You might think that you’re pretty good at being supportive. You work hard. You compliment. You know when something’s up and are there for your spouse.
But it’s not really your call. When it comes to support, what you think is not necessarily what your partner feels.
It’s all about what they need, and if it wasn’t tricky enough, that can change regularly. What might have helped yesterday is not what will work today and might not be what’s wanted in an hour.
“Needs can be so different,” says Robin Norris, a marriage and family therapist in Virginia. “Some need action-oriented plans. Some need to be heard. It can be more complex than just being there for someone.”
So it leaves you with a question: what do you do? And what does being supportive look like? There isn’t one answer. But all of the right ones key in on paying attention, remaining flexible, and being willing to be uncomfortable, because when you’re called on for support, it usually means your partner is not at their best. Here are five things that help.
1. Just Ask What They Want
Yes, that’s it. Nothing more complex than opening with, “What do you need from me right now?,” says Orna Rawls, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Stratford, Connecticut. You’re not barging in. You’re not trying to offer a solution they didn’t ask for. And you’re definitely not trying to be the smartest person in the room by guessing the correct “answer”.
“We usually guess incorrectly because we think we’re more similar to our partner because we live with them, but we’re our unique selves,” Norris says.
So asking is good, but they still might not tell you because people who are stressed or upset aren’t always thinking clearly. If they’re stumped, lightly suggest, “Do you need … a hug, advice, cheerleading?” Just don’t overwhelm them with a list. The big thing is to let them set the pace and not be afraid of silence and feel the need to fill it.
“We don’t like blank space,” she says. “But that’s where people process.”
2. Confirm What You’re Hearing
Of all the answers to, “What would help?,” most likely the answer will be to listen. “Fifty percent of the time, you’ll find out they just need an ear,” Rawls says. “People feel supported when they feel heard.”
The same rules apply: Don’t be distracted. (Your phone? Put it down.) Make eye contact. Don’t interrupt. But there will be a time to talk, and before you do, make sure you understand what they’ve said. Often, Rawls says, this is what trips couples up, because there’s a figurative interpretation box sitting in between. Words go in, get filtered and heard differently; then it’s, “That’s not what I meant,” resulting in no connection.
What you do is paraphrase back and ask, “Is this what you meant?” If yes, the conversation continues. If the answer is no, you say it again and keep saying it until it’s what they meant. And this helps both sides. This is a chance for you to understand and your spouse might realize that they may be unclear on what they’re feeling.
3. Keep Checking In
You might be providing what was requested, but periodically, ask, “Is this working?” “Is this still working?” “Am I giving you what you’re looking for?” One thing to be careful of is using “help” and “support” interchangeably. They sound similar, but they can elicit different reactions. The former can imply weakness. The latter sounds like two people working together, which is why it’s good to check in and adjust if necessary.
“We’re not always going to get this right, but they trust that we’re trying,” Norris says.
4. Resist That Urge
You see them going down an unproductive path or convincing themselves of something you know won’t work. Unless they ask, keep it to yourself. “They need to come to that conclusion on their own,” Norris says. “It’s how we learn best.”
By not jumping in and trying to correct them, it also builds the essential element of trust because you’re accepting who they are and whatever they’re giving. If their ideas don’t make sense? Okay. If they’re snappy or grumpy? You can handle it.
“They’re coming at you in a vulnerable spot,” she says. “That doesn’t lend itself to the most positive emotions.”
But that doesn’t mean to take everything without question. If you don’t have the time or focus, it’s legitimate to say, “I can’t do it now but does 30 minutes work?” Being supportive rarely comes at a convenient time, but you don’t have to immediately jump.
“It’s humanly impossible,” Rawls says. “You can’t be on-call all the time.”
5. Ask If They Got What They Needed
Another question, yes. See the pattern here? Ask if they got what they needed, and, “Do you feel I heard you?,” Rawls says. Then file it away. There will be a next time and you can recall: They usually like flowers. Clean the dishes out of the sink. Rub their feet. You bank that stuff and it can short out tension when you sense it could be approaching.
Going forward, it’s looking for the chance to check in about their day, providing an outlet so stuff doesn’t build up. When they mention an issue, it might be worth saying, “Tell me more.” Rather than a question, these three words can make your partner feel instant support.
“It’s inviting,” Norris says. “There’s no ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s, ‘I want you to share more.’”