Your partner comes to you stressed out. You want to help her; make things better. So, you start making suggestions on what she should do. She replies,
“I don’t need you to fix it, I just need you to listen!”
You feel at a loss as to what to do; you thought you were being helpful. Confused and hurt, you become quiet. She continues,
“Here we go. I try to talk with you about things and you just shut down or don’t respond. You can’t just be there for me.”
A common complaint I hear from individuals is that they just want their partners to ‘be there’ for them. It sounds so easy, but it’s actually a learned skill.
What does ‘being there’ mean?
‘Being there’ is about giving emotional support to your partner so she doesn’t feel alone. We are talking about the experience of feeling heard, seen, and understood by another.
Although the words ‘being there’ suggest it’s about being physically present, we can actually be thousands of miles apart and still show our partners we are ‘there’ for them. Likewise, we can be sitting right next to them, talking to them, and they can experience that we are not there for them at that moment.
How? Because it’s not about physical proximity, it’s about being emotionally available and responsive to your partner so that she doesn’t feel alone.
How can I ‘be there’ for my partner?
People often use the phrase, “I understand.” to try to convey they are emotionally ‘there’ for their partners. It’s ok to use that phrase some, but there are other tools to use that will actually SHOW you understand and are ‘there’ for her. All of these skills are components of active listening.
Summarizing demonstrates to your partner you are listening and taking in what she’s saying. After a chunk of information or in a natural pause, consolidate what you just heard with, “So you’re saying…” or “What I am hearing is…” and then a short summary.
You may mishear, and summarize incorrectly. That is ok too. She may clarify and know you are trying. If this keeps happening, though, she will end up feeling misheard.
So if you keep missing the mark, assess what is happening (maybe you are nervous, she is giving mixed messages, or you are trying to summarize too much information and are forgetting things). Don’t give up! Summarizing is an excellent tool to show your partner very clearly that you are present, listening, and are ‘just there’ for her.
Listening and then reflecting on how that experience would have been for you, such as “That must have felt…”or “I imagine you were thinking…” demonstrates empathy for your partner. It is possible that your empathetic reflection is different than what your partner experienced. But, you are showing your partner that you are listening and trying to imagine and understand her internal experience. That is a big part of ‘being there’ for her.
Your partner knows that you are present and ‘there’ when you ask questions relevant to the topic. Questions that begin with ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘who‘ are questions that encourage dialogue and convey interest in communicating. (Example below):
You: “How did that feel?”
Partner: “It made me feel really sad.”
You: “I bet. What happened then?’
Try to minimize ‘yes/no’ or ‘cornering questions‘, as these can actually shut down the conversation and can lead to a sense of awkwardness or disconnection with your partner.
You: “Did that hurt your feelings?”
You: “Oh…” (And then a long awkward pause).
It’s exactly this sense of disconnection that can trigger your partner to wonder if you are there for her, so think about the questions before you ask.
Giving the space to speak
A big part of ‘being there’ is making room for your partner to express what is happening with her. This means giving her space to answer after you ask her a question. Really!
If she is used to you ‘not being there’, she may wait a bit to see if you are going to jump in and talk before she can respond or if you might get distracted. So…if you ask a question, give space, wait, and stay with her emotionally. If there’s no response after a bit of time, reassure her you will wait for her answer, “It’s ok, we have time and I really want to know…”
It also can mean just sitting with her and not interrupting as she voices her thoughts or expresses her emotions. It can be really hard to not jump in, sometimes we just want to FIX it so badly (or we think we see the obvious solution so easily)! Allowing the space for your partner to express is a great way to show that you are listening and are ‘there’ for her.
How Do I know if I’m doing it right?
Look at your partner’s responses for cues. Positive physical responses you may see include her facial expressions softening, improved eye contact, moving closer, and nodding her head. Positive verbal responses you may notice include her voicing things with more detail and deeper emotions or comments like “Exactly.” after your comments/responses.
If you are not seeing these cues and are wondering, go ahead and ask! Acknowledge this is a new skill for you and you are trying to learn how to do this in an effective way for her. Just beware, if you ask how you are doing, be open to to the feedback.
When should I do this?
Try to consciously use your skills when your partner is expressing an explicit need for your emotional support. If she says “I just need to be heard.” or “I just need for you to listen and be here for me right now.” she is sending the signal she really wants you ‘to be there’ for her and needs you to use these skills.
A less obvious time is when you see your partner emotionally struggling and you have an urge to dive in and fix things for her. If you feel that impulse and are not sure, ask. You could say “Part of me wants to tell you what I think but I’m wondering if just listening would be more helpful?” Follow her feedback.
Amazingly enough, ‘just being there’ is a great tool to use to ‘fix things’ when your partner is struggling!
I know this is difficult
For some people, expressing emotions, listening, and staying present during emotional turmoil is easy. For others, it isn’t. If it’s not easy for you, I encourage you to do the activity below with your partner. If this is easy for you, be compassionate while your partner learns and practices this skill.
This article and activity below are designed to give you tools and strategies to make your relationships and connections better. If you would like individualized work on your relationship, read how I help couples or contact me. I want you to succeed!
Activity: Making Time to ‘be There’
Have a conversation to set up some guidelines for practicing this. This is a new skill and will take practice and patience. Guidelines might include such things as:
- Creating a consistent time for these conversations.
- If something comes up during the week, discussing it during the set time.
- Agreeing on the length of these conversations (doing these for long periods can be exhausting, so maybe a maximum of 20 minutes).
- Giving positive feedback to one another. Acknowledging what you each did that helped in this process.
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Feel free to comment below on how this activity was for you or to ask questions.
Remember, I want you to succeed!