Is there anything more joyful than sharing good news with your partner? I got the job! I aced the test! We got the house! It’s a boy!
Sharing in the joy of triumph, accomplishment, or good fortune is all the sweeter with a partner to celebrate with us. Getting exciting news from your partner can provide well of warm emotion that lasts for days, weeks, months!
The other side of that joyous coin might be less thrilling, but it is no less important: sharing in grief with our partner.
This process is essential for a healthy relationship — but it can be one of the most challenging aspects for many (myself included). Grief, disappointment, trauma…these are all sources of pain. Part of a relationship means carrying that pain together.
Usually, I see couples that face one of two issues in this regard. On the one hand, many people are so terrified or triggered by grief or pain that they refuse to acknowledge it or support their partner through it. They become uncomfortable, distant, and generally avoidant, just hoping their partner will get over it soon. But don’t misunderstand me; these aren’t people trying to be cruel. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that these big emotions truly feel overwhelming to them, and they haven’t learned how to healthfully move through the emotion alone, let alone with a partner. So they do whatever they can to avoid it.
On the other hand, you have codependency. You have people who take on every emotion that their partner feels: they are in every ounce of pain their partner is, they feel each wave of grief and are essentially controlled by the ups and downs of their partner’s emotional state. That is no more healthy than the avoidant partner.
If you see yourself in either of these extremes, don’t despair. We all tend to veer one way or the other, and recognizing your own tendency is a sign of healthy self-awareness. Being aware means you can adjust. But what really is the goal? It can be hard to articulate if we haven’t seen it before.
The key with grief in relationship is to hold space for it, to help your partner carry it, without being controlled by it.
If you feel yourself pulling away when your partner is grieving, resist that. Practice simply remaining present. Physically hold them. Listen to them; ask gentle questions. You may feel the urge to leave; you may feel frustrated if you don’t understand why they feel the way they do. You may feel frustrated that you can’t fix it for them. That is a scary, uncomfortable feeling. But remember that just being present, being gentle, and being kind while they’re in this space can make a monumental difference. Don’t take it upon yourself to fix anything; your presence simply reassures them they aren’t alone, and that’s often all they need. Try to let go of your discomfort, and make this moment about them.
If you feel yourself too connected to your partner, if you feel pulled and shaken by the whims of their distress, it might be time to set some boundaries. Are you able to still take care of yourself — of your own physical and emotional needs — while they are in distress? If the answer is no, something needs to change. This can be difficult to picture, so let me give you an example with a scenario that’s easier for most of us to understand: the flu. If your partner gets the flu, what happens to you? A healthy response is to offer them lots of support: bring them meals in bed, make sure they’re drinking fluids, drive them to the doctors, and hold their hair back if they have to be sick. That is healthy support. But if they’re in bed, napping or watching a movie, and they’ve assured you they’re okay, are you able to go about your day? Or are you too overly concerned, distracted, and distressed for them? A person who struggles with codependency might have a hard time making their own lunch, or chatting with a friend, doing anything separate from their ill partner. But if they are safe and you can’t help them with anything, you should never feel guilty making time for yourself. The same can be said for grief. When our partner is in pain, it is good and healthy to support them; be present when they need it, offer to do household tasks for them, get them their favorite snacks, and listen if they need to talk. But if they need to be alone, or do something (safe) on their own, are you able to let them? Are you able to laugh with your children or friends, even if you know your partner is unhappy?
When our partner is experiencing grief, we will undoubtedly feel some degree of empathy. We may feel it a bit too much — or we may have an instinct to pull away. Either response is understandable — we’ve all been there — but remember that for a healthy relationship there is a happy medium. Hold space for their grief, be present with them, but make sure you’re tending to your own needs as well.