How partners support each other and why this support is sometimes not received properly: solving problems, cheering up, and empathetic compassion
When our partner approaches us because they need support and feel pain, most partners respond with the right intention of care and support. Sometimes it is not so easy to know how we can most effectively support our partner in these moments.
Loving partners then often try to solve the problem. It is their way of showing care, support and love. Trying to solve the problem can be incredibly helpful. Another benevolent attempt is often to cheer up our partner or to find the positive in the situation, the silver lining. Unfortunately, it can also happen that our benevolent attempts do not have the hoped-for effect. Sometimes the intention is misunderstood, a dispute arises and it even worsens the emotional situation of our partner and our partner becomes more upset and feels worse.
Why can trying to solve the problem or to cheer someone up have the opposite effect or even aggravate the painful feeling?
It may be that our partner was instinctively looking for an empathic response from us at that moment - sometimes without knowing it. Then, when we try to solve the problem or cheer them up, they do get what they are looking for. Our partner then feels 'left hanging in a painful feeling'. They didn't get what they needed and what they were looking for. Our partner then protests and tries again to get what they are instinctively looking for. There is a protest and a discussion.
Under certain circumstances our partner then feels that we do not understand him and there is a distance between the lovers. Your partner then protests this distance loudly, because distance in a relationship feels painful.
The problem is that 'solving the problem or trying to cheer someone up' can feel un-empathetic. You express the opposite of what your partner feels and then isolate them even more with the terrible feeling. This can lead to your partner feeling even more lonely in this bad emotional situation and the feeling becoming even more painful.
It can also be viewed as a criticism as if they had not tried hard enough to solve the problem or seen the positive, as if they were not good enough. The partner may feel criticized or inadequate due to the approach. A protest of this perceived criticism can arise and we can get caught in a negative pattern.
Sometimes we partners feel powerless, because sometimes you can't solve the problem and can't cheer up someone up. For example, if an important person has died, you cannot replace them, find a solution to the pain, or say anything positive. At this moment we often forget that we can still do something and are not powerless. We are, indeed, quite powerful in this moment as we can keep our partner company and be empathetic for our partner. We should never underestimate the power that we have in making someone who loves us feel seen, loved, cared for, and how this can have an absolutely significant effect on their emotional well-being in that moment. Even if the initial response is crying, this may actually help our partner process the pain, alleviating the burden, and making them feel less lonely and less in pain.
Even if the methods listed above can all be helpful, sometimes it is not necessary to solve the problem or to look for encouragement, because what our partner sometimes simply needs and seeks is empathetic compassion.
This leads to confusion for some. Many think: 'What can I do if I'm just there? It doesn't help the other person. ' And: 'What does it mean to be there for someone with empathy?
What does 'having empathy for someone' mean and how does it help?
What does 'having empathy for someone' mean?
Often, just being there is incredibly helpful and supportive. Often, just being there is in itself the most empathetic way to be there for someone. However, empathy is, to put it more precisely, the willingness and ability to empathize with other people's perceptions or put yourself into other peoples` shoes accpeting their reality and emotions in a given situation even when we may feel differently. A synonym includes 'compassion'. Being empathic is a skill we humans all have, with a few exceptions that are mostly illness- or injury-related (e.g. psychopathy, brain injury...).
According to Theresa Wisemann's studies, empathy has four special characteristics:
• The characteristic of the perspective taking. So being empathic means accepting the other person's perspective or recognizing their perspective as their truth.
• The characteristic of remaining impartial. So empathic means not judging the other person for what they are going through or feeling.
• The characteristic of recognizing the other person`s feelings and communicating it to them: 'I see that you are afraid.'
• Feeling WITH the other person.
Going through a stressful situation alone is more painful than doing it with someone else's support. That is why the protagonists in horror films are always alone in particularly frightening situations. It becomes less frightening for two people together. Imagine that you are at school and should give a presentation to the class alone. That sounds extremely stressful for most people. When the teacher informs us that we should do this presentation with someone else after all, most of them experience some relief. Most people go to a scary and painful appointment in the hospital or at the dentist with the support of a loved one. To be alone in a stressful or painful situation means more stress than with someone else. Even a stranger can be a relief.
If we want to be there for someone most effectively, we not only go with them physically, as in the situations described above, but we also go into the emotional situation of the person without judgment and support. We dive into the emotional world and the perspective of the other and feel with them. A common metaphor here is the black, deep hole. Our partner is at the bottom of a black, deep hole that represents his despair, pain, and fear. If we react empathically, we perceive that and ask the other person if they would like to describe their situation to us so that we can empathize with it. Being empathic is also a vulnerable process, because we then connect our emotional world with a feeling that is similar to what the other person is going through. So we climb into this hole so as not to leave our partner alone in their emotional world. Being empathic not only means that I come with you to the doctor's appointment that scares you, but I also take in how this situation feels emotionally for you, sympathize with you, and express this without judgment: 'I know that the situation scares you and that is normal and okay'. So our partner is not only not alone in the situation, but also not alone in the emotional situation. We have someone who is physically with us and we have someone who is psychologically with us.
And how does that help?
Empathic compassion leads to connection
Sometimes we feel alone, even though we are in the middle of a large group of people or in a romantic relationship. However, if someone else empathizes with our perception and emotional world, we no longer feel so alone. We go from feeling lonely to feeling connected. Empathic compassion is a catalyst for connection. In order not to feel lonely in the middle of a large crowd or in a romantic relationship, we need others to see and understand us, and that is exactly what empathy does. We feel connected when others see our inner world and reacts lovingly. In the long run, this bond builds deeper human bonds that are vital to us and protect us from stress. In the long run, we then learn to trust the people who give us empathic compassion and establish deeper ties with them. These people are important to us. Not only is it vital to have other people in our lives, it is also vital that we have other people in our lives who understand and see us and with whom we have a closer bond. We need a small group of people that we can trust to be there and understand us when we are in need. We usually don't have many people with whom we create such deep bonds, but they are the ones we have learned to trust - through their empathy and being there. Empathic compassion signals us 'I see you, I understand you, I am there for you'. The more often we get this signal from someone else, the more often we have received the signal that I can trust this person.
Oppositely, the feeling of loneliness is painful and our body produces stress hormones. People who feel lonely for a long time even have an increased mortality rate - comparable to smokers and overweight people (Rico-Uribe et al., 2018). The opposite of loneliness is connectedness. Connections are important for our health and well-being. We need this feeling of connection to stay healthy. In fact, it should not be underestimated how big the effects of good interpersonal relationships have on our feeling of happiness. According to the following long-term study, close, qualitative, interpersonal relationships were the most important factor that made people decisively happy (What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness | Robert Waldinger https://www.youtube.com/watch? v = 8KkKuTCFvzI).
Other people help us regulate our feelings
In addition to being able to create a powerful sense of connectedness through empathy in our relationship, empathic compassion from others in a stressful situation helps us regulate ourselves. By giving your partner the signal 'you are not alone, I am there for you, you do not have to be so afraid' through your empathetic compassion, you are also regulating his feelings. The concept of co-regulation ('' co-regulation '') is little known, but plays an important role. We regulate our feelings through self-regulation and through co-regulation. Self-regulation means that we regulate our emotions alone and coregulation means that others help us regulate our emotions. Coregulation can be seen very clearly in parents who calm their crying baby. They look into their baby's eyes, stroke them, weigh them, sing for them - they regulate their feelings. As adults, others also us regulate our feelings. You can see that in the following example. The psychologist, Dr. James Coan, has placed people in an MRI scanner to monitor their brain activity while receiving electrical shocks. When someone else was holding the participant´s hand, the emotional regions of the brain such as the hypothalamus, insula, and ACC, were less active. Touching someone else allowed the participants to regulate their feelings. This regulation is how Dr. Sue Johnson has found particularly effective on happy couples who feel connected. This social regulation of feelings also seems to be a simpler, less energy-consuming way of regulating our feelings than self-regulation is. Self-regulation is a topic that has been studied a lot in psychological research and is generally controlled via the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the region in our brain that sits directly behind our forehead and, generally speaking, is the seat of our self-discipline. The prefrontal cortex becomes active in moments of self-regulation and regulates brain activity in the regions of the brain where feelings such as the hypothalamus arise. With social regulation, as in the example of the experiment in which someone holds the participant's hand in the MRI scanner while receiving electrical shocks, it was expected that the regulatory mechanism would be an increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the activity in the affective brain regions such as the hypothalamus, insula and ACC - because this is how the self-regulation mechanism works. But no! The prefrontal cortex was less active, nothing happened in the prefrontal cortex or any other region that might have mediated the regulatory effects of the emotional regions. There were no mediators of regulation. This led Dr. James Coan on the assumption that the normal functioning of humans is that it is normal for us to be in a group. It is unusual for us to be alone and to regulate our feelings alone. And if you look at the population, people live in very different ways - but the constant is that we somehow live with other people everywhere. We regulate each other - that's the easy way to regulate ourselves, it happens easily. None of the self-regulatory systems in the brain are relevant to the social regulation of each other's feelings. We don't know the exact mechanism of social emotion regulation yet, but it looks like self-regulation is the more energy-consuming and difficult way to regulate our emotions - with self-regulation, we need so much activity in our brains in the prefrontal cortex around the emotional regions to regulate. We don't need that when it comes to co-regulation. So we make it easier for our partner to regulate by showing them that they are not alone. We seem to be making it easier for him to regulate his feelings. It is obvious that our partner should seek out our empathic response, because it is so difficult to regulate themselves and they need our presence to make it easier for them to do so.
Empathy for validation and as a positive answer to the instinctive question: 'Is my partner there for me when I need him?'
Robert Chialdinis pioneered this theory of social validation and explained that if we are not sure, we will turn to others to guide or validate us. And we do that automatically and unconsciously. This happens not only to help us solve a problem or cheer us up, but also to feel validated and not in the wrong. If we are unsure, it feels good to be validated - to be told by someone else that we are not crazy and that the other person understands that it is a scary situation.
In the context of a partnership, your partner may approach you in a stressful situation and look for empathetic compassion to find confirmation that 'my partner is there for me when I need him or that I am not going crazy and this is a normal reaction'. Reacting empathetically and lovingly at this moment can signal the partner exactly what they need. Namely: 'I am there for you when you need me'.
In a partnership in particular, it is important that we do not feel alone. When we feel connected we are healthier and happier. That is why our partner instinctively looks for empathic compassion from us and that is why empathic compassion is one of the most important supports that we can give them - even if it sometimes makes us feel like we are not changing anything. We give our partner the signal 'you are not alone, I am there for you, you do not have to be so afraid'. We release our partner from a feeling of loneliness with a bad feeling, and we help them regulate their feelings. People's nervous systems are not designed to regulate themselves constantly. We need other people to regulate us every so often. We look to other people to understand our reality and to give us validation. So the next time your partner comes to you to look for support, remember that they may be looking for empathic compassion to feel validated and better regulated. Do not underestimate the healing power of your being there and your empathic compassion at that moment.