The tricky moments when support between loving partners fails
- How to ask your partner for the support you need
- How to support your partner in a way that works for both of you
Sometimes partners do not give each other the kind of support they really need at that moment.
Even in well functioning relationships in which partners care about supporting each other, it sometimes fails: one partner tries, does their best, yet the other one does not feel the support. The frustration grows on both sides. Have you been there? Many of us have, often on both sides. Here is what we can try at such moments.
If you are to try one single thing, try this:
Go and ask your partner what (s)he needs from you, then ask for what you need.
As a coach I hear about many situations where my clients did not know either how to get support from, or how to give support to, their significant other. When I ask “What do you need from each other right now?”, I get diverse answers, but I have observed the following tendencies:
- We do not communicate clearly about what we need. It might be because we do not know our needs ourselves, or perhaps we do, but we expect that our partner automatically knows them too.
- When we want to support our partners, we tend to guess what they need from us, without cross-checking it. We tend to act on our assumptions... and sometimes end up shooting energy in a whole lot of wrong directions, missing the goal.
- We mix up two different things: requested action vs. needs. They are not the same. Our needs are about us, not about what our partner should do.
Examples of naming our partner´s action and claiming it to be our needs include: “I need you to stay at home on Saturday”, “I need you to stop crying”, “I need you to change your job”, and so on.
Examples of actual needs include: cooperation, acceptance, appreciation, intimacy, respect, closeness, trust, warmth, understanding and being understood, touch, equality, presence, stimulation, self-expression, clarity, growth, choice, freedom, space etc. (check http://www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory for more examples)
If you think any of the three points above might apply in your case, try doing things differently:
Talk to your partner openly and collaboratively about what you need from each other.
Distinguish between one´s need and the other one´s action to satisfy that need. Recognize that a particular partner´s act is just one possible way of satisfying the other one´s need. There might be other ways and it will be easier to explore them if you both understand what the actual needs are. Such a tiny shift in perception can make a huge difference in practice: you will not waste time on discussing why this or that cannot be done, but instead explore how to support each other effectively.
Recognize that your partner cannot satisfy your needs by being forced into it, the same as you cannot satisfy your partner´s needs by being told to. You can ask each other for it, but it is dialogue and collaboration that are effective, rather than referring to entitlements and obligations.
Ask your partner: What do you need from me most, right now?
Explore: Encourage your partner to go deeper than just saying what (s)he wishes you to do. You want to learn what the needs behind that are. Why does your partner want you to do this? What does (s)he hope to get from you through this act? What are the important needs behind it?
Understand through examples: Ask your partner whether you have already given that kind of support in the past. If so, explore the examples together, because they might help you understand what it was that made the difference.
Create several ideas on how you could help your partner to satisfy her or his needs in the current situation. Seek and select an idea that is comfortable for both of you.
Agree on specific next steps. If you have found a solution, agree on specific steps you are going to take. If you haven’t found one yet one yet, agree to think about it and come back to it, specifying when.
Change the direction: It is your turn to say what you need and ask your partner for support.
How to prepare your partner first if needed
You can also have the talk in two steps. This might be suitable if you think the talk will require more time, or if the atmosphere between you two is not too collaborative right now and you want to improve that first.
The structure below has been inspired by so-called ‘giraffe language’, the principles of non-violent communication. In one of my other articles, you can read more about giraffe language and how to apply the same principles in order to improve relationships with your colleagues.
Here we will use giraffe language as inspiration to prepare your partner and ask for the talk.
Step 1: Introduce the topic and arrange a talk.
It is important that you have the main part of the talk when you both have time, privacy and a will to discuss the topic. That is why you can start with cross-checking with your partner when such a time might be. This is at the same time a good opportunity to prepare your partner and create a collaborative atmosphere.
Because “We need to talk” is a tricky introduction that would scare most of the world’s population away, consider using some other words.
“Look, I really care about being a supportive partner for you, but I noticed that my previous attempts did not seem to give you what you needed, and then I felt frustrated about it myself. I think that what could help us would be to talk about it openly: what you need from me, what I need from you, and how to do it so that you feel my support... Shall we try? ... When could we give it a few minutes?”
“I really need your support, and I can even see you have been trying to give it to me. But sometimes I seek different kinds of help, and then do not show much appreciation for what you have been doing for me. It is a pity, and I am wondering whether just talking through what we really need from each other... me from you, but also you from me... whether it might not help us both to feel better about the whole thing. Shall we try to talk about it? ... When would be a good time for you?”
The principle is: no blame, no hidden or blurry agenda, no unnecessary drama. Be clear, collaborative and optimistic about finding a solution.
Find your own words, using the following structure and examples for inspiration.
Name the agenda: repeat the point of the talk.
I would like to ask you for your support regarding...
I would like to support you in your situation regarding...
Say your observation: formulate it using “I”/ “We” (not “you”).
We have tried to support each other in this situation and we did not seem to meet each other’s needs. I then felt ... It made me wonder whether we could find a way that works better for both of us.
Acknowledge your part: there are always two parts in all relationship situations, so acknowledge your contribution (without throwing the whole responsibility either on your partner or on yourself).
Perhaps I was not clear myself about what I really needed.
Perhaps I did not appreciate what you actually did to support me in this.
Perhaps I didn’t realise that you were busy with your own things.
Maybe I was insisting on you doing a particular thing instead of explaining to you why it was so important to me.
Maybe I was trying to support you in the way that I thought would have been helpful for me if I had been in your shoes.
Maybe I guessed at what you needed instead of asking you.
Maybe I did it expecting huge appreciation from your side, although I knew you were too exhausted to give me that.
Appreciate the other side: find something you truly appreciate about your partner when it comes to support.
I know you have tried to support me, for example when you did...
I can see you have been putting effort / time into...
I remember and appreciate when you supported me in the past and gave me exactly what I needed, for example: .... It helped me a lot. I will never forget that.
Suggest a solution and ask your partner’s opinion on it
I would like to learn what you need from me and tell you what I think I need from you in this situation. I believe that if we do so, we can find a way.
What do you think? Shall we talk about our needs?
Agree on a time
When would be a good time for you?
Step 2: Move on to exploring your needs:
If agreed, you can continue exploring your mutual needs.
Your needs can be different from your partner´s needs. In demanding life situations, different things might help each of you best. Embrace those differences and communicate about them. The better you understand your and your partner´s needs, the better you can support each other.
Practice makes perfect, they say, and it will certainly apply to having this kind of talk, too. But why focus on some future perfection when you can already enjoy the journey and the partner with whom you are sharing all this?