Down Hill Quickly
“Here we go again,” thought Joe as Anna walked into the room, noticeably upset. She sat next to him and started to tell him about her day. Anna shared some good points of her day, like getting a few things checked off her to do list…but she lost it with the kids again and feels like a terrible mom. She also remembered that she forgot to do something important at work yesterday and is fearful that her boss will be angry with her when she goes in tomorrow. The tears start flowing.
Joe knows that Anna is a wonderful mom and that her boss and co-workers love her. She works hard and is good at what she does. He cannot understand why she is so upset. The tears are starting to overwhelm him.
How can he help her feel better? He wants to help her see how silly it is that she’s upset. Joe wants to help her solve these problems.
The “Fix It” Attempt
Joe is nervous, because sometimes when Anna has a bad day, they end up fighting. Joe is cautious, but just doesn’t know what else to do. He starts out by saying, “You don’t need to be upset. Everything will be fine.” He continues to offer suggestions for ways she can control her temper with the kids. He is about to offer some work suggestions, when Anna blows up. “You think I’m a terrible mom too! None of those things work! You don’t understand! I am just so frustrated. I can’t make them behave and neither can you!” She walks out of the room crying.
Joe is feeling confused, guilty and angry too. He was just trying to help…”isn’t that why she was coming to him?” “How can she feel better if she doesn’t address these things?” “How dare she yell at him!” “What if he did do something wrong?” All these thoughts are spinning in his head.
In this scenario, Joe was doing what came naturally. He was trying to help his wife feel better by telling her how to fix her situation. This is a common response for husbands, but wives can respond this way as well.
Your Spouse Needs Compassion
The problem is that Anna was needs support and compassion. She is upset and hurting. She wants Joe to understand that she is upset and stressed. When a person is in an emotional state they are not in a place to problem solve. Joe was overwhelmed and responded as he always does, even though it hasn’t worked in the past. It was the only thing he could come up with to try and calm them both.
What If It Went Like This Instead?
Anna walked into the room, noticeably upset. She sat next to him and started to tell him about her day. There were some good points and she got a few things checked off her to do list…but she lost it with the kids again and she feels like a terrible mom. She also remembered that she forgot to do something important at work yesterday and is fearful that her boss will be angry with her when she goes in tomorrow. The tears start to flow.
Joe is beginning to feel overwhelmed, but he reaches out and puts his arm around Anna. “I know you love our kids so much and feel just awful when you don’t react in the way you want to. You are stressed about work too. It’s so important for you to do a good job and you hate the feeling that someone might be mad at you.” Anna agrees and sobs for a minute. Joe quietly holds her.
When Anna starts to calm down, Joe asks, “Do you want to talk about it more or do something else?” At this point Anna feels heard and supported. She’s connecting to the one she loves most and he understands and cares about her. That may be all she needs to feel better. She might be ready to move on and focus on something else. It’s also possible that she does want to continue the conversation. Anna may need more understanding or she may be ready to do some problem solving with her husband.
Anna and Joe’s roles could easily be reversed. Men need support and comfort too. Showing compassion with comforting touch and attentive listening is almost always the best response to a mate that is hurting. Your spouse needs you to be emotionally available.
Fixing Is Not The First Response
There is a time for fixing, but if you fix before you convey compassion, you are likely to cause more hurt in the situation.
In the second example above, Joe says a lot to show empathy and understanding about what his wife is feeling. If you look at that and think, “I could never come up with that response when my partner is upset,” you don’t have to. This type of response takes practice. (A therapist came up with that one after all!) If all you can do is hug her and say “I’m so sorry,” or “It makes me sad that you are hurting,” you have achieved the goal. Simple can be just as good. Your main purpose is to communicate that you care and not try to “fix” it.
Please contact me for an appointment if you would like to work on achieving more compassion and less fighting in your relationship.