Helping Your Partner With 'Complicated Family'–VIDEO/BLOG

‘Complicated’ family.

You probably have your own strategies for when you see your more ‘difficult’ relations. Seeing your partner struggle, though, through painful family drama can trigger a myriad of emotions in you: helplessness, frustration, isolation, and disconnect; to name a few.

You want to help your partner (which indirectly, will also help you), but are not sure how. This video/blog gives some concrete suggestions. For further ideas, I suggest you read my blog “How to be There for Your Partner”.

**A written (and mildly modified) version of the video can be read below.


Hello, my name is Bri McCarroll and I am the founder and primary therapist for New England Hold Me Tight. I help couples, through both retreats and workshops, to connect and communicate more authentically and on a deeper level in their relationships


Today, I want to talk about one of the challenges of holidays: when we have to interact with ‘complicated’ family members and the strain that it puts on our relationships. I think all of us have an understanding of what that’s like.  It can be really overwhelming for your partner but also overwhelming for you to see your partner struggle with family.  So I just want to give me a few ideas how to address that, because it’s real and it’s part of our human existence.

That being said, I want to encourage that you refer to a blog I wrote (it’s not a video).  It’s called “How to Be There for Your Partner.”  It’s on my blog and videos page.  Check that out; that will be helpful for you with this topic.

“Complicated’ Family Impacts You and Your Partner

Let’s start by imagining your partner has this complicated family dynamic coming up. Maybe it’s not even the holidays, maybe it’s something like a family visit, seeing family over some medical situation or someone passed and there’s going to be a funeral.  Whatever the circumstance, you know that a family ‘dynamic’ is coming up and you know your partner is going to be more vulnerable.

Your Partner May Become More Reactive

First of all, let’s think about this.  When your partner is more vulnerable, what may happen? He may be more reactive. When we are feeling more vulnerable, our defenses are going to go up.  This is biology, so we get that.  With our defenses up, we are more inclined to be reactive. And in that reactivity, although it might really be about the family issue, we might end up reacting to our partners.

Appreciate that your partner may be more reactive. So be thoughtful about that. 

Your Partner May Be Less Available For You

Understand that your partner may not be so present for you. Your partner is already using a lot of resources to handle things emotionally on his own.  So even though you may need him as well and maybe you are feeling awkward or uncomfortable in this family situation, your partner doesn’t have a lot of resources to share with you on that situation.  He is using a lot of his resources on his own stuff.  Because he may not be so available.

I’m going to encourage that, you, knowing that and knowing this ahead of time, that you try to find other resources.  Try not to tax your partner right now when he is already taxed.

You Can Make a Difference

Help Your Partner Process the Feelings and Thoughts

Your partner may very well have all kinds of emotions and thoughts coming up.  He is not going to know what to do with them and he’s going to need to be able to express them in some way but may not know how to do so.  That’s when your ‘being there’ is really relevant.

Invite Conversation With Open Questions

I encourage you reach out to your partner every once in a while–before, during, and after the family interaction.  Say, “Hey would it be helpful that we talk?” or “I know this is complicated; why don’t we just kind of chill out and connect a little bit?”  

Do some invitations, and if he receives that, then start asking some of the “wh” questions (who/what/where/when/why/how) that are really opening questions to start a conversation.  Don’t use ‘cornering questions’, nor ‘yes/no’ questions.  You want to use opening questions like, “So what is this like for you?” or “How is it to see ‘so-and-so’?”

I know you’re not a therapist or maybe you are a therapist but I know it’s hard to be a therapist in your own relationship so I want you to think proactively what questions you could be asking that tend to open up conversations.  Think about that and practice a little bit.

Respond to Your Partner

When he responds to your questions, say things like, “Oh, that makes sense.  I can imagine for you it’s like blah blah blah.”  Show empathy

If you can’t show empathy or it doesn’t really make sense (and you’re kind of confused), if nothing else, just summarize what he said “So you’re saying blah blah blah, am I getting that right?” 

It’s OK If You Are Not Perfect

No matter what, you are trying to help your partner express and share part of his experience.  That will be helpful as it will reduce his distress.  As his stress is reduced, this helps you how? He will not be so on guard, as defensive.  Especially if you have had his back, he will be more willing and able to be vulnerable to you and connect with you

Again, what is this all about?  It’s about you guys connecting together again!

Putting It All Together

So again, if your partner is facing some dicey family interactions, three things I want you to do:

First of all, remember your partner might be a bit more reactive or defensive; he doesn’t have as many resources. If he is already a little anxious about family, he might be more reactive with you.  So be kind and be more patient, because your partner needs you to be that way.

Second of all, although you might be anxious and apprehensive and have all kinds of your own emotions, realize your partner may not be so available.  So try not to tax him; try to find other supports

Third, try to help your partner process what’s going on.  In the end, he really needs for you to have his back; he needs you to do that.  He may have a hard time asking and not know how to ask or express his emotions and thoughts. 

That’s when you need to use your little therapist skills and approach him.  See if he’s in any way, shape, or form, willing to talk.  If he is, use those open questions, those ‘wh’ questions.  “How do you feel?”, “What’s going on?”, or “What’s it like?”  When he responds, use empathy, validation, and summarize.

I’m going to make a therapist out of you yet; we’re working on your right?  Because by you doing that, what happens?  You are going to connect and in the end, that’s what we want. 


Your Turn

For an activity, I encourage that you look at that blog “How to Be There for Your Partner.”  It’s on my blogs and videos webpage.  Check it out, because it will give you some ideas on other ways to be helpful and supportive to your partner when he is struggling.

Take good care, share this, ask me questions, respond about things on the video–it’s all good.  I want to hear from you.

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