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Stephanie Daniels

Featured Article

The Expert vs. The Teammate

Empowering your partner in times of discomfort

A prevalent mistake I observe among couples is adopting the "expert" role in their partner's life, rather than becoming a supportive teammate or a curious student. While the expert claims to have all the answers, the student adopts a learning posture, seeking understanding through questions.

Witnessing our partners in distress can evoke our own feelings of discomfort. We rush to provide solutions not because we deem them incapable but because it's agonizing to see them suffer. The urge to end a loved one's suffering is human. However, the problem arises when our solutions amplify their pain.

This approach can inadvertently communicate that we believe our partners can't make sound decisions and they are the cause of their problems. Such interactions can be isolating, leading to feelings of loneliness within the relationship. The challenge? To join our partner's team rather than trying to fix their problems. The best way to empower our partners is by standing with them, connecting deeply, during their challenges.

Here's an approach based in years of couples' research from the Gottman Institute. How you respond when your partner presents a problem provides an opportunity to draw you close and doesn't need to end in angry fighting or cold withdrawal. I have used it many times in my office, and I am continually amazed how it reveals the underlying needs. 

Seek understanding. Connect by asking probing questions like, "How does that make you feel?" or "What does that mean to you?" Pay keen attention to descriptive words they use about their feelings. Use these as a guide for your next question.

Validate and empathize. Validation means acknowledging and understanding your partner's perspective. It doesn’t require agreement. Empathy, on the other hand, is about resonating with your partner's feelings, even if you don't share them. For instance, if your partner fears making new friends after a move, and you’re excited about it due to a new golf club membership, tap into a past memory when you were apprehensive about making friends. Reliving that emotion helps bridge the emotional gap between you two.

Assure them of your presence. Communicate that they're not alone and that you're with them, supporting their journey and feelings. Such assurance provides the confidence they need in life's tumultuous times and can give a sense of togetherness.

Ask permission to share your perspective. Before offering advice, ask if they'd like to hear your thoughts. Often, understanding and deeply connecting with a partner's feelings can shift our perspective, reinforcing that they are the real experts of their lives. Sometimes we do have really great advice that will benefit them but assuring them we understand their inner world of thoughts and feelings often ends up being the best solution. To simply let our spouse know they are not alone is a strong healing force.

In the dance of relationships, it's easy to step on our partner's toes, especially when we're driven by a genuine desire to help. However, true empowerment and connection emerge when we shift from being problem solvers to empathetic listeners. Let's commit to deepening our bonds, seeking understanding, and standing as allies with our partners in every challenge. By doing so, not only do we enrich our healthy relationships, but we also create a haven of trust, mutual respect, and enduring love. This is the key to providing our spouse a safer and more loving existence in this world.

"How you respond when your partner presents a problem provides an opportunity to draw you close and doesn't need to end in angry fighting or cold withdrawal."

  • Stephanie Daniels