Simple Phrase Can Defuse A Relationship Crisis

My husband came home from work the other day, completely stressed out. After a five-minute rant about how nuts his day was, he paused and I said the simple phrase, “How can I help?” Almost instantly, he visibly relaxed, said he just wanted to talk, apologized for getting worked up, and grabbed a beer. Crisis solved.

Thing is, I knew the conversation would end that way. “How can I help?” has been my go-to relationship phrase ever since I first learned it at a startup I worked for a few years ago. The company had a bunch of “—isms” they wanted us to memorize that were designed to help us be better coworkers. These phrases were inescapable at this job: Not only did we get them in the employee handbook and were encouraged to use them when communicating with our coworkers, they were also plastered all over the walls of the office, so you could get your —ism fix while waiting for your coffee to brew in the kitchen, peed in the bathroom, etc..

While most were kind of cheeseball (hello, “respond with urgency”), I found myself using “how can I help?” often at work. Eventually it followed me home, and now, I use it whenever my husband is upset, sad, stressed out, or angry—and it works every damn time.

I love “how can I help?” so much that I’ve raved about it to friends, who also use it in their relationships. But why is this simple phrase so powerful?

Because it makes someone feel that you’re in a situation with them, explains Mark Reinecke, Ph.D., chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “People feel they need help when their usual ways of coping with whatever the problem may be in life are overmatched,” he says. “They feel overwhelmed, depressed, and helpless. Asking ‘how can I be of help?’…it leads the person to feel that they’re not alone.”

The way it’s worded is also crucial, since it’s inviting a blueprint for action, says Jocelyn Charnas, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan. “Saying ‘can I help?’ is a yes or no question with potential to shut down the dialogue, but ‘how can I help?’ opens up communication,” she says.

It also doesn’t make the assumption that you know how to fix things, which can be annoying when all someone wants to do is vent. “You’re not saying you know how to fix this, you’re saying you want to understand,” Charnas says.

So, when’s the best time to whip out The Phrase? Charnas says it really can be used in any situation when you feel that your S.O. needs sympathy and love. Reinecke also points out that it’s not just limited to romantic relationships—this is a good one to use in friendships, too. “Any situation where a person feels overwhelmed, that’s a good time to use it,” he says.

While “how can I help?” can take the guesswork out of what you can actually do to make things better, I usually just hear something along the lines of, “I’m good, but thanks for listening.”

Should You Know 10 Signs This Relationship Won’t Last After Cuffing Season

Heads up: We are now entering cuffing season. While the idea that you’d start a relationship just because it’s cold out is kind of funny, it’s a legitimate phenomenon that has its basis in evolution. (Really, think about when your past relationships started or became more serious…)

But Jocelyn Charnas, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, says it’s not necessarily bad to start a new relationship because you want someone to cuddle with when the temperature drops—you’re human, after all.

“We enter into relationships for any number of reasons, regardless of the season,” she says. “Sometimes it’s because someone piques our interest, sometimes because we’re lonely, and sometimes because we’re trying someone on for size.” And right now, it’s because you want someone to cuddle with, since you so don’t feel like dressing up and bar-hopping when it’s cold out.

Licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, says it’s probably not the best thing to start a cuffing-season relationship, because you can be fooled into thinking it’s better than it actually is—and pass on chances to get to know other people during that time. That said, it happens… .

With that in mind, here are the signs you’re totally being cuffed, plus why this relationship is definitely going to be over in the spring:

• You had the DTR talk the same day you pulled your skinny jeans out of the back of your drawer. Granted, your butt looks pretty damn good in them, but still.

• You met last week and you’re already sharing a snuggie.

• You’ve been casual friends since May and realized you were “meant for each other” the day temperatures dipped below 65.

• You went apple picking together.

• Your 3 a.m. booty call now shows up for post-brunch sex…and also brunch.

• There’s suddenly a lot of shit at your place that isn’t yours.

• You have a standing Gilmore Girls date.

• “I know we only met last month but you should totally come home with me for [any kind of family holiday]!”…said no one in the summer, ever.

• You already know who you’re going to kiss on New Year’s Eve, but you had no clue two weeks ago.

• You’re making spring break plans with zero intentions of including your S.O.

If you suspect that you’re in a relationship solely because of cuffing season—and you’re not OK with that—it’s a good idea to talk things over to see where your S.O. sees this going. But if you know the deal and you dig it, by all means…


Some Signs Your S.O.’s Friendship Has Crossed a Line

Part of a healthy relationship is respecting each other’s independence, including your friendships. But if a friendship of your partner’s—particularly one with another woman—seems suspicious to you, chances are that’s for a reason, says psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich, LCSW. But how do you know when your S.O. is just close with a friend and when they could be emotionally cheating?

Here are a few signs your S.O.’s friendship could be cause for concern.

1. They’re secretive.

If your partner’s not telling you a lot about what they do with their friend, doesn’t want you to hang out with both of them, or always seems to meet them in a private place, it’s possible they have something to hide, says Neitlich.

2. They compare you to their friend.

If your S.O. does this, says Neitlich, they might’ve thought about what dating their friend would be like. Comparing you to other women is also just generally not cool.

3. They always take their friend’s side.

If you’re unhappy with something your S.O.’s friend says or does, they should listen to you. Even if they don’t agree, it shouldn’t be a problem that you’ve brought it up. If your S.O. defends their friend at all costs, that could be a sign there’s something more than a friendship going on, says Neitlich.

4. They’re not confiding in you.

If your S.O. is getting more distant, not telling you about their life, or even saying they prefer to talk about things with their friend, it could mean that the emotional needs you would expect to meet are being met elsewhere.

If nothing feels wrong with your S.O.’s friendships, chances are you’ve got nothing to worry about. If something does, examine your own tendencies. Are you prone to jealousy, or is it this situation in particular that’s getting to you?

If things really do seem fishy, psychotherapist Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT recommends saying something like, “I feel jealous/hurt/insecure about how much you interact with ______. I’m not comfortable with such frequent contact and I think it threatens our relationship.”

How they respond could tell you a lot about whether the friendship is actually a problem. If they get defensive, that’s another sign they’re hiding something. Even if there’s really nothing more than a friendship going on, your S.O. should be eager to reassure you of that, help you feel more comfortable, and make sure no other relationship gets in the way of the one between you two.