when our partner is in crisis

How to Love Someone Who Is Struggling: Relationship Building Skills

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We all come into relationships with our issues. Some of us have done a ton of work on getting our shit together. Some of us have not done as much work. When we begin to feel the imbalance in our romantic relationships there are some healthy practices we can lean into so we don’t lean too far into attempting to rescue this other person.

RELATIONSHIP TRUTH: You are not a firefighter, you cannot save the other person. And, in fact, running into the burning building may kill both of you.

healthy boundaries

How to Establish Your Healthy Boundaries

  • your health and your happiness are the only parts of the relationship you can control
  • the other person’s issues and triggers may have very little to do with you
  • even if you are their trigger, you do not want to become their target
  • it is your responsibility to stay out of their shit
  • you can maintain closeness and openness even when things are difficult
  • you can offer loving support and connection without being drawn into the burning building
  • you have to give up on your need for them to change, they may not ever change
  • you can offer suggestions only when they are requested (unsolicited advice is never okay)
  • giving the other person space to process, or giving yourself space to process is healthy
  • you must stand up when you are being hurt, even in a crisis, it is okay to push back
  • stay connected by asking them for what they need and showing up as you are able

Here’s the message: another person’s crisis is not yours to fix. The Coldplay song, “Fix You” is not a healthy example. Our healthy role is not to FIX the other person but to stay solid and connected in within our own healthy boundaries. Another person’s crisis is not an excuse for them to treat you with disrespect. They are not allowed to lash out in their pain in an attempt to ignite you as well. The burning building is toxic to everyone inside. It is our responsibility to encourage our partners to take care of themselves, and to provide a safe refuge should they reach out for help.

Maintaining a Curious Approach

When things are not going well, it can become easy to jump to conclusions, to predict and fantasize about the demise of the relationship. These are projections and are not helpful in navigating what is actually happening. Our job is to be curious about the situation and curious about future events as they happen. If we can maintain our curiosity it gives us a mindful perspective. If we can remain curious we can become observers of what’s actually happening, what is real.

Feelings Are Just Indicators

Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s real. What we tend to do in our intimate relationships is to begin listening to our feelings and allow them to color the reality of what’s happening. Our feelings are important, but they inform us more about ourselves and our reactions to the behaviors and events in our relationships, rather than bring objective information into our understanding of what’s happening. When we allow our feelings to overrun reality we begin to move away from what IS to what we FEEL. It’s a helpful distinction. And it’s helpful to put the feelings back in their place. Feelings are just indicators of our emotional state, our emotional reaction to what’s happening. They contain a lot of information for examination, but don’t necessarily reflect the state of the relationship at that moment.

When Feelings Overwhelm Our Reality

It’s hard to be in a relationship when someone else is going through a crisis. It’s hard to keep our distance when they need time and space. It’s especially hard for us empathic people, us “touch” Love Language people, to give our partners alone time. We experience our own pain, our own aloneness when we’re not in contact with our partners. And… It’s okay to be alone. It’s okay to ask for alone time. In fact, it’s important in any relationship to make sure you are getting some time by yourself to reset and recenter your personal identity. It’s not easy, but it’s essential to spend time apart from your beloved.

When our feelings of loss and loneliness begin to feel overwhelming, it’s a good indicator that we need some space ourselves. If we are not allowed to run into the burning building to attempt a rescue, then our responsibility is to care for ourselves while we wait in the periphery. This can involve our own feelings of loss and abandonment. This can also be a response to our feelings of being out of control. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know how things are going to work out. We’re on the edge of the unknown and we don’t like it.

But we’re the only ones who can manage our emotions. We’ve got to make healthy decisions in spite of how we are feeling about our partner’s situation. Sometimes those decisions may involve taking some space to allow ourselves to calm down. Watching a partner in crisis is very stressful. We’ve got to take care of ourselves in the same ways we’d like to provide comfort and support for our distant partners. What are the things you can do, when you’re overwhelmed, to care for yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually?

The 6th Love Language is Distance

A recent article on Medium outlined how “distance” might indeed be a new love language. Here’s the article (The 6th Love Language: Distance)

The highlights are this:

Solitude brings a peace of mind you can’t get any other way.

You can give them what they need.

The best way to show someone you love them is to do exactly what my friend’s husband did. Understand when they’re stressed, or socially tired. You don’t always have to plan a big vacation. You can go into a different room. You can grab a coffee, or hang out with your friends for an afternoon. You can go to bed a little early, or let them stay up late without making them feel guilty about it. Tell them when you’re doing it, and explain why. You can even come up with a schedule if that helps you communicate better. The main thing is to trust them, that they’re asking for time because they need it — not because they don’t love you enough.

When we take a break for ourselves we’ve got to let the other person know what’s going on. When our partners mention, “Hey, I feel like something has changed,” we’ve got to share from our heart what is going on. Here’s how that might sound.

“I love you and I know you are going through a lot right now. I’m going to make a commitment to you about reducing stress in our lives together rather than increasing stress. Even if it means giving up something (time with you) that I want. Even if it means I am going to feel sad and lonely, I can understand that your situation doesn’t really involve me. It’s okay. I’m pulling back my needs to support your need for space and time by yourself.”

When we give the reassurance and then establish a healthy boundary around the current crisis, we allow our partners to have three things they need, even if they don’t know it’s what they need.

  1. Time alone to process their own lives
  2. A partner who loves them enough to let them go (for an hour or a month)
  3. A commitment to de-escalate “issues” in the relationship.

Holding Our Partner From a Distance

What your partner needs is a loving and supportive partner with very low demands. It might be hard to give this, especially if you’re a touch-focused person like I am. But this is what is required to love a person. We’ve got to let them escape their own burning buildings. We’ve got to let them process their pain and their eventual growth, without our interference, but with our loving support.

It feels counterintuitive to give someone space who needs our support. But that’s just our own needs coming up to let us know how connected we are, and how much we want things to be different. The space will be good for us too. It’s not easy to let go of our loving partners, and give them the room to suffer and process alone. We think we might be the remedy, the balm, the love that will heal them. We are not. Healing and growth come from within each of us. Your partner has got to find their own way out of the burning building.

The Truth About Supporting a Partner: When they see your smiling face and open arms as they emerge from the dark place, they will be grateful for your patience, loving kindness, and remote support. And you will be stronger and healthier as you have stood alone and agreed to love them even in their difficult times.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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