Supporting Friends and Partners During Tough Times

Tactics for Navigating Tough Situations with Partners and Friends

By: Reyna Gobel

When we talked to Ned Johnson, founder of test-preparation company PrepMatters, co-author with a neuropsychologist of  “What Do You Say? How to Talk With Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home,” we wanted to know how the same theories could apply in making our home happy and supportive for our friends and adult partners.

He gave us the following tips:

Don’t Minimize Hard Feelings.

Don’t brush off what your spouse, partner, or friend says by saying “Don’t worry about it!” or that the problem will work itself out. You don’t know how it feels to them until you ask. Their hard feelings aren’t about you, and they may rebel against your thoughts or go completely silent if they don’t sense empathy. Instead, use active / reflective listening techniques to repeat back what they say and make sure they feel heard. Don’t offer solutions until the emotional charge is lowered. If calm can’t be achieved in one sitting, come back to the conversation later. 

Don’t Fake Your Own Resilience

Nobody likes a perfect person. The good news? Most of us aren’t. When you are having a tough time, share it. Give the other person a chance to practice reflective / active listening with you and problem solve together when needed.

Check in Once in a While

It’s very common for people to need space when dealing with a difficult situation. If they aren’t ready to deal with the situation, check in every few days or so – depending on the situation’s urgency.  Then use the other skills.

Note: Urgency is relative. Especially if the situation has such a serious consequence as lost job potential, you may feel the need to check in earlier. You can, but proceed with caution. It may be a good idea to say something, but it isn’t a good idea to force solutions.

Don’t Infantilize Them. 

Handling something for someone can create learned helplessness where they will always count on you to solve the situation.  Instead, you have to make peace with the fact that you can’t step in every time and accept that sometimes they may fail. It’s the old serenity prayer of accept the things you can’t change. Also, make sure you aren’t working harder than the other person. You can’t change what they aren’t ready to.

Remember the Explore Phase.

If you comfort your friend or partner, they feel good in the short term. Long-term satisfaction is based on helping them explore options and find a good solution. You can open the door to exploration by making suggestions when they are ready. Just make sure you are asking them what they want and confirm their choices before starting to move forward with them to a plan of action.  

Don’t Ask Them to Get Rid of Friends.

Everyone has at least one friend from childhood that is always going to the devil on their shoulder no matter how good of an angel you are. If you try to get rid of said friend, you may find yourself out the door or in constant conflict. Instead, just ask them about the advice they gave and get information. Listening is good, but you don’t have to agree with them.

Remember, Temper Can Be a Manifestation of Anxiety

When someone tries to push you away when you are trying to help, it’s often a manifestation of anxiety. Calm the energy whether it’s by listening or giving them space to cool tempers. Otherwise, they’ll double down on bad behaviors such as excessive drinking, etc. 

Bottomline: We’re All Rats on a Wheel

In a study rats were shocked and one rat learned that running on the wheel stops the shock. The other didn’t. So rat A was tethered to rat B to stop the shock for both rats. Rat B still had anxiety because it didn’t know how to stop the shock itself. We all have to learn that there will eventually be a way to stop the shock ourselves, Rat A may teach rat B but being tethered doesn’t often solve things.