What do you do when your partner is going through a very strong and intense experience? This could be when the intensity comes out in big, strong ways as they are not able to self-regulate in that moment. It could also be that they are supressing or being paralysed by the situation – it is clearly there and obvious they are not letting it out.
How can you best support them through this, whether the situation is something you triggered directly or one you are not involved with at all? There is an extra challenge when we are involved and I’ll come back to that later.
There are two different sets of needs and reactions coming out at the same time.
1 Something stimulated them – for example, they heard about a tragedy and are overwhelmed with grief, or something happened at work they got very frustrated or angry about, or maybe they came close to a car accident and faced deep fear.
I will refer to this as the CORE situation and there could be any number of needs at play here.
2 They are having a reaction – which probably includes overwhelming feelings and thoughts all coming at once. Here there are needs of empathy, being heard, being seen, support and care. Maybe others. But these are the needs related to how they are experiencing rather the core needs which are about what happened.
This second area is where I can initially best support my partner. Maybe with the first I can support with problem solving but only later once I have helped them get back to themselves through self regulation or by helping them release from any suppression.
What to Do?
I like the image of holding space for someone. When my child falls and grazes their knee it is a natural response to pick them up and hold them in a comforting embrace. In that instant I’m not dealing with why they fell over and my energy is to provide a safe space by holding them.
As adults we might also want to physically hold our partner as they freak out – through eye contact, holding a hand or hugging.
Another way of ‘holding’ is through the presence of empathy which is an energetic holding. Imagine your energy and attention folding around your partner to create a safe cocoon. In that space you are non-judgemental and you are not evaluating. You hold and witness and do not react, but accept whatever comes up. Not trying to change anything … just being present. This does not need words and in many cases words can get in the way.
Another way to think of it – in this moment you put yourself ‘on hold’ by pressing an imaginary pause button. This pause pushes aside your inclination to try to deal with the underlying situation as you leave that for later an allow your partner to experience whatever it is they are experiencing. You trust that they will come back to themselves and find their way through.
In my previous relationships I had a really hard time handling my partners’ tears. I was unable to accept crying as their way to express the pain in them. I assumed that if someone was crying there was a problem and my impulse was to fix the problem … and to do that meant I first had to stop them crying. This is the opposite of allowing and instead of giving space I was trying to reduce space – and failing to see the bigger picture rather than just a problem to solve.
When I started to understand myself better I learned to recognise what was going on with me when my partner was crying as my discomfort. I learned to be there for them and resist my impulse to alleviate my own discomfort.
What do you struggle with in your partner? Is it anger, upset, frustration? I invite you to look inside yourself and try something different.
Instead of speaking stay silent.
Instead of fixing the problem, stay with what your partner is experiencing.
When you are the Cause?
There is an additional challenge when you are at the centre of the situation. This requires an extra strong push on the pause button. Keep your reaction to the side – you can come back to it later.
Listen, give empathy, in silence .. until the storm passes.
Until your partner is able to hold this strong experience – calmed by the empathic listening you are able to provide. Trust that listening will bring calm. When they connect with themselves, then you can start to deal with the underlying problem.