It's never easy to hear your spouse say those two words that we often associate with divorce: "I'm unhappy." Many women automatically assume they're the reason their partners are less than thrilled with life and that it's somehow their responsibility or job as a good spouse to correct the problem.
Of course, once we step outside of our situation and look at it objectively, it's much easier to realize that, over the course of a long marriage, there are going to be times when one person is unsatisfied with some part of life — their job, financial circumstances, weight, sexual prowess and so forth. It's normal to want to fix things when we see the person we love in pain, but relationship experts say one of the best things we can do is not to try and become our spouse's savior.
"It's natural that we all go through icky moments in life," says Rebecca Wong, relationship therapist and founder of Connectfulness. "The trick in a relationship is to understand how to help one another to grow through these moments. Our relationships offer us opportunities to reflect on ourselves. When your partner is going through a particularly icky spell, the best thing you can do is listen and reflect. Refrain from trying to fix him, try to put away your own defensiveness, and listen for his needs. Be his retreat from the ick rather than contribute to it."
Here are five expert suggestions on how we can help our husbands or partners through trying times.
1. Don't criticize
There's a huge difference between being a good listener and dominating the conversation with advice that comes across as highly critical. One is helpful — the other, a surefire way to turn your partner away. "It is important for a wife to be open and available for when her husband wants to talk about his life," says marriage coach and consultant Leslie Doares, who is the author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage. "It is important to approach this from a place of curiosity and interest and not criticism. Asking open ended questions in a non-judgmental way is the best way to get your husband to open up. If he feels like he is letting you down in any way, he will not feel like he can be honest. Men have a need to provide and protect and do not want to feel like they are failing you in that arena. If they do, it will only make them feel worse."
2. Show he/she they are appreciated
We may not be able to solve the actual problem that is bothering him, but we can take steps to make him feel like his home is a safe haven where he is loved. "Speaking in very general parameters, men are more task oriented than women," says Patty Blue Hayes, author of Wine, Sex and Suicide — My Near Death Divorce and My Heart Is Broken. Now What? "If your husband is feeling less valued at work, then amplify your appreciation of him at home. Let him know specifically what he's doing right and how it makes you feel. Tell him a few times a day that he is being seen, valued and appreciated for what he's doing."
3. Be mindful of emotions — but don't blame yourself for them
"Recognize we are each responsible for our own emotions and you are not the 'cause' of any of his feelings," Blue Hayes says. "If he's irritable, give him some space and disengage from the temptation to take on his feelings. If he's frequent to having fits of anger and directs them at you, bring it to his attention immediately, letting him know you won't tolerate that. Taking on anger and volatility from a partner can be a slippery slope; seek help together through a counselor, coach or relationship book or workshop."
4. Be playful
Sometimes the best remedy for stress and pain is a reminder that life can still be joyful. "Even though he may be feeling a bit down, that is the perfect opportunity to infuse some playtime into your relationship," Blue Hayes says. "Mix up your routine, shut the TV off, make ice-cream sundaes, and play scrabble; go for a walk together and take silly pictures while on playground swings or monkey bars; point being to bring some levity into your life together even when he's feeling a bit down."
5. Don't neglect your sex life
There's a good chance your husband won't be thinking about sex if he's feeling intense anxiety or grief. But if you suspect intimacy might help him, there's no better way to connect and release stress. "Even if his libido may be down from feeling unhappy, a little seduction could go a long way in turning his frown upside down. You've got some lingerie tucked away somewhere; bring it out. Sex releases the feel-good chemicals and deepens the bond between the two of you. Break up the routine, surprise him, seduce him, lavish him. He may forget he even had a care in the world."