Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC
It’s one of the worst feelings in the world: You hurt the feelings of someone you care about and you have no idea how to make it better. Maybe your stress level was running high and you took it out on them. Maybe you tried to make a joke, and it hit a little too close to home. Whatever it was, you wish you could take it back, but you can’t… and now you feel completely helpless.
A lot of the time, when people feel this way, the impulse is to pull away or go silent. The thought behind it is, “I can’t do anything right, so I guess I’ll just do nothing.” It makes sense in theory – how can someone possibly get mad at you for doing nothing? But in practice, it’s actually the worst thing you can do. The other person then feels like they’re not getting through to you at all, and their anger is likely to intensify. This is called the pursuer/distancer dynamic.
If you can, it’s much better to try to engage the other person in a productive conversation about what would be helpful to them. Here are some questions to help break past the feeling of helplessness, decrease the amount of antipathy in the room, and move the conversation to a move productive place:
1. How can I help?
This is a good first question to try, but delivery is important. If your words are “how can I help?” but your message is “I feel helpless,” the other person might piggyback on your helpless feelings and feel more helpless themself. If you ask this question, be very conscious and deliberate about asking it with the sentiment: “I care about you, and I want to make things better. Do you have any ideas about how I can do this?”
This may also fall flat if your loved one is feeling overwhelmed by their own emotions and unable to identify what they might find helpful. Or, they may know what they need, but feel too defended to ask to have that need met. If they’re telling themself a story that you’re not a safe person to confide in right now, it might be really hard for them to say, “I need a hug” or “I need you to tell me how you’re going to diffuse your stress next time you feel overwhelmed so that it doesn’t get taken out on me.”
“How can I help?” can be an important question, because it establishes: “I’m not an adversary. We’re on the same side here, and I’d like us to work together to mend this.” But as noted above, it can also be a bit problematic. If it fails, or feels inappropriate under the circumstances, try some of the others on this list instead.
2. Do you want a hug, or do you want space?
What we do with our bodies in relation to another person can be really important when tensions are running high. If you try to hug someone who doesn’t feel like they want to be touched, it might escalate the situation. If you keep your distance from someone who is craving physical connection as part of the healing process, it can feel like stonewalling.
So ask. Your loved one may typically be a very affectionate person, but they may feel that in the context of an argument, they want to work through what has happened before resuming physical touch with you. Or, they might be sitting there thinking, “if they really cared, if they really loved me, they would sweep me into their arms right now.” And this can change, depending on mood and circumstance, from argument to argument.
3. Do you want to talk, or do you want to be left alone?
People like to process things differently. Some people are internal processors and others prefer to process externally. I’ve heard so many clients talk about how their partner abandoned them, mid-argument, to go for a walk. And I’ve heard at least as many clients talk about how their partner insisted on talking and talking and talking until it felt like a dead horse was being beaten.
Ask your partner, when you’re not in the middle of an argument, how they process difficult things. If you’ve been together for awhile, their answer probably won’t surprise you. If they come home at the end of a work day and say, “I’m having this problem with my coworker. Can I talk to you about it?” that’s a strong indication that they’re an external processor. But if they tell you, one day, out of the blue, “I’ve decided I’m going to go back to school,” they probably process things internally.
It’s very likely that their style of processing things will be correlated with whether they want to talk or sit quietly when they’re upset, but as with physical touch, this can vary from day to day. And if they say they want to think for a bit before having the conversation, respect that and give them space. During a difficult conversation, any partner should have the right to ask for a time out to recoup.
4. Do you want to go for a walk?
There are so many reasons this is a good idea.
When I was in grad school, my favorite professor said that she sometimes tells couples that when they’re arguing, they should both go into the bathroom and, fully clothed, one should get into the bathtub and the other should stand on top of the toilet. Aside from being silly and diffusing the tension with laughter, the very act of changing the atmosphere can be incredibly powerful in redirecting the conversation.
But actually, I think it’s better if you can go for a walk together while you resolve the problem. If all you can do is stroll around inside your home, that’s actually fine. Moving your body is healthy, and among other benefits, it creates endorphins, which make you feel better. Definitely a good thing to have when you’re trying to resolve a problem.
Bonus points, though, if you live somewhere nice enough to take a walk outside. The fresh air and complete change of scenery will do everyone good.
5. What I just heard you say is ____.
Okay, technically this isn’t a question. But it’s an important skill to cultivate. Here’s the important thing: Don’t analyze what you heard. Just use the other person’s words.
So if your partner says, “when you joked about what I was wearing, I thought that was really mean,” DON’T say, “what I just heard you say is that you thought I was an asshole when I made a lighthearted comment about your clothes.” Instead say, “what I just heard you say is that you thought it was mean when I joked about your clothes.” And then, if you’d like, you can add, “I bet that hurt your feelings a lot.”
This makes your partner feel like you’re really listening and, perhaps more importantly, it forces you to actually really listen to them… not to the words you think they’re about to say, but to the words they’re actually saying.
By the way, reflective listening is also a rudimentary therapist skill, and it’s what we learn in the very first class in grad school. It’s the baseline for everything else a therapist does with their clients, because it helps someone feel understood.
6. What are you feeling? What else are you feeling?
It’s even better if you can demonstrate empathy by making a pretty accurate guess and then asking for more feelings: “I can tell you’re feeling angry at me. What else are you feeling right now?” Some people might have trouble answering this question, but if they’re willing to dig a little bit, they can usually identify something they’re feeling besides anger.
Anger is a secondary emotion, which means it’s usually masking something more vulnerable like hurt, fear, sadness, or shame. If you can ask the right questions and, more importantly, create a safe environment for your loved one to talk about those more vulnerable emotions, you’ll get to the core of what has them so riled up much more quickly. Then you can talk about the actual problem instead of the surface problem, and work to heal the softer emotion together.