Most relationships start out pretty great: You’re happy together, you complement each other, and your lives are going really well…until, suddenly, tough times hit.
Maybe your partner has a sick family member or is dealing with their own illness, or maybe they were recently laid off from their job. Whatever the reason, grappling with those kinds of upsetting life events can be a BFD for a relationship, especially if it’s one that has never been tested.
So, what are you supposed to do? Licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, says it’s important to remember that you’re in this together. “When someone we love is hurting, it hurts us too,” he says. “Caring about someone means that we become invested in their well-being. When they are going through a tough time, we want to be there with them, and it can cause us to deal with similar issues of loss ourselves.”
Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, Psy.D., agrees, noting that it can be “very challenging” to help your S.O. through tough times. “Feelings of frustration around seeing a loved one struggle and feelings of helplessness are not uncommon,” he says.
Jared DeFife, Ph.D., a psychologist and relationship counselor in Atlanta, says that it can be tempting to try to brush things off or see it as your partner’s issue, but that won’t help anything.
Unfortunately, go-to’s like “everything will be fine!” don’t quite work in these kinds of situations, but DeFife says it’s perfectly OK to say that you have no idea what to say or how to make things better. “In fact, it’s encouraged,” he says. Listening is actually underrated, DeFife says, and switching into “fix-it” mode can bypass what your partner may really need, i.e., someone to talk to and a shoulder to cry on.
Cilona says that even just being there can help. “One of the most challenging aspects of facing serious stressors, challenges, and problems can be feeling alone,” he says. “The knowledge that there is support available if needed and someone that cares and understands the difficulties in and of itself can be extremely helpful.”
And while it may seem obvious, Klow says sometimes the best thing you can do is tell your S.O. that you’re there for them and you’ll get through this together. If your partner wants to talk it out, it’s important to listen. Klow also recommends sharing stories of similar losses you’ve suffered (if you have them—if not, just listen). And, while you shouldn’t necessarily try to cheer them up, try to help them find a perspective and provide reassurance.
Cilona notes that everyone deals with stress differently, so it’s a good idea to ask your partner what you can do to help, and to do it often. “One of the best ways to help is to be direct and ask specifically and frequently what helps and what doesn’t,” he says.
It’s also important to keep in mind that what helps you get through a tough time may not work for your S.O. “You may love talking things out, but your partner may need space to process in their head,” DeFife says. “Or they might feel better socializing the night away, even if being around others during a time of stress sounds like a total nightmare to you.”
Whatever it is, repeatedly remind your partner that you’re there for them and that you’ll get through this together—and you will