It can often be harder seeing our partner go through difficult times than experiencing it ourselves. With difficult times come strong emotions. We can feel helpless in the face of these emotions and not know what to say or do that would help.
There is a “magic sentence” you can use that will lovingly deepen your connection as you support your partner.
But the reality is, instead, both you and your partner can be triggered into variations of the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. You may resort to superhero or deflector roles that were developed in childhood as coping mechanisms for difficult times.
You may have already discovered that these strategies may be less than helpful now if you’ve tried to apply them to your partner. You can learn to pause, notice and let go of old unconscious patterning and learn how to support your partner through a difficult time through the use of a “magic sentence”.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Difficult Times in a Relationship
For your partner or even yourself, difficult times may be occasional or daily occurrences. They can range from a one-off tiff with the checkout person at the supermarket to an ongoing toxic environment at work to the all-consuming grief after the death of a loved one.
It may be an ongoing struggle with physical or mental health or an existential crisis where you question the meaning of life.
Whatever the scope or size of the difficulty, remember it is still totally valid to your partner.
2. A Perfect World
Imagine your partner sitting down with you after dinner and saying something like,
“Honey, you will have noticed that I’ve been having a hard time with my parents. I’ve been triggered in various ways and it’s become so severe that I’ve arranged to see a therapist about the underlying issues. I may need to take some time out to process this and I may need to talk it through with you. Are you interested in hearing how I would love to be supported by you as I work through this?”
Easy. But it doesn’t often come out like that.
3. A Real World
Your partner may unconsciously go to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. These responses are automatic reactions that perceive events or actions as stressful or frightening.
Our physiological and psychological reactions are triggered by any kind of stress stimuli that makes us choose between fighting or fleeing. We turn into survival mode as this has worked for us as early humans.
When your partner is going through a hard time, it might look like this:
- You may notice your partner is irritable, disconnected, or even lashing out for no apparent reason.
- She may have hinted at problems but shut you down when you ask.
- He may have become irrational and overly fearful.
- They may seem flat, despondent, dull, or withdrawn from everyone.
These were the only options available to a person who was not taught the skills to accept, handle and regulate difficult emotions that accompany stressful or frightening times.
Simply having compassion and awareness for this is your first step. However, it doesn’t mean you have to tolerate projected anger or take on their fear or despondency. 
Reconnecting Through Difficult Times
All relationships go through difficult times. Let’s say your partner has been able to keep you updated on some escalating problems at work. Your partner comes home one night, falls in the door, and says they can’t go on another minute like this.
They are obviously distressed, struggling to cope, and literally at the end of their tether.
1. Pause and Assess Yourself
Your initial reaction might be to ask what’s happening. You might ask the wrong thing, so it’s best to take a while and process things.
Take your partner and lead him or her to the couch. Instead of immediately jumping into action, take a moment to slow things down without any judgment, First, notice what is happening to yourself.
It’s your partner’s journey and your partner’s lesson but ask yourself first, “are you triggered?”
The purpose is to not unconsciously go into a fight or flight response. This way, you can give the best comfort and what your partner needs at that moment. Ask yourself these questions.
- Did you get angry at your partner or situation?
- Is there a twinge of helplessness in you?
- Do you suddenly have an urge to disappear into that other thing you have to do?
- Do you shut down and go blank?
- Is there a feeling of overwhelm in you as well?
- Are you recoiling in some way, especially if they’re crying?
2. Notice Your Automatic Coping Mechanisms
Your habitual reaction to their difficult time is a reflection of how you support yourself.
As a child, you may have been swamped by overwhelming emotions that were too big to feel and with no one to help you process them. These feelings may be in response to major or minor traumas from a toxic environment in the household. But not to worry, you will have ingeniously created wonderful protective behaviors that allow you to keep avoiding these overwhelming emotions and give you a sense of control over the situation.
They may be coping mechanisms that have been taught by the family or clever ones you’ve come up with yourself. The list goes on, but some of these coping mechanisms can be:
- Blanking out
- Pretending nothing happened
- Overly active thinking mind
- Becoming invisible
It’s as if you, as a little kid, unconsciously created a suit of armor as your very best attempt at protecting and supporting yourself. You became your own superhero that even blanking out and disappearing are superpowers to the little child that is you.
You will keep resorting to these clever strategies for yourself and others as long as they are working. The question is, “Are they working now?”
3. Notice Your Superheroes
You’re still not giving support, and you’re still noticing and assessing yourself. The time will come for you to use your actual skill, but not just yet. You’re working towards the magic sentence, remember?
See if any of these characters come bustling in with their questionable strategies. Remember to have self-compassion here, as these were the young child’s best attempts at protection from overwhelming emotions.
- The Rescuer – You want to save them from the problem and fight their battles for them. A fantastic role for parents, but not so applicable to this adult partner you’re supporting.
- The Fixer – You immediately give advice and tell them what they should do. You jump in and take over, lining up all the ducks in your attempt to smooth the way.
- The Ostrich – Deep down, you don’t want to engage in the situation. You start to feel numb and space out. Your facial expression will reflect this as you mentally and emotionally leave the room and disappear somewhere else.
- The Deflector – You crack jokes, try to change the subject, and get them to think of something else. It’s probably okay if you save this superpower for minor incidents but not for the big stuff.
- The Repressor – You may have been told that or led to believe that crying is for kids. This may trigger you to try anything to repress your partner’s feelings. Just as your family of origin did, you’re trying to shift your discomfort at the same time.
- The Annoyed One – You might say things like, “Man up.”, “Don’t feel this way.”, or “I can’t deal with this right now!” as these were the words you heard when you were young.
- The Emotional Surrogate – Especially if you are highly empathic and sensitive, you may take on their emotions. You’ll know this is happening if they end up feeling just fine after your conversation, and you end up feeling drained.
Go ahead and resort to any or all of those if they are helping your partner. After all, they will feel like your superpower and not something you want to give up.
The question is, “Are they helpful now?”
Staying Connected and Loving Through Their Difficult Time
Just as you learned to cope with life circumstances in the past, you can learn healthier ways of coping with things now. There are better ways out there that you can try. These can be extremely helpful if your old ways actually create distance between you and your partner.
1. Introduce Your New Character
Here’s where we welcome a new character, one not aligned with the reactionary fight or flight response. Let’s call this character “The Midwife” or the “Pitstop Support Crew.”
In Leigh Sales’ book Any Ordinary Day, Fr. Steve Sinn describes this type of supportive role as “The Accompanier.”
It’s your partner’s journey but they don’t have to do it alone. You can be there for them.
2. The Accompanier
So you’ve tuned in to yourself and your feelings around seeing your partner in difficulty. If there was a tendency to want to avoid, deflect, dismiss, repress, save, take on, squash their emotions, or get angry at them or this issue, this has been duly noted.
This is your stuff. Put that aside to look at later. Developing emotional intelligence can happen at any age.
As the Accompanier, you trust that their difficult time is something they will get through and possibly grow from. See them as having the strength to thrive from this. After all, no one saved you from your difficult times.
3. Magic Sentence
Okay, Go! Now you can say the magic sentence.
“Honey, I can see this is tough for you. What do you need from me right now?”
Yes, this may be a revelation to you, but you can actually ask your partner what they need. No jumping in, fixing, or suggestions unless they’ve asked for this.
If your partner has said they just need you to listen, then you get to be the Midwife. You get to arrange the pillows, pass the tissues, grab that blankie and hold their hand. It’s often called “holding the space.”
Literally opening up space around this difficult emotion and becoming a container that holds it. You can’t do the contractions for them, but you can hold on. It’s a powerful thing to accept without judgment, interruption, and trying to fix everything.
Once the emotion has cleared, they will have a new perspective on things. At this point, you can certainly ask if they’d like help with brainstorming solutions. Your clear-thinking, rational, step-by-step person can shine here as part of the dynamic collaborative duo.
But your action plan is not the only answer and is likely to be matched in elegance by your partner.
You can normalize seeking help from a therapist if they’re still stuck. Getting psychological help is no big deal, and is just as necessary as going to the doctor for physical ailments. It’s a sign of inner strength. You may even find it helpful to go along as a couple.
With self-awareness and a willingness by both partners to look at old patterns that are no longer working, there is the potential for difficult times to be one of the greatest teachers in relationships.
Rather than creating contraction and distance, they can eventually bring individual healing and empowerment, along with more openness and closeness between you. Loving someone through hard times is not an easy task. But with patience and effort, you’ll get through it.