In all relationships, situations will occur where one partner requires some type of support from the other partner — whether it’s a small thing, like picking you up if your car breaks down or helping you find your lost keys — or a big thing, such as comforting you after a medical scare or the loss of a loved one.
The sense of being able to count on your partner for help turns out to be a key to relationship happiness and fulfillment. In my long-term research study funded by the National Institute of Health — which followed 300+ couples for 32 years — I found that happy relationships require a steady supply of mutual support and assistance. Partners ask each other for support and expect to be asked.
Trouble is, more often than not you assume that your partner will notice when you’re in distress. And even if they do, there are many different types of support, and men and women often require and offer different types of support. Sometimes, you have to ask for help and the type of support you need. But it can be very difficult to ask your partner for help and support.
Recently, Abi, a female client came to me after she had started working part-time again following a 10-year hiatus. Abi told me a story about her partner, with whom she is generally very happy. "She doesn't seem to get that I'm stretched to the max. Instead of just managing the house and the kids, I'm now working at the doctor's office six hours too. Nothing has changed for her, but I'm running to keep up. Why won't she step up to the plate and help me?"
I inquired as to whether she had asked her partner for help. She said no. We talked about why it's so important to learn how to ask your partner for help, but also why it's unreasonable to expect your partner to intuit your need or automatically know you want help.
Take a moment and think about an area that you need help from your partner with. Then, when you have chosen an area, answer or do the following four steps so that you are ready to go to your partner and communicate your needs.
First, examine the problem at hand and what you need from your partner. Do you need a shoulder to cry on and a sympathetic ear? Do you need concrete advice and practical solutions? Do you need validation that your decision or solution is sound? Write your answer down.
For example, Abi needs her partner to understand that right now, she’s stressed and feeling overwhelmed by all that she has to do. The change has been hard for her, and she also needs validation that her decision to go back to working part-time is a good one — after a 10-year hiatus, anyone would feel the same way!
Second, think about how you might communicate your specific need to your partner. From your answer above, you want to think about stating the problem at hand, and then what specific assistance you need to cope with the problem.
For my client Abi, she might say to her partner: “I am so glad that I went back to work part-time, but sometimes when I’m feeling overwhelmed and like I can’t do it all, I wonder whether I made the right decision. I would love for you to recognize that this change has been challenging for me. Could you please tell me that I made the right decision to go back to work?”
Think about how you might appreciate and coach your partner, to get the help you want for the problem.
Remember that people have different styles of helping — some are serious, some use humor, some jump right in, and some hold back a while. Appreciate all the help your partner can offer.
Saying “thank you for trying to help me” is always a great way to appreciate your partner’s help.
However, if your partner isn't helping you — or, is being critical or counterproductive — it's all right to give them some coaching. Try saying, "Honey, thank you for trying to help me, but this isn't that helpful. But here's what would be helpful…" And bear in mind that just because you coach your partner one time, that doesn’t mean that coaching isn’t required in the future.
Finally, once you’re done with these above steps (and writing down what you would say is very helpful), go practice these steps with your partner.
Remember, these steps may take a few times to work well, but practice identifying your needs, sharing those needs, and both appreciating and coaching to get the support you need.