Recently, a female client, who had just started working part-time again after a 10-year hiatus, told me a story about a man she was dating, with whom she was generally very happy. “He doesn’t seem to get that I’m stretched to the max. Instead of just managing the house and my kids, I’m now working at the doctor’s office six hours too. I’m running to keep up. Why won’t he step up to the plate and help me or at least understand that I’m overwhelmed?”
I inquired if she had asked him 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 him or her to intuit your need or automatically know you want help.
In my last blog, we learned about gender differences in the way people ask for help. Men often give instrumental support—the practical type that aims to solve the problem. Typically, men also like to get instrumental support. Women, on the other hand, tend to seek emotional support—the type of empathetic support that makes them feel listened to. This is the kind of help women tend to offer also. Both types of support are valuable and necessary.
In this second blog of the series, we’ll focus on how to ask your partner for help.
The sense of being able to count on your partner for help turns out to be a key to relationship happiness. In my study of couples over time, I found that healthy relationships require a steady supply of mutual support and assistance. My research shows that the more willing you and your significant other are to support each other and be supported, the stronger your mutual bond will become. In fact, over 90 percent of the happy couples in my study felt that their partner was someone they could count on often to support them.
We may think of help as something our partner does only in an emergency. But there’s another type of help: the everyday kind of social support that involves your partner listening to you when you need to talk, cheering you up when you are feeling down, or doing chores when you are exhausted from work or family responsibilities.
You can’t simply assume that your partner will notice when you are in distress. Sometimes, you have to ask for help. But it can be difficult to ask someone for help and support. Here are 5 strategies for doing it:
1. Identify the need. Examine the problem at hand and what you really 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? Do you just need to vent and get it all out of your system?
2. Communicate the need. Talk to your partner about the problem and what specifically you need. Don’t expect that person to read your mind.
3. Appreciate and validate the help. Remember that people have different styles of helping: Some are serious, some use humor, some jump right in, some hold back a while. Appreciate all the help your partner is able to offer.
4. Coach your partner, if needed. If your partner isn’t helping you—or in fact, is being critical or counterproductive — it’s all right to give him or her some coaching. Try saying, “I know you’re trying to help. However, this isn’t that helpful. But here’s what would be helpful.”
5. Continue to seek help. When things are going well, make sure you continue to seek support from your partner — not just during the really stressful times. Remember that taking and giving support on a regular basis is important for your mental health and for the health of the relationship as well.
Having and being a supportive significant other plays a significant role in maintaining happy relationships. Your relationship will get stronger once you understand key differences in how the two genders seek and offer support, and learn how to ask for the type of help you need.