February 21, 2020

Is Lack of Emotional Support a Problem in Your Relationship?

Do you and your partner have difficulties because one or both of you feel emotionally unsupported? Or do one of you struggle with “being there” for your partner when he/she is upset or feeling down? If so, this activity should help.

People differ in how they want to be supported and problems arise when one partner does not meet the needs or expectations of the other. For example, a partner more in tune with feelings may share emotions when looking for support; however, if the other partner is not as emotional, he/she may respond in a way that feels unsupported, invalidated, or dismissed. These issues often create the following cycles: “I Am Not Overreacting!” and “I Need You to Listen, Not Fix it!”


In this cycle, partners may differ on emotional expressiveness, reactivity, or sensitivity. One partner may feel unsupported when he/she seeks emotional support and the other partner responds in a way that feels invalidating such as by saying, “oh, that’s not a big deal” or by refusing to talk to the partner until he/she “calms down”. This can cause a lot of hurt, sadness, and resentment.
The partner who is less emotionally reactive or expressive may not understand why his/her partner is upset and may feel attacked when his/her partner accuses him/her of not caring. However, he/she may not understand why something is a big deal and may feel he/she is helping when he/she tells the partner to “relax”. This can often lead to frustration and both partners feeling misunderstood.

The Partner Who Feels Emotionally Unsupported

Although you used to turn to your partner for emotional support, over time you’ve learned that your partner likely won’t be there for you in the way you want. As a result, you may get very upset when your partner doesn’t support you, react with surface emotions such as anger or frustration, or eventually open up less to your partner. Tips to improve this cycle:


Remember your DEEP Understanding and consider how each of the DEEP components could be contributing to both your and your partner’s feelings. You and your partner likely have natural differences in emotionally expressiveness and/or sensitivity. Remember, your partner isn’t trying to be unsupportive. When your partner does not respond in the way you need, try not to respond with anger, frustration, or other surface emotions that could make your partner react. Instead, talk with your partner and give him/her some tips on how he/she could respond in ways that would make you feel more supported.


Because you feel unsupported, you likely also feel disconnected from your partner. Therefore, one suggestion is to increase intimacy in other domains. For example, if you both are comfortable with touch, consider cuddling, hugs, or even sex as a way to feel more connected. Other suggestions include prioritizing date nights or planning to do something fun together at least once a week such as doing a physical activity, cooking together, playing a game, or watching TV.


Try to recognize the ways your partner does support you (e.g., financially, helping around the house, supportive of career or school, etc.) By not dismissing these other types of support as valid, you are more likely to be less biased in how you view your partner and are more likely to feel supported, even if your partner is not as sensitive or emotional.


While you certainly don’t want to shut your partner out and not share any of your feelings, it may be that a friend or family member is going to be more naturally supportive. If you know that your partner “just doesn’t get” why you’re upset about a particular topic, consider talking with someone else instead. In this case, acceptance of natural differences may be your best solution.

The Partner Who is Told He/She is Emotionally Unsupportive

After hearing over and over how insensitive or unsupportive you are, you may feel frustrated and hurt. You may also feel stuck because you don’t know how to make things better or like you are being punished for not being as emotional. These feelings may make you pull away from your partner or respond very defensively. Tips to improve this cycle:


Being a supportive and validating partner starts with being a good listener. Often, your partner just wants to share what he/she is feeling with you. So, when your partner tells you something, do not just respond with opinions, judgments, or requests to calm down. Give him or her the time to express feelings. Also, use body language to show that you are listening. It is important that you make eye contact, turn your body towards them, and stop whatever you are doing.


You can recognize your partner’s feelings as valid without agreeing with him/her. Therefore, do not respond with statements that undermine your partner’s feelings like “It’s not a big deal” or “You’re overreacting”. Instead, summarize his/her feelings to show understanding. Try to say things like, “I can tell you’re feeling really upset, frustrated, hurt, etc.” or “It sounds like that situation was really hard for you.” Remember, your partner is entitled to his/her feelings just as you are. By responding in a way that summarizes your partner’s feelings, your partner will feel heard and supported.


At a time when your partner is NOT upset, have a conversation about what you could do when he/she is upset that would feel good to your partner. Your partner might have some very simple ideas that would help.


Here, one partner may feel unheard and unsupported when he/she seeks support and the other partner starts problem solving or tries to “fix it” instead of listening. This can cause feelings of invalidation, hurt, sadness, and loneliness.The partner whose first instinct to try to help their partner solve the problem may feel annoyed or frustrated because it may feel like the partner “must enjoy being upset” if the partner doesn’t want to fix the problem. So, while he/she initially felt the desire to help the partner, he/she eventually tunes out the partner because he/she feels powerless to change the partner’s situation.

The Expressive Partner

You may feel hurt or frustrated when you are turning to your partner for emotional support and he/she responds with problem solving. This can leave you feeling like he/she doesn’t care for your needs. Tips to improve this cycle:


Are there any ways in which your partner does provide support? Are there sometimes when your partner’s problem solving is helpful? This is an important question because when you are upset about something, you are more likely to focus on what your partner is NOT doing to your satisfaction instead of focusing on when his/her response to “fix it” is helpful. By asking yourself this question every day, you’re more likely to notice and appreciate when your partner is meeting your needs. If you’re still feel you need more support, use the problem solving activity in the 4th phase to identify other ways he/she can provide the support you need.


Whenever you share your frustrations with your partner or ask him/her for more help, remember your Speaker Skills. Make sure to watch your tone of voice and not use blaming language. As much as you want him/her to respond to your emotional needs in a certain way, communicating often in a more demanding way will likely result in him/her pulling away and you not getting your desired outcome.


If you know your partner has a tendency to jump right into problem solving, start the conversation saying something like “I’m really upset and I just need you to listen to me for a few minutes, okay?” That can help your partner get into the right mindset.


While you certainly don’t want to use it for every conversation, if you’ve repeatedly tried to talk with your partner about a particular topic and he/she just doesn’t listen, consider using the speaker/listener structure. In fact, we have an activity in the Strengthen phase of this program that will allow you to have a speaker/listener conversation about anything you want.

The Problem Solving Partner

If your partner reacts negatively to your problem solving, you may feel frustrated because your partner does not recognize you are trying to help. Additionally, you may not know how to provide support in the way your partner wants which leaves you feeling sad and/or annoyed. Tips to improve this cycle:


It may come more naturally for you to jump into problem solving when your partner expresses him/herself, but that can often feel invalidating to your partner when he/she just wants you to listen. Show you are listening by asking questions.


Practice how to be a good listener: a) summarize; b) don’t defend or justify; and c) don’t jump in right away. Try practicing these skills in addition to not telling your partner what to do.


If you are unsure if your partner wants advice, ask “are you coming to me for advice or do you want me to listen?” The fact you are asking your partner for his/her needs will help him/her feel supported.


Remember your DEEP Understanding and consider how each of the DEEP components could be contributing to both your and your partner’s feelings. You and your partner likely have natural differences in emotionally expressiveness. Read the other drop down option “I Am Not Overreacting!” for more tips on how to provide greater emotional support.

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