Do you need some quick relationship advice? Have you ever seen this 1-minute video called “It Is Not About the Nail”? I love, love, love that video because it explains in the simplest way possible how easy, yet difficult it is, to provide emotional support to one another.
Emotional support is not about giving advice or fixing the problem, it is about understanding and empathizing how whatever problem we have impacts us emotionally. It is about letting the other one know that we see their struggle, that we care about their struggle (and, therefore, them and their feelings!), and that we are there for them (even if we don’t know what to do about that).
Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (the model of treatment that I offer in my practice), wrote in her book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love”:
“If I appeal to you for emotional connection and you respond intellectually to a problem, rather than directly to me, on an attachment level I will experience that as “no response”. This is one of the reasons that the research on social support uniformly states that people want “indirect” support, that is, emotional confirmation and caring from their partners, rather than advice.”
All of this sounds relatively easy, right? It boils down to active listening. So why do so many couples struggle with it?
Well, all couples are different and they all have various levels of understanding with themselves and their partners. They can be recovering from an affair, struggling with an addiction, feeling extremely disconnected and like roommates, or they might have gone through a traumatic event such as miscarriage, illness, or sudden death in a family. Their distress level and rigidity in the relationship also highly depends on the type of negative cycle that they have been in.
All of that makes the reach for emotional connection or the ability to respond in a comforting way even more difficult. Here are a few practical reasons why emotional support and emotional responsiveness are difficult to execute AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT:
- We can be unaware of appealing for emotional connection! In this case, all we are aware of is what our partner is doing or not doing right. So many of us grew up with families that didn’t teach us to slow down, look inside, name what we feel and ask for help based on what we feel. Instead, we are used to skipping this most important part and either demanding, expecting or criticizing. RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: If you want to practice doing something different, start with focusing on identifying how you feel instead of focusing your attention on what your partner is doing wrong.
- We simply don’t know how to give emotional support over advice or fixing it. Just think about it…if no one ever attended to your or your partner’s emotional needs and provided emotional confirmation, reassurance, comfort, and care, it might be rather difficult to do that for someone else. The good news is that this is a teachable skill—all you really need is your willingness to learn it! RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: Think to yourself: “If I was in her/his shoes, what would I like to hear?”
- We are afraid that if we do give emotional support, something bad will happen. We also can be unfamiliar with HOW the PROCESS of asking, giving, receiving emotional support can look like. For example, what I often hear at my office is: “if I tell him/her that I am sad or scared when I see him/her sad or scared, than there will be the two of us feeling crappy and what is the point of that? I have to be strong for the two of us.” Sounds familiar? Well, that makes me think about the well known saying: “Suffering is a given; suffering alone is intolerable.” In therapy, I can teach you how to move together through your struggles so that these problems don’t seem as overwhelming as if you were to handle them on your own. RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: Practice saying: “I don’t really know what I can do to help, but please know that I care and that I am here with you.”
- We feel too angry, resentful, distant, and unsafe to even attempt to identify with the need for contact and care. If you have been emotionally hurt, for example, you might be in the place of not needing anyone, being independent and self-reliant. Being in that place is understandable based on your story line, AND my guess is that you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you plan on staying angry, resentful and distant. RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: Reach for help if you cannot figure it out on your own. Counseling can help!
If you want to read more relationship advice on emotional support, read my other blog post on Emotional Connection 101.