Communication — 08 June 2007
How to support your partner’s emotional discomfort

It is often frustrating to have a mate be uncomfortable with a suggestion you made. Are partners who feel ill at ease with certain ideas or activities just being difficult or do their objections reflect a deeper concern that should be taken seriously?

The dilemma many people face is how to be true to their own wishes and at the same time be cooperative and sensitive to their partner’s needs. Asserting what you want may be seen as non-cooperative. Withholding your preferences may cause you to be controlled and develop resentments that are hazardous to your relationship.

Pia Melody, the author of Facing Codependence states that having “difficulty in owning one’s reality is one symptom in an impaired ability to sustain intimacy”. It begins, she claims, in one’s original dysfunctional family that disallowed children to be imperfect. The youngsters could either acquiesce to parental demand and be good and perfect or become bad and rebellious. This pattern, unless changed, plagues them in their adult relationships.

Healthy adults know what they prefer and are able to comfortably share their preferences with their mate neither in a submissive nor rebellious way. The former invites ongoing self-denial and resentments, the latter creates a child to parent interaction. Neither helps mates relate in a mature manner.

Yet, many partners shy away from expressing their true wishes in order to not appear uncooperative. They often will go along reluctantly and unhappily rather than start an argument and have to defend their position or feelings.

For example, a woman who stated that she was uncomfortable about the suggestion of going on a vacation with her husband’s sister and brother in law was questioned as to her reluctance. Her husband, interested in going on this trip, insisted on obtaining all her reasons, so he could remove the hurdles. He then labeled her objections as: silly, trivial, unfair and unreasonable. The wife ended up defending her emotions and reasons as she sank deeper into feeling misunderstood and disrespected.

I would like to propose that emotional discomfort should be treated with the same respect as physical malaise. If the wife had a physical reason for her discomfort about this trip, she may have been questioned less harshly and may have been treated with greater compassion and care.

Discomfort about a certain situation should not serve as an opportunity for changing that person’s reality, but rather as an invitation for concern and empathy.

When someone states that he/she is not feeling well, the partner usually asks about the nature of the discomfort, not in order to dissuade the mate from feeling the pain, but in order to be of greater assistance. The ill person feels supported and cared about rather than discounted and in need of changing. Even when the listener does not perceive the malady to merit the reaction, he or she is likely to respect the experience of the ill person and defer to the patient’s desires. The same process is recommended for emotional dis-ease.

The personal needs of the patient’s partner may be compromised but are usually handled with understanding and grace. It rarely happens that way when the pain is emotional.

• Most partners feel better when they can support the suggestions made by their mate.
• Understand that when your partner is not endorsing a certain idea wholeheartedly, s/he is most likely not being difficult – but is a person in distress.
• Respond with concern and acceptance. Say: “I understand and respect that you are uncomfortable with this option, how can I be of help to you about this?” Your mate will know if and how you may assist in making him/her more prone to this choice.

• Abstain from criticism or judgment about your mate’s discomfort. “It is silly for you to think that the people at the party will not like you” can be rephrased “I understand that you are uncomfortable with new people. In the past, people were very enamored by you as soon as they met you.”
• Attempting to solve the partner’s problem by removing the obstacles only further isolates your mate from you.
• Think of emotional discomfort as a valid and complex state equal to a medical one. Showing caring and concern is the behavior most becoming to a loving and supportive mate.
• Any personal inconvenience pales in comparison with your partner’s need for affirmation of his or hers physical or emotional wellbeing.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life.

Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions.

Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column “Relationship Matters” for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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