How Can I Help Your Flooding When I’m Barely Treading Water Myself?

Young couple sitting back-to-back on opposite ends of sofa, looking sad and thoughtful. Recently I saw a couple who perfectly illustrated a common quandary. Both individuals lead busy lives. They are doing their best to juggle the everyday demands of life—a particularly hectic work patch for one, family stressors coupled with financial worry for the other. Each is somewhat consumed with their respective stressors. Neither partner is sleeping well, and they both report feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, and general irritability.

I could tell we weren’t going to gain traction if I asked either to listen to the other and/or to have compassion out of the gates. Rather, each person needed some TLC all their own. When members of a couple are in this state of emotional flooding or preoccupation, it’s nearly impossible for them to access the caring, giving, and curious parts of their being. It’s like the plane is going down and all they can think about is saving themselves.

I recognized we would have to take a different tack to sail this particular course. Taking turns, I asked each partner to give me a summary of their chief stressors. What is going on that is making them vibrate with angst? This gives a couple a place to anchor their frustration.

After each person finished, I asked them to tell me the feelings that were attached to events or complaints. I prompted them with their own examples, and they reported the difficult feelings that were hanging over them like an albatross. Staying with the complaints themselves keeps partners distanced and reinforces a degree of competition over who has it worse. Once we added the feelings, I saw each partner soften toward the other. They were interested in the other’s struggle. Feelings are something they can relate to, sympathize with, and move toward.

When members of a couple are in this state of emotional flooding or preoccupation, it’s nearly impossible for them to access the caring, giving, and curious parts of their being. It’s like the plane is going down and all they can think about is saving themselves.

One partner then offered up a desire to help the other—solicited an ask for what they needed. This created an opening. They were then able to say what they needed in specific terms. We have to be careful that this doesn’t become a marching order or a promise, but rather ideas of how they can show up and be helpful when their partner is struggling. Having their own difficulties known—first to themselves and then to another—makes them more available to be of service, to connect.

Another element that can help shift the energy is humor. It wasn’t a realistic option when they walked in door. Both were mired in their own discomfort. They were guarded and bleary-eyed. However, during this late-middle stage of the session, humor has a place. Each person feels more grounded and aware of what is happening for the other. When we can find humor about something neutral, it can be a bonding agent to help them find a thin string that reconnects them. It can make them feel together again in something and allows the guarded self to relax ever so slightly. I could tell humor was working when they nodded and chuckled as the statements were happening.

I could also tell they felt a degree of relief we didn’t get into a heavy discussion—one that might include critique of them vis-à-vis the other. Neither partner was resourced enough on this day to have that kind of session. And that is okay. I saw the session as useful in that each party left feeling a degree of relief from their own stressors and a renewed hope or willingness to connect with the other.

In fact, a couple showing up at all for another session is a signal they want the relationship to improve. Otherwise, they could find countless other pressing priorities. Starting with this assumption, no matter how heated they arrive, helps us move forward with a spirit of hopefulness.

If you and your partner are struggling to connect, consider contacting a trained couples counselor.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jenn Kennedy, LMFT, therapist in Santa Barbara, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Tomi

    Tomi

    July 31st, 2017 at 12:06 PM

    We are both supposed to be there for each other, and if we aren’t then that really isn’t much of a marital team.

  • Laken

    Laken

    August 3rd, 2017 at 1:31 PM

    I agree with you and definitely know that there are days when I just need that extra little TLC and then there are those days when he needs it a little but more than I do. In any relationship there has to be some give and some take but things are never going to work out well if you are always the one doing all of the giving or all of the taking. You have to be aware of the needs of your significant other, and know when you can let things slide a little so you can give them the attention and comfort that they need right now. If you do that for him or her then there is a greater likelihood that when the day comes when you need the extra love and care, they will be there for you.

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