I get asked this question all the time in therapy: “Why do we need to talk about this???” My client is usually referring to a painful time in their life for them and/or their spouse that they would prefer to sweep under the rug and move on.
The question makes sense though. When talking about painful things, we naturally feel pain. And why would we want to feel pain? Especially when we can just think or talk about something else, something that makes us happy or makes us laugh, like a funny movie or a warm-hearted memory. Why recount the painful things? Why bother bringing up the pain?
In my pre-kid days, I had time to sit around and watch crappy T.V. As I entered into what felt like season 58 of Grey’s Anatomy (don’t judge me), my husband would walk in the room. He would take a seat and watch a few minutes of some horribly morbid scene of someone dying in the hospital and people weeping hysterically. He would look at me in horror “Why do you watch things like this?” It was seriously baffling to him. That is the same energy a lot of my clients have when I encourage them to talk about painful topics. “Why do we have to talk about this?”
What’s the point of talking about pain?
Here is the answer. Pain connects us. It brings people together. There is no amount of laughing, socializing, playing, boating, golfing, tennis-playing, working, traveling, gardening or little league coaching that can connect two people the way pain can.
As I became an experienced therapist, I realized quickly how my husband and I ended up together. He was my friend that I leaned on during a painful time in my life. He was my comfort. And nothing connects two people like pain.
Pain + Comfort = Connection. And connection eases the pain. It is actually one of the best antidotes to pain. There are few things that have the power of connection.
Pain is an opportunity
What does this mean for you? Does this mean you should pull out your diary and photo album of all of your painful memories and unload them on your spouse? Please don’t. They will run.
What it does mean is change your view on pain. When you see pain in your spouse, this is not a red flag. A warning. A precursor to crazy fighting and disconnection. Instead, it is an opportunity.
Even if you caused the pain, it is still not to be feared as you would walking through a field of landmines. Actually, especially when you caused the pain, there is no one better suited to help make it better than you.
Pain is an opportunity. Every single time. It is either an opportunity for connection or an opportunity for division. There is no in-between. The way you respond to your partner in the moment of their pain defines the relationship. It makes or breaks it. It is the difference between a connected, secure relationship and a lonely, disconnected relationship.
In my office, I am privy to hearing endless stories of couples’ failed attempts at dealing with pain. For example, there was the couple that fell apart because every time he shared the pain of his depression, she would try and “help” by providing him with copies of the latest and greatest self-help book. He stopped telling her of his pain all together because he thought she judged him. Or the wife that was on the verge of an emotional affair because every time she cried, her husband quietly walked past, unsure of what to do. In her desperation, she began to share her pain with an old boyfriend who “actually cared.” Or the couple that came in on the brink of divorce after she shared the pain of her anxiety and he told her to get on “crazy pills.” The list goes on and on.
What to do?
Let me shoot it to you straight and give you the list of not to do’s. And, the better way.
- Don’t try and fix it.
Unless they ask specifically for your guidance, don’t offer up suggestions. Usually, any attempts to fix it is interpreted by them that you think they aren’t handling it well.
Instead, try this. “Wow, this is a tough situation. I can see why this is so hard for you. I’m not sure there is a “right answer” per se, but I’m open to talking about it with you.”
- Don’t avoid it.
There is often a fear that giving attention to someone’s pain will encourage it, reinforce it or cause them to dwell in it. Often, spouses believe that avoiding it will make it go away faster. There is also a HUGE fear in my clients that they will royally screw it up by trying to help. That they will say or do something that will make it worse.
Instead of avoiding, even when you are terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, do this. Offer up your presence. You can simply say “I have no idea what to do to make this better. It hurts me to see you like this. But, I want you to know I’m here.” And then, just do that. Just be there with them. Say nothing, do nothing. Except rub their arms, scratch their back, get them some of their favorite herbal tea or late night snack. Or just sit there and be a presence, so they aren’t alone.
- Don’t minimize it.
Because we want to help and we are hoping our big picture perspective will help our partner who is in pain, we can often offer some unhelpful wisdom. Examples are “It’s not that big of a deal, there are people with much bigger problems out there.” Or “Don’t you think you are making too big of a deal of this?” Nothing will encourage the pain in your partner more than convincing them that they are wrong for feeling the way they do.
Instead, try validating it. Use these helpful phrases: “I can see why this is so hard for you. It would be hard for me too.” Or “I don’t fully understand all that is making this so painful for you, but I would like to. Could you tell me more about what makes this so painful?”
There you have it. Three foolproof approaches to dealing with pain in your partner. And to recap, every single time your partner feels pain, there is an opportunity to connect. And connection is what makes the world go ‘round. And what keeps marriages and families intact. If pain has entered your life or marriage in some way, congratulations. You have been given ample opportunity to strengthen your marriage and your family. Now you have the know-how, too.
ADD Version (For those of you with short attention spans)
- Pain connects us. It brings two people together.
- Pain + Comfort = Connection. And connection eases the pain.
- Start to think about pain as an amazing opportunity to connect.
- Even if you caused the pain in your spouse, you are the BEST person to help comfort it.
- Not to do: Try and fix it, avoid it, minimize it. INSTEAD…learn to VALIDATE it (it’s a miracle worker…you will be amazed).