Joining vs. Fixing: What to do when someone you love is hurting.
Throughout our lives there will be times when the person we love and care about is going through a difficult time. Maybe they are having a rough day, have an illness, have had something distressing happen, or are simply feeling overwhelmed at the moment. What can you do when you see your partner in distress? What may immediately come to mind is that helping your partner in difficult moments is the key. True; and this might seem kind of like a given, I mean you love your partner and you don't like seeing them upset, right? Well, sometimes our best intended efforts can land wrong. Maybe your partner is going through a difficult time, emotions are high, it’s a little tense in the household, and suddenly it seems like everything you’re doing to try to convey kindness and help is just not working and instead you notice you’re pushing your partner away.
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
What tends to happen is when we see someone we love who is upset, emotionally distraught, or in pain is that we want to take their pain away. We hate seeing them distraught, and it may even make us uncomfortable to see them struggling, so we give them solutions; we start “fixing”. We say, “well why don’t you quit your job if you hate it so much”, or “you should give that friend a piece of your mind”, or even “hey it’s not a big deal...just let it go”, or “you want me to say something?” And all of those things seem like logical statements, right? I mean you’re trying to give your partner solutions so they won’t feel so bad anymore. However, when someone is in a difficult emotional place, sometimes what they need is just someone to listen to them. They want to feel heard, understood, and like they are allowed to feel what they are feeling. They want to feel like they are not alone. They definitely don’t want to feel belittled or dismissed, but sometimes when we try to “fix it”, it can send that message.
The difference between sympathy - which is feeling sorry for someone - and empathy is that empathy brings closeness, because it is the act of joining your partner in their moment and seeing the world from their perspective. When we give solutions or belittle or dismiss our partner’s emotions rather than empathize, it creates distance rather than closeness. Sometimes all you need do to bring empathy and kindness into those difficult moments is just letting your partner talk and being a listening ear without jumping immediately into “fixing” mode. That sends the message that they are allowed to feel what they are feeling, that you are open to hearing it, and that you will be there through it with them. This does not mean that you can never offer suggestions, but begin with listening and joining before asking if there is something that you can offer to help.
So the next time your partner or someone you love is having a hard day try letting them know, “I’m here to listen, help me understand what you’re going through”, and see what a difference it makes. Kindness and empathy begins with joining not fixing.
Kristal DeSantis, M.A., LMFT-Associate, is the founder of Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center in Austin, TX
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