Life likes to loom, and sometimes it looms in impossibly large ways.
When the meadows under out feet become mountains, we automatically tread more slowly. We keep our heads bowed. We navigate the best we can.
But when life looms for loved ones, it’s different.
As an empath, I meet my partner’s challenges with fervor. I feel what my partner is feeling eagerly, in an attempt to help him or her navigate rocky fields in solidarity.
But empathetic struggle can be messy and hard. I almost prefer to be the struggling one, and not the other way around. In many cases, over-giving when my partner’s life feels like ‘too much’ can deplete me unnecessarily.
Comfort, however, is important, and you can give it to your partner in a way that resonates. This is what I have learned about the nature of this comfort—and how it can help.
This piece of advice is flung around seemingly arbitrarily; yet time and again, I return to this injunction when my partner is grieving or floundering.
Sometimes, vital presence is all your partner needs to see light edging the tops of the mountains.
The type of listening that will resonate is simply that: active listening that doesn’t need to jump in, fix, ameliorate, suggest. It means eye contact and perhaps a warm embrace. It means a few nods (maybe) and receptive stillness.
It means being purely and utterly attentive to your partner, and no one else.
Think about when your counselor or when a friend offers you this presence. What does it do to your grief? Your depression? Your anxiety?
This, in fact, is the listening I crave when life looms. I long to spiral out my thoughts in a safe, attentive environment; we all do.
This is what we mean when we say “hold the space” for someone—we reach out our hands and literally hold their bleeding hearts in love and silence.
2. Meet their needs.
We all need. Needs carve out little spaces in our veins every day. We choose to acknowledge them or not, express them or not. Some of these needs can go hungry for days or weeks, without too much impact. But others need attention.
I’m bad at expressing my needs. Many people are. Those who are facing overwhelm or insurmountable challenges may struggle even more to articulate what they need from loved ones.
Give your partner a break here. Ask what they need, in general, and from you. Simply asking, “What do you need right now?” can often collapse large, sharp, blinding situations into something manageable and small.
(Try it on yourself. Isn’t it nice to articulate what you need in this moment?)
Once your partner is able to articulate what they need, meet those needs. If some of those needs are abstract—as in I need answers—ask what you can do to help your partner get closer to meeting that need.
This may be a simple cup of tea, a hug, or a distraction. These may be enough in the moment—remember that the small gestures can mean more than the large ones or even concrete answers.
3. Let it be about them for a little while.
It can be tempting to jump in and try to “fix” your partner’s problems, to find an easy solution, to make things shiny again. However, be cautious about imposing your worldview or personal perspective of healing onto your partner’s path.
Let it be about them. Guide them to the answers or to comfort on their terms, not yours.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t offer what you feel free to offer—love, for example, or careful advice.
But it does mean honoring them, asking questions, letting the spotlight shine on their tear-stained cheeks for a while. Sometimes this can actually be profoundly healing. We all like to be in the limelight, particularly when we’re in pain. (This is why counselors exist.)
This may also mean deferring to your partner’s preferences. Watch a movie they want to watch. Go to their favorite restaurant. Don’t sideline your own needs. Just willingly focus on theirs.
4. Intervene when necessary.
Sometimes our partners face something that truly feels outside of your capacities: trauma, for example, including abuse, assault, and PTSD. Still others are navigating the too-muchness of addiction or the loss of a relative or friend.
In these cases, you may need to intervene in a different way. Gently suggest options for further aid your partner may wish to explore, such as a grief counselor or support group. Talk to a professional about staging an intervention for your addicted partner.
It can be difficult to intervene in this way, particularly if your partner is showing symptoms of depression or is resistant to the notion of outside help. Guide your suggestions with love and consult your own counselor for advice, if possible.
5. Break the routine.
Pain, anxiety, depression, grief—all of these can automatically impose their own dictatorial routines on our lives. These routines exist even in the midst of other, “normal” routines like work, mealtimes, conversations with mom.
I know my grief routine. It involves a serious amount of self-isolating, Game of Thrones, and a lot of dark chocolate. It also involves fatigue, and too much sleep, and not enough time outside.
Your partner may sink into such a routine when life feels like too much. These routines have value, believe it or not—they are what many counselors may call coping mechanisms. Yet sometimes the grip of life turns these coping mechanisms into small addictions themselves (or maladaptive mechanisms).
Gently break the routine. Get your partner out of the house in a loving, noncommittal way—a walk around the neighborhood, some yummy Thai noodles, a drive to your favorite lake. If your partner resists any of these things, modify the tenor of your conversations—give advice this time, for example, or listen instead.
6. Wear your love.
Love heals. If you have love to give, offer it—fully and well. You have your ways of showing your love to your partner; turn the dial up to 50 this time. If all else fails, the heart can clear anything.
Wear your love brightly and wear it often. Oh, and don’t be afraid to make a joke or two.
Your partner will notice, and I guarantee, it will make a difference.