but research on adult attachment relationships shows that having a secure connection with a partner can help them (and you) better weather such challenges. By providing your partner caring and compassionate support, you can strengthen your bond and be a deep source of encouragement and strength as they move forward.
Here are three strategies you can use to support your partner when they are hurting:
1. Be on the same team.
The fear, anxiety, and mistrust created by traumatic experiences can sometimes make it feel like it is you versus your partner. You may feel blamed for something from your partner’s past that you didn’t do, and become tempted to resent them because of it. Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, encourages non-traumatized partners to adopt a different perspective: Instead of “me vs. you,” try thinking of your situation as “me and you vs. The Trauma.” She calls this “facing the dragon” together. Instead of reacting defensively to your partner’s fear or mistrust, you can help them feel safe and secure again. This puts the two of you back on the same team working toward a common goal—healing trauma and reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
2. Create safety for your partner.
One of the primary areas impacted by trauma is the ability to feel a sense of safety in the world. Having experienced something that made them feel helpless or terrified, your partner may feel as though the world (or their relationships) are no longer as safe as they once seemed. They may feel on alert most of the time and have difficulty relaxing. You can help rebuild your partner’s sense of safety by being predictable, stable, and available. Let them know that you will be there for them when they need you, both physically and emotionally. Monitor your own anxiety and practice self-soothing strategies so that you can be a safe haven for your partner in the midst of their fear
3. Listen without giving unsolicited advice.
Part of the process of healing from trauma is learning to tell the story of what happened in a way that makes sense. One of the best gifts you can give your partner is a listening ear as they work through their experience. As you hear what they have to say, be aware that providing unsolicited advice can feel dismissive. Wading through the impact of trauma can feel messy and complicated at times, and offering platitudes or overly simplistic solutions can make your partner feel like you don’t understand them. Your job as a listener is to be there in the struggle with them—not to solve their problems for them. Focus on validating their emotions and empathizing with their experiences.
In loving relationships, when your partner hurts, you hurt, too. When the person you love most has experienced something painful and life-altering, you can help them move toward wholeness and healing by maintaining a team focus, creating safety in your relationship, and listening to them as they process what happened. By being there when they need you most, you can deepen your bond and strengthen your connection.
Johnson, S.M. (2002). Emotionally Focused Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds. New York, NY: Guilford Press.