Recently, I was riding in the car with my very spirited three-year-old. I had picked her up early from a play date to race across town. She was very distressed to leave her friend and let me know all about her distress through high-pitched screams. I knew she needed some comfort, a calming voice, and a nurturing tone to help comfort her in her distress.
Do you know what I noticed? It was so hard to give her the comfort she needed because I was having such a strong reaction inside of me. The sound of her cries alone created feelings of angst and anxiety in me. I was also feeling frustration and anger that she had created such a scene as I carried her kicking and screaming out of her friend’s house.
In the moment she was in distress and needed the comfort of her mother, I had to work very hard to manage my own emotions to lean in and appropriately comfort her.
As a therapist, it is easy to lean in and provide comfort, reassurance, and understanding to my clients. The reason it is so easy is that I am not the source of their pain. As they speak of the pain, usually caused by other people or situations in their lives, I can easily elicit feelings of compassion and care without defensiveness. I can do so because there is not a complicated storm of emotion inside of me.
Have I Caused Pain?
When you are the one who caused the pain, and when the hurt in your partner is a result of your actions, the process of offering comfort and compassion is much more complicated. When couples come in to therapy, it is usually because there is hurt between them. Usually, they have been unable to find comfort, care, and compassion in their partner to ease the hurt. They may often conclude that the reason their partner is not able to be there for them in the way they need is either that their partner doesn’t care or that they aren’t capable.
There is a good reason providing comfort can be difficult. Hurting your partner, the one that you love, feels awful. It can be brutally hard to think about, hear about, or see the tears, anger, and pain in your partner and know it’s been caused by you.
Addressing the Pain in Therapy
I remember a couple who came to therapy due to the husband’s affair. His wife was so hurt and angry that whenever she brought up her pain, he would shut down, leave the room, or tell her she “needed to get over it.”
When asked about his reactions to his wife, he told me “When she brings it up, she is reminding me of the worst thing I have ever done. It can be unbearable to think about.” It can be extremely difficult, and sometimes requires the help of a therapist, to help manage emotions of shame, guilt, and fear when you have hurt your partner. To be there for one’s partner in a comforting and healing way, it is necessary to manage these strong emotions within oneself.
It can be extremely difficult, and sometimes requires the help of a therapist, to help manage emotions of shame, guilt, and fear when you have hurt your partner.
How to Provide Comfort: 6 Tips
1. Recognize how much your partner needs you. When you are the source of your partner’s pain, it can be easy to think “I’ve caused your pain, I’m the last person you want to comfort you.” Exactly the opposite is often true. If you have caused pain in your partner, you can be one of the most helpful people in comforting that pain.
2. Find a support person. It can be a difficult, daunting, and frustrating process to rebuild and repair a relationship after major hurts have occurred. Your efforts to make things better may be rejected or criticized by your hurting spouse. You may need a therapist to help you manage your emotions of shame, frustration, hopelessness, and rejection in order to keep showing up for your partner in a comforting way. Also, if you feel stuck in your efforts to repair hurts in your relationship, you may need a couples therapist to help guide you.
3. Be flexible with what your partner needs. One day your partner may need to be left alone. The next they may need to be held. When there have been relational hurts, these needs can change by the hour or the day. There is often not a single, foolproof approach that works. Be willing to adapt your approach as your partner’s needs change.
4. Learn what comfort feels like for your partner. There are a lot of ways to provide comfort for your partner. According to Dr. Sue Johnson, physical and emotional closeness from our partner is one of the most powerful ways to experience comfort. Physical closeness can be achieved through being held, hugged, holding hands, or cuddling. Emotional closeness can include the following:
- Providing reassurance: “I love you,” “I am here for you,” “I’m not going anywhere.”
- Validating the hurt: “Of course this hurt you deeply.”
- Understanding the hurt: “Tell me more about what you are going through.”
- Hearing the hurt: “You can tell me how you feel. I want to know.”
- Showing remorse: “I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m so sorry you are going through this.”
A great place to start is, “When you are hurting like this, what helps the most? What do you need from me right now?”
5. Express a willingness to do whatever it takes. It can be easy to feel like there is nothing you can do to make this better. You may think, “Anything I say only makes things worse” or “I don’t know what to do to make things better.” It can be comforting for your hurt partner to hear “I’m not sure how to help, but I know I want to help.” Let them know that although you might not always know how, you want to make things better, and you are willing to learn how to do that.
6. Open up. Expressing your emotions and showing vulnerabilities may not be your strong suit. However, it can be comforting for your hurting partner to know you are hurting too, and that they are not in this hurt alone. It can be very healing for your partner to hear and see that you hurt because they hurt.
Johnson, S., (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
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