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October 27, 2009

THE ART OF BEING SUPPORTIVE IN RELATIONSHIPS

When we first enter relationships it seems as though our relationship IQ is in the genius range.  We’re loving, great listeners, good sharers and incredibly supportive.  The longer we stay in relationships, however, it seems as though some of us develop relationship dementia -- we simply forget how to be in a relationship. 

This effect is similar to the one I see when I’m training therapists across the country in Terry Real’s Relational Life Therapy Model.  When I’m running a workshop, the therapists are quite adept at speaking about the concepts of the model when we are in lecture format.  When they are placed in a role-play situation, however, their IQ’s drastically decline.  For the participant role-playing the therapist, it’s as though there is an IQ vacuum that sucks 50 IQ points out of their brains—and adds 50 IQ points to the therapists who are observing.  Because this phenomenon is so universal, we all laugh, normalize it and have a lot of empathy for the person in the “brain-drain chair.”

Regarding relationships, however, the brain-drain is anything but a laughing matter.  It seems the longer a person is in a relationship, the larger the brain-drain effect.  This is particularly true around supporting one another.  Couples in the honeymoon stage are brilliant supporters.  They are encouraging, understanding and great motivators.  Of course, in the early stages of a relationship there is very little to lose by encouraging your new loved one to take risks, leave their job, start a new business, etc.  Your finances, future and children are not wrapped up in that risk.  As the relationship progresses and your life is more intertwined with your partner’s, this level of support is much more difficult to give.


For those of you who struggle with supporting your partner, here’s a cheat sheet for you:
1.    Join them where they are.  If your partner comes to you with an idea they are excited about—first join them in their excitement.  Do not start with all the reasons why their idea will not work.  When you talk about all the negatives right off the bat, you’re a major downer!  Stop throwing a bucket of water on your partner’s idea and just listen.  The same is true when they come home and talk about something cool that happened at work.  Just because it’s not something you would think is cool doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy their energy around it. 
2.    Pay attention to their energy.  Some partners don’t readily talk about their struggles.  If this is true for your partner, learn to listen to what is unspoken and check in.  “Honey would you like a hug?  You look beat.” “Honey, you seem down. Is everything okay?”  If they don’t want to talk, just let them know you’re here if they change their mind or want to run anything by you. 
3.    Listen with the ear of a friend.  If your partner is struggling at work or with friends or even with parenting—first be on their side.  Too often we’re quick to point out what our partners did that was wrong or should do next time that we forget to just be their friend.  Don’t try to fix it or point out where your partner was off—just listen.  Every once in a while let them know you’re sorry they had a hard day.  Do not offer advice unless you ask them if they want it.
4.     Lead with a gift.  If they say that they would like advice, make sure you lead with a gift.  Do not just launch into all the things they didn’t do well, instead start with what they did do well.  For example if they’re upset about parenting, you might say, “First off, honey I know you love our children very much.  I also know you’re really working hard to teach them how to be responsible, which I think is great.  Sometimes I worry though that you may be pushing the responsibility part harder than you do the relationship.  I believe that if you let up a bit on the responsibility part, it will help your relationship with our son.”  The gift must be heart felt and genuine—not just words you’re throwing out so you can get to the advice.
5.    Breathe and use a pause button.  If your partner comes home with a BIG idea (such as quitting their job or moving to a different country), remember to breathe.  Just because they have this idea doesn’t mean they are going to do it.  Once you’ve slowed yourself down, listen to the idea with an open mind—knowing that listening does not mean agreeing.  If you’re too agitated to talk calmly, just tell your partner you’ll need to think about what they said for a few days.  Later get some space and figure out what your concerns are and what information you need in order to be better able to take your partner’s idea seriously.  Too often, one partner gets reactive and angry in response to the other partner’s “crazy” idea.  If you’re that reactive then chances are your reactivity is about you not the idea or your partner. 
6.    Check in.  If you know your partner is going through a tough time at work due to layoffs or new management, etc. then check in with them.  Let them know you’re aware things are stressful and that you have their back.  If they are facing layoffs—you need to stay calm in the storm.  Let your partner know that you will manage whatever happens as a team.  Do not tell your partner that they had better not get laid off.  That’s ridiculous and unfair pressure to put on them.  Be their backbone during this time. 

There are many other things I could write about in terms of supporting one another, however these are the basics.  Regardless of whether it’s a layoff, failed certification exam, serious illness or the like, manage whatever life throws at either of you as a team.  That’s the beauty of relationships—you’re not alone!  When you can naturally incorporate these measures into your relationship, your home will be a better place to be.  Have each other’s backs and experience the joy of living like a team.  This concept also extends to your children. 

CHALLENGE: Learn the art of supporting your partner and begin to incorporate these tips into your relationship.  Do this regardless of what your partner is doing on the other side.  If your partner doesn’t meet you, discuss this directly.  Be clear about what you need.  Do not stop doing your part.  Good luck!

Comments

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Do you have any suggestion for partners when they keep thinking that they have gained weight over the yr and they are not being comfortable with that. I have been very supportive with my gf and been there for her when it comes to this situation, but she somehow still feels upset about it, when I am totally ok with the current weight in her body shape. I need some help on how to be supportive in this point of time and to resolve this issue so that our relationship doesn't go down the drain.

Regards,
Vignesh

Do you have any suggestions for when a child does not seem to want to do something like brush their teeth? I feel like this is constantly a battle with my 12 year old and I've tried numerous things. I feel like she is too old for me to brush them for her.
Otherwise she is a very responsible kid but I don't feel like not brushing her teeth is something I can accept.

DEAR SUSIE; If you're not prepared to allow the natural consequences to happen (i.e. cavities, bad breath which kids will comment on, yellow teeth) then you could tie teeth brushing to something that matters to your 12 year old. For example if it's at night and they put up a fuss about brushing then the next night they go to bed earlier. Every night there's a struggle over brushing teeth results in an early bed the next night. Another option is to set it up so after dinner they have to get all their hygiene done before any phone, t.v etc. Make this just another part of the day and take the fight out of it. If they don't want to do it, that's fine but they can't do anything else until it gets done. You can't MAKE them brush--you can, however, make it more of a pain for them if they choose not to. Take the power struggle out of it and just set up the rule.

Good luck--Lisa

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