Let’s imagine a typical night—
You finally get the kids to bed. You’re both exhausted, physically and emotionally. At last, you’ve arrived at that glorious part of the day when you can both relax and unwind. At last, it’s just you and her.
You queue up your favorite show to watch together ––you know, the one that neither of you dares to watch without the other, because finding a show you both enjoy is like finding a needle in a haystack–– but instead of putting her feet up and breathing a sigh of contented relief, she starts.
The things that have been weighing on her mind, big and not so big, rush out in almost a single breath. There are a lot of them.
Maybe she’s frustrated that she wasted so much time and effort into a dinner the kids didn’t eat, despite creating an entire Pinterest board dedicated to “Things the kids might eat if I just try hard enough.”
Maybe she tells you about how she’s under pressure at work, how with this deadline coming up, she just doesn’t know how she’s going to juggle everything.
Maybe she’s worried that your child might be coming down with that stomach bug that’s been going around at preschool.
Maybe a friend said something to her that really shouldn’t have bothered her, but it just got to her, you know?
Maybe she’s struggling, because although being home with the kids is all she ever wanted, she didn’t realize just how much she would miss her former life.
Whatever it is, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
She doesn’t actually want, or expect, you to fix it.
In fact, if you immediately start trying to fix these things, if she hasn’t specifically asked what she should do, or how she should solve the problem, she will probably end up feeling more frustrated, more exasperated, and more alone.
I know. It makes no sense. But you knew she was a complex creature from the start, didn’t you?
I know that when you see her upset or in pain, all you want to do is fix it. You want to find a solution to whatever it is that’s troubling her, and make it go away.
Her happiness is important to you, and if she’s telling you about the things on her list of worries, surely that means she’s seeking that solution from you. I mean, why else would she tell you all of this, right?
You may have already come across all the literature on this topic. It explains the differences between men and women: fixers versus talkers, cave-goers versus communication-and-connection-seekers, Martians versus Venusians, —there’s a lot out there.
But one thing that seems universal is that often, it is enough to simply be heard.
So next time, I want you to try something.
When she starts venting about whatever it is that’s on her mind, start by just looking her in the eyes.
Put your phone on silent (and far away from you, if possible), and physically turn towards her. Give her your undivided attention.
If she feels like in that moment, your only concern is to hear what she has to say, to be the safe place where she can unburden her worries, believe me, that is half the battle.
You actually don’t have to say much. Just listen. Really listen.
It’s amazing how simply having someone fully engaged with you, even if they don’t say a word, can be liberating and validating in itself.
It’s likely that all the things on her mind have been building up and simmering away over time, as she tried to figure them out on her own. So when she opens up to you and starts telling you about every last one of them, chances are she’s no longer feeling like she can handle it all on her own.
And so, she comes to you—the place where she can take off that weight and lay it down. The place where she feels like her heart is protected and cherished. The place where she can expose her weaknesses and imperfections, and know that she will be loved nonetheless.
When she’s feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, there is nothing quite like knowing that someone hears her, someone sees her, and she’s not alone.
If you can sense frustration, anger or hurt in her voice, say so. You can say something like, “That sounds really frustrating,” or, “I can see why that would upset you,” or, “I’m sorry, that must have been really hurtful.”
Sometimes she might be struggling to identify what she’s feeling, or maybe she just needs to know it’s okay to feel whatever emotion she’s feeling. Your empathy and understanding will acknowledge and validate those emotions, which is what she really needs.
Not a solution. Not a practical idea or tip. Not an analysis of why she’s gotten to where she is.
Just listen. Hear her. See her. And let her know that you’re on her team, no matter what.