The One Thing To Do When Your Partner Is Stressed

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One of the best things about being in a relationship is having that immediate go-to person that you can vent your frustrations on. In the same way, when your partner is stressed, it’s part of your duty as the significant other to help them relax. When it comes to comforting your stressed out partner, experts suggest everything from allowing them to vent and giving them space to just being there and loving them. While those are obviously great ideas, a new study finds that being both a sounding board and a shoulder to cry on is the best thing you can do to support your partner in stressful situations.

Being understanding is one way to be there for your partner in times of stress, but according to the study published in the journal Psychological Science, it actually takes much more than that. Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara hypothesized that being understanding would bring a positive response only when it’s paired with empathic concern. In other words, it’s not just about being understanding. You actually have to give a sh*t—and mean it!

In order to test their theory, the researchers took a sample of couples and asked them to identify a personal or relationship stressor such as jealousy. By studying tapes of the subjects’ interviews, researchers were able to gauge empathic accuracy, empathic concern, and responsiveness. As they originally thought, when a listener’s concern for their partner was seen to be high, they were able to more readily respond to their partner’s feelings with compassion. However, when a listener didn’t really seem to care about their partner’s thoughts and feelings on a stressful situation, being understanding didn’t really do much.

“You can know very well what your partner is thinking and feeling—maybe you’ve heard this story 17 times, the fight with the boss and so on—but if you don’t care?” lead author Lauren Winczewski told the UC Santa Barbara Current. “Having accurate knowledge in the absence of compassionate feelings may even undermine responsiveness.”

Here’s why this is important:

1. Your Partner Judges The Way You Respond To Them Every Day

It’s not just the big things that count. According to the study, people judge their partners on “everyday support conversations.” Let’s say you had a minor situation at work with that co-worker who gets on your nerves. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a totally small thing. But if your partner can’t even listen to that totally small thing, you’re going to take note. If they couldn’t care less now, what will happen down the road with bigger problems?

“People use these kinds of interactions as diagnostic of their partner’s motivation and ability to respond to their needs,” Winczewski said. “‘If that’s how you’re responding to me now, is that how you’ll respond to me again in the future?’ Over time, you may build trust in your partner’s responsiveness or you may start to wonder if your partner is even willing, let alone able, to respond to your needs.”

2. Being More Compassionate Means You Can Better Help Your Partner

It’s really not enough to be just be understanding. Think about it. You can probably walk up to a random stranger on the street and vent all your life’s problems to them. Chances are, if they’re a decent enough person, they’ll be understanding to your situation. After all, everyone goes through stress. But just because they’re understanding, it doesn’t mean you’ll feel any better. They don’t know you enough as a person to come up with ways to really help you. You know why? Because they’re pretty much just sounding boards. Without that level of compassion or care from your partner when you’re stressed, they could pretty much be any stranger you ambush on the street.

As Winczewski said, “People might assume that accurate understanding is all it takes to be responsive, but understanding a partner’s thoughts and feelings was helpful only when listeners were also feeling more compassionate and sympathetic toward their partner. When listeners had accurate knowledge but did not feel compassionate, they tended to be less supportive and responsive.”

3. Responsiveness Is Crucial To Your Relationship And Personal Well-Being

According to the study, the idea of “responsiveness” has become an important topic in terms of studying social and health psychology. Numerous studies have found that feeling understood, validated and cared for by others is important in relationships and one’s overall well-being. But responsiveness isn’t determined by thoughts or in this case, understanding. It’s determined by a combination of thoughts and feelings.

“Having an accurate understanding of our partner’s inner world, combined with compassionate feelings, enables us to provide the kind of support that is wanted and needed by our loved ones. But in the absence of compassionate feelings, cognitive empathy alone is not enough,” UCSB psychology professor Nancy Collins said of the study. “In this way, our study shows that ‘thinking and feeling’ work together to help us be as supportive as possible to those we love.”

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