Connie Shapiro PhD

When You're Not Expecting

He Just Doesn't Get How to Comfort Me!

How to elicit emotional comfort from your partner.

Posted Oct 31, 2011

How many times have you found yourself frustrated that your significant other is unable to offer comfort at the very time you need it the most? Is he unable to see that your eyes are bloodshot? Is he incapable of empathizing with your pain? Or is he just afraid of your inevitable tears?

Well perhaps all three, in various combinations, could account for what feels like a loved one's insensitivity. But is it really insensitivity? In today's blog I'll offer some suggestions for how you might encourage your partner to offer support when you need it most. For the sake of pronoun simplicity, I'm going to assume that you are a female and your partner is a male; but, if you are in a relationship where the genders differ from my examples, just substitute the genders that work for you.

The first thing is to do a bit of detective work. Are there times that your partner is immensely supportive? Are there circumstances when he does "get it" and doesn't hesitate to offer emotional support? If so, you're in luck, because that suggests that certain situations are ones that he shies away from, rather than every circumstance where you're emotionally needy. So the next step in your detective work is to find a quiet time to raise with him your feelings of confusion. But first you'll want to say something like "You know, I'm always so grateful when you give me emotional support. Like when I was so bummed out last month when I didn't get the raise I expected, or earlier when I was frustrated that my boss was imposing unrealistic deadlines. It feels so good when you find just the words to comfort me. Have I ever told you that?" Hopefully he'll respond with appreciation, which allows you to continue with something like "That's why I'm so confused at those times that you seem oblivious to my sadness, like earlier this week when you had to have known I had been crying when I got my period or when the infertility clinic called to tell me they'd have to change our appointment, and I was frustrated to the point of tears. Both of those times you were just matter-of-fact when I really needed you to be more comforting."

This level of inquiry moves you closer in several ways to understanding what could be going on. You want to be non-confrontational about this and ask for your partner's help in understanding his perspective. You want to let him know that you do notice and appreciate those times that he offers emotional support. And you want to ask why there are times that he doesn't offer the support that you need.

So here are some possible answers he might offer:

1. "You know, it's a lot easier to offer support when you're angry about something. You're usually willing to talk about it, and even if you rant and rave, I feel like I'm doing something to help by letting you get it out of your system."

2. "Well, in the examples you mentioned from your office, I felt frustrated on your behalf and, as I recall, after you settled down I offered several suggestions of strategies you might try with your boss."

3. "Now that I think about it, I realize that any time you have a problem that brings you to tears, I feel pretty inadequate. It's easier for me when you're angry than when you're sad."

4. "Our infertility is such a source of sadness for both of us. I know I shy away from encouraging you to talk about it because it will bring up such sadness in me."

5. "I know I can comfort you with talk about how to use different strategies. But when a problem like our infertility has defied both us and our doctors, I don't know how to comfort you."

So where does this detective work leave you? Actually, in quite a good place. You've learned in response #1 that your partner is comfortable with your anger and that he knows that being a good listener is something he can do. In response #2 he shows that he can empathize with your frustration and that he can mobilize his comforting techniques to include strategizing with you about possible next steps. In responses #3, 4 and 5 his reaction shows that he doesn't know how to comfort you when you're sad, especially over an issue that doesn't have a clear solution and, even worse, if it arouses his own feelings of sadness. So we now know that there is a toxic issue that blocks his capacity to comfort you, and whether that issue is infertility, a chronic illness, a health problem, an emotional loss, or something else, the challenge you both face is how to share more fully the impact of this in your lives.

The good news is that (hopefully) there are either issues or emotions that your partner feels adequate to respond to in a comforting way. The challenging piece is to identify what issue(s) are red flags that make your partner feel inadequate or emotionally vulnerable. Once both of you can talk about his feeling more adequate and more emotionally supported, you are on your way to finding mutual comfort in your relationship.

So, for example, when your partner says he doesn't know how to comfort you when you're sad, what he really is saying is that none of his old behaviors (good listening, strategizing) seem up to the challenge. I often have been amazed to watch my female clients tell their partners what would comfort them when they're sad (hugs, cuddling, some chocolate, undivided attention), only to have the partners say something like "You're kidding! That's all?" Some guys feel that if they can't "fix" the problem there's nothing more to be done. They don't fully appreciate until you tell them clearly that there are ways to comfort you in your sadness, and that their very efforts to do so will be immensely reassuring. It also is possible that, in their own childhood homes, tears were toxic and comfort was never modeled. Helping your partner to understand what he can do to comfort you will be a gift to him. And, of course, once he begins to show his capacity for responding with empathy to your tears or emotional despair, your feedback and appreciation will help him to feel more adequate.

So next we need to think about the issue of emotional vulnerability that your sadness may evoke in your partner. The suggestion here is that the toxic issue is a shared issue, raising mutual sadness and perhaps some anticipatory mourning in each of you. And what we know about mourning is that it proceeds on different pathways for different people. So you and your partner may be in different places in your efforts to grieve, to make sense of a loss, or to make decisions about your future. There are several things for both of you to consider if emotional vulnerability is getting in the way of offering comfort. One is that, in spite of all the gender stereotypes that guys have grown up with, it is not the male's responsibility always to be strong for his female partner. Here is where you need to say to him "This is a shared sadness and it would help me a lot if you could talk with me about the emotions it is bringing up in you." Or "I feel lonely being the only one to share my feelings. I'm sure you have feelings too, and I really wish you would talk with me about them." This effort to give one another mutual support can go a long way toward making both of you feel less vulnerable.

Another aspect of emotional vulnerability is the way in which it seems to stretch to fill every moment and every room. The worry is that once you bring up the toxic issue, it will overwhelm you. So there are two ways of trying to contain the emotionality associated with this issue (and the inevitable related ones) in your lives. One way is to agree to set limits on when and where you discuss the issue. I usually tell my clients to agree on a time limit they will respect: perhaps 15 minutes three times a week (with exceptions for crises and emergencies), and to identify a place in the house where these conversations can occur: absolutely not in the bedroom and preferably not in a place with frequent distractions or interruptions). Once you and your partner know that there will be times set aside each week for discussions, decisions and emotions, it becomes easier not to feel overwhelmed. A second way to address issues of emotional vulnerability is to talk with a therapist about constructive ways of coping (see my blog of 1/27/11 on "how to find a good psychotherapist"). This can be a good investment of both time and money, as it will set the stage for additional ways of being emotionally responsive to one another as partners, as well as helping both of you to understand any issues of grieving that you may be grappling with in different ways.

So when hoping to sensitize your partner to how to give you emotional comfort, your quest may actually have the effect of making your relationship mutually stronger. Not only will you have learned how to initiate good emotional detective work, but you also will have engaged your partner in sharing with you his feelings around whatever toxic issues you may encounter together in your lives.

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