Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
My client, Max, kind of slumped in his chair as he told me what had occurred between him and his wife, Lena, last night.
“I knew she had been having a rough time,” he began. “She hadn’t felt well for a few days. She had to take a couple of days off from work and she had to cancel on an event she had planned to participate in at our kid’s school. I knew she was getting more and more frustrated.”
But then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It was one of those times when I just couldn’t say or do the right thing. I asked her how she was feeling, and she answered, ‘How do you think I am feeling? Why do you ask a question you already know the answer to? Is that the best you can do?”
When I asked him how he responded, he answered, “I didn’t get a chance to say anything. She asked me if I even loved her and when I said, ‘Of course I do,’ she asked me why. And she didn’t like my answer, so she jumped on me some more.”
Max threw his hands in the air. “I know this wasn’t about winning or losing, but I certainly wasn’t winning.”
And then he said, “I felt like all the frustration she was feeling was being let loose in my direction. To be honest, I kind of felt like a punching bag. Maybe that’s what she needed from me at the time. Still, it sure didn’t feel good.”
When a partner vents
I often talk to clients like Max who have a partner who is living with a chronic condition. To be honest, Max isn’t the first one to feel like their partner is taking out their frustrations on them. And that’s not a great way to feel. But also like Max, they recognize their partners are feeling pretty bad.
Here is some help for when those moments arise at your house.
If you’re living with a chronic condition:
Pause. Breathe. When your chronic condition throws another curveball your way, it’s only human to want to blow up at the nearest target. But as good as that might feel, you risk creating more tension as well as damaging your relationship. So take a step back and let the emotions pass through you before you act.
Get some perspective. Here’s a simple but also hard question to ask yourself: “What’s really bothering me?” If you ask yourself that question, and take the time to think through your answer, you will most likely decide that that your partner is not the cause.
Remember that your partner may be feeling helpless. Your chronic condition affects everyone in your household. I know you are dealing with a lot. But your loved ones are, too. Especially their own helplessness. They want to make your condition go away and they can’t. They want to do something—anything—to help you and may not know what to do. Try to remind yourself that, as inadequate as their efforts may seem, they are trying to do the right thing by you.
Feel free to vent. It’s only human to feel frustrated, especially when you’re having a bad day. And it’s not only okay, but even healthy, to vent. But direct your venting toward your chronic condition and not your family members. Start by saying, “I’m having a bad day and I need to vent about how I feel. I’m not mad at you. I’m feeling mad at life. And all I need for you to do is listen.”
Let them know what you need. Back to the helplessness thing. It’s a terrible feeling to be told you are not measuring up but not be clear on exactly what is expected. Be aware of what you can and can’t expect from your family members. And then let them know what they can do to support you.
Be patient. With yourself and with your partner. Yes, patience is a virtue. You’re doing the best you can in the face of many challenges. So go easy on yourself. And when you do that, you will find it a whole lot easier to go easy on your loved ones.
And if you are the partner of someone living with a chronic condition:
Pause. Breathe. Having criticism directed toward you, fairly or unfairly, can cause an immediate rush of emotions like anger or sadness. And those emotions can cause you to speak in a way that you will later regret. So step back and let yourself have that emotional rush. But let it pass before you act.
Talk about your own feelings. When your partner unleashes accusations in your direction, your own emotional wellness is negatively impacted. It can be detrimental to your health and to your relationship. So, in a calm, gentle voice, disclose how this affects you. “I know you’re not feeling well. But when you get down on me like that, I kind of feel like a punching bag. It hurts a lot. And it’s not good for us.”
Offer to listen. What feels like a tongue-lashing can be a cry for help. But you won’t know unless you ask. You can find out by saying something like, “I can see you’re having a hard time. I feel sad when you’re feeling this way.” And follow your words of concern with a request: “How can I help?” Those four words convey a lot—concern, love, and a reminder that you’re a team. After you say them, listen for an answer.
And speaking of magical words … what would happen if you took your partner’s hand and said, “I love you”? Words can heal, and these are the most healing words of all.
Communicate with love. Be patient. Listen. Strategize together. Commit to take action. And then take action. This is what teamwork is all about. And that’s how you and your partner can get through the rocky times.
What helps you and your partner pull together when difficult emotions surface? Share your insights and advice by commenting below.