In my office is a coaster with this quote from Kathleen Norris:
“Anything, everything, little or big, becomes an adventure when the right person shares it.”
The right person could be anyone, but for the sake of our annual Work/Life relationship series, I'm thinking about romantic partners.
In the context of romantic relationships, what becomes of a hard or difficult thing when someone shares it? What happens when the right person shares your adversity and you share theirs?
Just as your partner’s interests, quirks, cleaning habits etc. are different than yours, so too will be how you each cope with adversity.
In times of adversity, the challenge of supporting our partners while also respecting their identities and independence can be messy. When they hurt, we hurt. We want to fix it so that they don’t hurt, but we have to be mindful of how much of our own discomfort we are actually trying to remedy. Our histories of relationships, families, messages repeated over time, all can impact our tolerance for discomfort in others - especially those we love.
When responding to our partner's discomfort, we may be guilty of:
- Launching into “fix-it” mode. "Have you tried this?"
- Minimizing the other’s feelings. "It will all work out, it’s not so bad, look for the silver lining."
- Making it about ourselves. "You know when I experienced…"
At some point in our relationship our partner’s normal world is going to be rocked by some kind of jarring news like losing a job or getting a call about a family member’s illness. In the meantime, we can look to smaller life events as an opportunity to practice new skills for supporting our partner. Or, maybe we already know these but it is a nice refresher. Not only do these practices prepare us for weathering a more difficult storm together, but they can also increase intimacy in the process.
Let’s take the example of your partner having a bad day at work. Here are some things to think about the next time your partner walks through the door after a hard day.
Empathize before you strategize
Think – What am I hearing them say? What am I seeing in their body language? Reflect that back and empathize.
Ask questions that don’t focus on a solution but help to further process what happened
What did that feel like? What was the rest of the day like for you? How do you feel about it now?
Vent or feedback?
One great trick I learned years ago is to ask this question: “What's helpful from me? Are you looking to just vent or would you like feedback?”. Their answer leaves you better informed as to what they need in the moment. My coworker Lisa added a third option, “Would you like a distraction?” – how often do we think the solution is to “get their mind off of it” when maybe that isn’t what they want (but if they say yes then go for it!). Rather than trying to interpret their needs, just ask.
Ask what they need going forward
What do you need to help get you through the rest of the day? This week?
Remember – they are their own person
In The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Eli J. Finkel shares this quote on the importance of viewing your partner as an individual, “In building compassion, we recognize that our partner is an autonomous person in their own right, not just someone for us. We recognize that, in order to be free ourselves, we need to embrace the freedom of our partner, and we gently remind ourselves to treat them as a mutual, full, and complex human being rather than as a thing for our own purposes."
We may feel anxious that we need to resolve their pain or that their decisions aren't going to be as helpful as our own ideas. But coping with adversity in their own way is a freedom they are afforded just as we are.
Express confidence in their ability to cope
I'm really sorry that thing happened at work. I know you'll figure out what's right for you to do about it. I'm here to support you as you do it.
Remember this will grow your relationship
Adversity cannot be avoided in life and so it doesn’t serve us to try to escape all experience of it. Instead, we can know that any adverse event is an opportunity to learn more about our partners and ourselves. It is an opportunity to practice patience, curiosity, empathy and compassion. A lot is said these days about the benefits of a growth mindset when handling stress. The same can be said for shared stress in relationships. Also there's this fun fact: In The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Finkel shares research that showed positive links between responsiveness of partners (showing understanding, validating, and caring) and experiencing greater desire.
If any of the above are very different approaches from how you typically respond, go ahead and tell them you are going to try to do something different. Even better, talk about it now! When you're not in a crisis can be the best time to talk about patterns in relationships and new approaches to try.
If you are the one with the hard day and looking for support
Prompt your partner with a text. “Heading home, had a hard day if you have time to talk when I get home.” Then when you walk through the door you’re less disappointed if your partner is mid-workout, mid-phone call, mid-anything else that has their attention. When already in a vulnerable state, it can be easy to immediately jump to not wanting to bother them or resenting them for being occupied when they didn’t yet have a chance to respond to your needs.
Or you might say, “Heading home, had a really hard day so I might be more quiet than usual." This prepares our partner, allowing them to give us the time and space we may need without thinking there is some other reason of why you are quiet that has to do with them.
Couples counseling can also be a huge help as you weather storms together. Regardless of a perceived “problem” to address, couples counseling at any point in your relationship can address the roles we play in relationships and the internal messages or scripts we may unconsciously be playing out. It can also facilitate discovery about your partner and shared goals for the relationship.