Giving Emotional Support

Giving Emotional Support

“My husband and I are polite and all, but our relationship feels sort of like doing business together rather than being mates. Honestly, I wish he was more supportive somehow, and I’m sure he secretly wishes the same from me.”

Under the press of everything you have to do as a parent, combined with feeling tired and frazzled, it’s only natural to feel a little distant from your mate. But as the saying goes, “love is a verb,” which means that an intimate relationship ultimately rests on how we act toward our partner. Often it’s very small things that make a big difference.

Let’s assume that you and your partner are not doing negative things toward each other, such as yelling, calling names, threatening, hitting, belittling, or being cold and mean. On that foundation, here are four things the two of you could focus on.

If either one of you does them, that will improve your relationship – and if both of you do them, all the better! It’s perfectly alright to directly ask your partner to give you emotional support – and perhaps even read this column – and of course that will go better if you are being supportive yourself.

Wishing Well

This is as simple as the desire that your partner be happy and content, rather than distressed or suffering. This is goodwill, the opposite of ill will. It’s the attitude of compassion, kindness, and caring – the expression of the heart that says, “You matter to me, and I want things to go well for you.”

When we find this attitude, this wish inside ourselves and bring it to conscious awareness, our partner can sense that – and can see it in our eyes and hear it in our tone of voice. At the end of the day, this is perhaps the most important thing we want to from our family members: not so much whether they will give us this or that, but that they CARE how it goes for us.


This is the emotional understanding of what it’s like to be another person. Empathy is not agreement or approval or a waiving of our own rights. For example, imagine a political figure you dislike: it’s possible to open up to a sense of what it might be like to live inside his or her skin without wanting to vote for that person!

Paying Attention

You know when your mind wanders to what might be on TV tonight, and so does the other person . . . Instead, try to remain fully present; if you need to, let the person know how long you’re available to talk so you don’t feel antsy about the time.

Looking Beneath the Surface

This means wondering about the softer feelings beneath the other person’s anger or stony exterior, about what might have happened to make him or her feel the way they do, or about the material from previous life experiences (especially childhood) that have gotten stirred up. You are not playing therapist to do this, just being a good listener.

Checking Back

As we develop a sense of what is going on inside the other person, it’s often helpful to check back to make sure we got it right. For example, you could ask simple questions like: “So what really bothered you was ________ , right?” Or: “You wished ________ had happened, yes?” This means actively relieving the other person’s anxieties and giving encouragement that he or she will get through whatever challenge is being faced. Some of the great ways to do this include:


Just a simple pat can make a huge difference, and there is a remarkable body of research showing the beneficial effects of touch on everything from soothing infants to recovery from surgery.


Reminding the other person of his or her true strengths both boosts their sense of worth and gives them reasons to feel confident about dealing with the challenge, whatever it is. Acknowledgement is about the truth of their abilities and good qualities and past successes; it’s not mere flattery. Consider trying to say at least one true thing before going to bed each night that acknowledges your partner. No matter how peeved you might be at dishes undone, diapers unchanged, or bills unpaid.

Calm Facts

Sometimes it helps a lot to say what you think the facts are in a worrisome situation. You’ve got to be careful with this one, so that the other person doesn’t think you are diminishing his or her concerns. But when the moment is right, a cool dose of reality can be very relieving.


When a person is upset, the whole world tends to close in, so it’s useful to get a wider view. You might ask the other person to scale the problem from one to ten, or to put it in a larger context, or to consider if it will make much difference a month or year from now. For most problems, time is on our side: wounds heal, grass grows back, we usually make more money the older we get, and all children eventually sleep through the night.

Being Loving

We all know what it feels like to be loving – even when we have to use our own will to bring up and express some lovingness that was not the first thing on our mind. For example, every parent has brought love to a child who was being stressful or irritating. We can certainly do the same for our mate. It’s just a matter of deciding to do so. Some people do this as a matter of spiritual practice; all the great religious teachers have talked about loving those who irk or wrong us. More conventionally, you can recall something that makes you appreciate or care for your partner. Or bring to mind a sense of his or her suffering, struggles, and yearning like all of us to be happy. Then act on that loving feeling in some appropriate way: often just a small gesture, maybe a back scratch, or a smile or gentle look. Those small moments, adding up day by day, help knit a relationship together for a lifetime.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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