Being the best partner — 03 December 2011
Treat your mate’s emotions as you would his/her physical malaise

Why is it that even sensitive and caring spouses who are very attentive to their mate’s physical discomfort may not be as compassionate about emotional distress?

Why would a partner’s headache receive attention and concern, while sadness is dismissed?

When a mate expresses a need to eat, rest, sleep or be free of pain, the partner is naturally cooperative and helpful in facilitating these needs. There are usually no arguments about these requests since they are viewed as physiological necessities.

The reaction to statements about feeling hurt, disappointed, rejected, lonely or angry, are sometimes rebutted with minimizing or blaming retorts, even when the partner is not the source of the offense: “Why do you take it personally?” “It wasn’t meant to insult you” “Why are you so sensitive?” “There is no reason to be angry about this,” or “It’s all in your head.”

Our descriptive language labels some emotional reactions in physical terms: Rejection and exclusion “pains us.” We feel “wounded” by harsh words. We are “crushed” when betrayed and feel a “heartache” when spurned by a beloved.

These depictions are actually physiologically accurate according to UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, who found a “common neural alarm system for physical and social pain.” She adds, “Physical pain obviously serves a purpose: It’s uncomfortable and distressing, but it’s a signal that something’s wrong, that we need to take action to fix it, I think we can say the same about social pain: It motivates us to reconnect socially and avoid social rejection in the future.”

A 2003 study reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) states, “Imaging studies have revealed that the emotional pain of social rejection activates two brain regions that are also important in the response to physical pain. Activation of the right ventral prefrontal cortex appears to help dampen the distress of physical pain and social exclusion.”

Culturally, men have been trained to be strong and exhibit no emotion in reaction to both physical and social pain. It is understandable why men, more than women, may perceive emotional distress as a weakness that needs to be suppressed. It is also hard for both men and women to know how to best alleviate emotional pain of others and thus may tend to minimize and deflect it.

When your partner in in emotional pain:

  •  Realize that emotional pain is akin to physical pain and merits equal support and kindness.
  • Be as tender with your partner who is feeling hurt, rejected, lonely, excluded or disrespected as you would when he/she is hungry, thirsty, fatigued or in physical pain.
  •  Say, “ You were unfairly treated and I understand why you would be hurt. I feel sad about your pain.”
  • Ask how you can help and do it compassionately.
  • Provide comfort to your mate during physical or emotional distress. It is the loving way to support your partner, ease his/her pain and solidify your loving union.



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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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