We hear a lot these days about the many effective ways to handle one's own stress—meditation, yoga, healthy eating—but we receive little guidance on how to respond lovingly when your partner is anxious, depressed, or stressed. It's easy to love someone when they're feeling great and on top of the world, but how do you respond when life gets them down?
This is a common scenario I hear in my practice:
My partner has always been the rock in our relationship. He's been incredibly supportive when I've struggled with anxiety or when things are stressful with my family. But now that he's having trouble at work, he's the one that's been more unstable and I don't know how to handle it. A part of me wants to say, "Get over it! You're supposed to be the strong one!" but I know that's not a loving response. What do I do?
There are three steps you can take when you can see that your partner is going through a tough time:
1. Attend to your own feelings in a loving way.
When your partner is stressed, it will likely trigger feelings of your own, especially if you're not used to seeing him or her in a more vulnerable state. If your partner withdraws, you may feel lonely. If you don't know how to help, you may feel helpless. If you have a judgment toward someone "falling apart" and equate stress with weakness (likely derived from a message you received growing up that crying or struggling is weak), you may view your partner through these eyes and find yourself feeling an aversion toward him or her. So before you can lovingly show up for your partner, you first have to show up for yourself with compassion.
2. Show up for your partner using his/her love language.
When your partner is stressed, it's an opportunity for you to practice being the grownup in the relationship. Once you've attended to your own feelings (and this may be as simple as putting your hands on your heart, naming the feeling, and breathing compassion into it), you can lovingly attend to your partner. If you know your partner's love language, this is the time to express love in that way.
For example, if your partner is soothed by and most responsive to physical touch, simply approaching your partner and putting your arms around her can help her breathe some space into her tightness. If your partner's love language is "acts of service," making his favorite meal will help him unwind and let go.
3. Ask what your partner needs.
Many people retreat inside themselves when they're feeling anxious or depressed. They may have learned early in life that their needs won't get met, so they eventually learn to stop asking for what they need. This is where being in an intimate relationship can be profoundly powerful for healing old wounds.
If you see that your partner has retreated, make the effort to approach him and say something like, "You seem like you're having a hard time. How can I help you right now?"
When you partner sees that you're truly interested in helping him and giving him what he needs, he'll learn to soften into your loving question and depend on you in healthy ways. This healthy dependency is one of the qualities that creates a secure base in a relationship, the soft pillow where both partners can consistently land.
It's never easy when our partner is stressed, but it's part of life. Even if your partner has consistently been the rock in your relationship, there will inevitably come a time when he falls apart and you'll be given the opportunity to return the active love and support that he has shown you. This is a time to grow into a higher part of yourself and also grow the trust in your relationship. So instead of running from or resenting the stress, see it as an opportunity for growth.