Support is one of the most important aspects of successful relationships. Knowing that our partner will comfort us and be there for us through difficult times enhances the feeling of connection and value of our relationship. However, for different people support can mean different things, and that is where big trouble in paradise may arise.
“I wish he could be more supportive”.
“She complains and then when I try to help her she doesn’t appreciate it”.
Very often, too much of the wrong kind of support and too little of the kind of support we need can lead to misinterpretation, frustration, anger, resentment, and damage of intimate connection.
The most common example is when one partner is reaching out for emotional support while the other is trying to fix the problem without validating their partner’s emotions. Soon they both become frustrated – one for not feeling understood and listened to, and the other because their advice is dismissed and their efforts unappreciated.
But how to break this cycle?
Let’s clarify a couple of things first.
What people who complain actually want?
For some this will come as a surprise, but what people most often seek when talking about their problems is not the solution. It is understanding.
People want to feel like they are not alone in this problem, that someone gets where they’re coming from and what they’re experiencing. It’s not only understanding but also validation of their emotions that they’re looking for. As counterintuitive as it may sound, a person complaining wants to hear how her situation really is hard and how things do suck and how she is right for feeling frustrated, angry, or sad.
Having someone who carefully listens and understands what we’re going through feels cathartic. It takes off the burden of having to deal with the situation alone and tells us that it’s okay to feel the way we feel. Emotional support lessens the pressure, which gives some clarity and, finally, makes space for taking an action toward resolving the problem.
However, what many don’t realize is that, by giving advice, they are rushing a person to this final step, which is counterproductive.
Why offering advice is not the best strategy?
People who offer advice usually have the best intentions. They are moved by the desire to be helpful and want the other person to feel better. And while it can be nice to hear someone else’s perspective, what usually happens with advice without emotional support is exactly the opposite – a person with a problem feels worse.
Part of why receiving advice feels so unfulfilling is that the person didn’t ask for it in the first place. They received something they don’t need and haven’t got what they actually wanted. Some may even understand unsolicited advice as a sign of disrespect to their ability to deal with their own problems.
An additional reason is that the person who receives advice instead of emotional support feels rushed to “stop complaining”. They want to feel understood and heard, but instead, the underlying message they receive is: “I feel uncomfortable listening to your negative emotions and want to make this stop as quickly as possible”. It can feel like the person who gave advice put their needs and wants first – to feel helpful and to end the uncomfortable situation.
The frustration that results from a mismatch in the way partners understand emotional support is mainly a communication problem. Thus, to get on the same page with your partner, you need to talk to each other openly and without judgment, get clear about your needs, and discuss how to overcome differences and give each other the right kind of support.
“This is how I feel, and this is how you can help me”
Often, when we come to our partner with an issue, their automatic reaction is to try to help us fix the issue practically. It makes sense – if we remove a problem, our negative emotions will also stop. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need – a fresh perspective and possible options that will help us solve the problem. But more often than not, we need a much different kind of support, an emotional one.
So, how to get emotional support instead of advice? Ask for it.
Expecting support from your partner is okay. It’s the foundation of a good relationship. But assuming your partner knows what kind of support you need (and even worse, refuses to provide it to you) is the way of thinking guaranteed to lead to bitterness, disappointment, and unhappiness. No partner should be a mind reader. If you feel your partner is not in tune with your need for support, stating clearly how they can help you instead of waiting for them to figure it out could save you both from dissatisfaction and resentment down the road.
Sometimes we don’t even know what we’d like to get from our partner but only that we’re not getting it. Funny enough, it doesn’t prevent us from becoming irritated with our partners. It may be a good idea to ask yourself beforehand what kind of support you need and what your partner could do. This will help you be much more clear and direct in communication.
Learn the right way to ask for support
Stating clearly what kind of support you need is great, but asking for it in the right way is even more important. When our partner keeps offering advice without acknowledging our emotions, it’s easy to follow the same resentful pattern where we think, or even say things like: “You always do this”, “You never listen to me”, “Why can’t you, just for once, understand my feelings?!”.
Criticism most probably won’t lead to a satisfying solution. Instead, a criticized person feels the need to defend themselves and their point of view, which likely won’t end up in changing their behaviour. In their need to protect themselves they may start finding flaws in your behaviour (“I’m trying to help you, can’t you appreciate it?”, “You don’t understand”, “Nothing I do is good enough for you!”), and before you know it, you might end up in an argument. Not the most constructive thing, right?
So, it may be a good idea to ditch the criticism and use I statements. Instead of: “You always do this and never do that”, saying something like: “I feel like this and I would like you to do that. It is what I need and it would really help me to feel better. Would you please?” could be much more productive. It gives your partner a clear idea of how they can ease your pain, which is what they want to do in the first place. Also, it decreases the possibility of them feeling attacked and becoming defensive.
Talk openly and come up with a mutually acceptable solution
As mentioned before, problems that arise from a discrepancy between partners on how they like to give and receive support stems mainly from poor communication on the issue. Your partner and you may be different, and that’s okay. Talk with each other about how you like to give and receive support and in what ways the right kind of support helps you feel better. Find out the differences and commit to finding a mutually acceptable solution. Teach your partner what feels best for you, and learn what kind of support they want.
If you both come from the place of mutuality where you truly care about each other, you can be open to learning ways of supporting your partner the way they need you to. Keep anger or defensiveness aside and stay connected to caring feelings you have for your partner.
Additionally, whenever you notice your partner does something that emotionally supportive, tell them and show your appreciation. Telling your partner what they are doing well will encourage them to keep that behaviour in the future, but also will grow intimacy in your relationship.
Again, open communication and mutual understanding is the key. But if, after all your efforts of asking for emotional support clearly and in a loving way, your partner still doesn’t provide it, then that’s the issue that probably goes beyond this topic.
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