20 Ways to Help Your Partner through a Difficult Time
Updated: Sep 24, 2018
I originally wrote this post in 2017 as a thank you to my husband, Tom, who has been an incredible support to me. The ideas I’ve shared work for us; hopefully some of them will work for you too. You can download this as a PDF handout here.
1. Look after your own wellbeing
I’m putting this top of the list for a reason. It’s the very most important thing you can do. I became aware quite early on of the huge toll that worrying about and looking after me was having on Tom. It’s very hard – and yes, you want to be there for your partner but if you are not physically and mentally well yourself then you won’t be able to support for long. Be selfish in order to be selfless by getting enough sleep, eating well and finding someone you can offload to.
2. Do some research
Whatever difficulty your partner is facing, the chances are that there are books you can read, websites full of information, helplines to call or charities who will help you. Learning at least a little about the difficulties that your partner is facing will far better enable you to help them. You don’t have to become an expert (though you probably will) but a little knowledge goes a long way, especially in the early days.
3. Encourage them to seek help
If you suspect your partner would benefit from professional help of any kind, be firm but fair in supporting them to access such help. It may be an impossible hurdle for them without your help and guidance.
4. Talk about the hard times during easier times
The moment when your partner needs your help the most is the time when they are least likely to be able to work out, or articulate, how you can best help them. When things are easier, talk about what was helpful or least helpful during the last wobbly patch and think about what might work well next time. Being as honest as possible here is important for both partners. It will sometimes mean taking it on the chin if you got something wrong; but remember, it’s a learning process – be prepared to learn from each other.
5. Relieve the burden of every day jobs and responsibilities
Simple things like ensuring that practical tasks such as cleaning, ironing, walking the dog and picking the kids up can make a huge difference. Giving your partner the time and space they need to heal is often very helpful. Think about the daily tasks that normally fall to them and consider whether you can relieve the burden, buy in help or ask a friend to pitch in. Check with your partner first though as some people might welcome the distraction of practical jobs.
6. Be flexible, things change
So maybe this week taking the bins out for your partner is helpful, but next week it’s not. Keep talking; things will change week by week, day by day, hour by hour.
7. Act as the frontline for well wishers
Your partner might feel overwhelmed by people wishing them well in person, by phone, by email or over social media. It’s a lovely problem to have but can sometimes lead to feelings of guilt if it’s hard to respond, or can be tricky if you partner doesn’t feel able to spend time with visitors. Acting as a gatekeeper can really help to protect your partner. You can discuss what level and what type of contact they’re ready for and from whom and you can help to make this happen. For you it may feel like a fairly small job but it can relieve a huge burden from your partner, especially if you’re also able to acknowledge and thank well wishers on your partner’s behalf.
8. Tell people how your partner really is
When people ask how your partner is, the temptation is often to fall in line with social convention and say ‘fine’ or ‘getting better’ or similar and your partner may fall foul of the same trap. This can be unhelpful as it paints an unrealistic picture for friends, family and colleagues who may not realise you still need time, support and kindness. Talk to your partner about how much they are willing for you to share with others and, assuming your partner is happy with it, help to paint a more realistic picture of how things are.
9. Help people understand that this will take a while
People love a quick fix. It’s unlikely to happen. Make this clear to people – it can help to relieve the burden from your partner who may feel obligated to put on a brave face and return to work or social situations before they are ready or with inadequate support in place.
10.When people want to help, give them practical suggestions
Something Tom and I have been hugely grateful for is the huge amount of love and support that those around us have been wiling to offer. However, a lot of people just didn’t know what to do to help. Giving people very practical suggestions means that you and your partner will get better support and will also make the people helping feel like they’re doing something meaningful. People love to help - give them jobs to do!
11. Physically be there
Give them a cuddle. Hold their hand. Keep them company. Be a shoulder to cry on. When you love someone, having them close by is often the biggest support of all.
12. Be on the end of the phone
You can’t always physically be there, but sometimes just hearing your voice will help, or a brief message that reminds your partner that you care about them (it doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful).
13. Prioritise your partner where possible
Work and other commitments will get in the way, but when your partner faces a really difficult time, making them your top priority where possible will make a huge difference. This can be tricky to navigate; the fact that Tom has made me his number one priority came with a huge dose of guilt. However, it also meant that I had the support and strength I needed to battle harder and faster, shortening my recovery time by many months and improving the chances of a sustainable recovery.
14. Accompany your partner to appointments
Not everyone will want or need this, but many people will find it helpful. Sometimes it’s helpful to actually attend appointments with your partner, other times helping them with the journey and being there to talk to afterwards is enough. Some appointments might be more stressful than others so discuss this with your partner if you can attend some but not all. Don’t be afraid to ask people to schedule appointment times at a time that will enable you to attend. It won’t always be possible but it is always worth asking.
15. Make and take phone calls
Simple things like making appointments might be really stressful for your partner but a breeze for you – if so, offer to pick up these jobs.
16. Act as a sounding board for difficult decisions
Help your partner in their decision-making – don’t be afraid to play Devil’s advocate and to be honest. Consider the impact of decisions not just on your partner but the whole family.
17. Remember you’re a partner not a parent
Unless things are really difficult, make decisions with, not for, your partner and don’t tell them what to do. Falling into the trap of a child-parent relationship can lead to resentment and difficulties in both the short term and the long term for both of you.
18. Remember you’re a partner not a therapist
Likewise, if your partner is seeing a therapist, then this is a job you don’t need to do. You might support your partner in working through the conversations that have been had in sessions, but let the professionals do their job ask to join a session if there are issues you feel strongly need to be explored with your involvement.
19. Make time for fun!
This is so important. Distraction is great and whatever difficulties it is that your partner is facing now, hopefully things will improve and the two of you will still have a relationship the other side; so keep working on enjoying each other’s company and making time for each other which is not dominated by the current situation. It can be helpful to develop specific timings, locations or other boundaries about when your partner’s issues will be discussed and when you will make a conscious effort to take a break from them.
20. Tell your partner how they can help you
Finally, no matter how wrapped up in our own problems we may seem, we love you. We want you to be okay and we want to be there for you too. Tell us what we can do to help you. For Tom and I, his key concern is that I need to be honest with him, even when it’s hard to hear. He wants to know if I’m suicidal or if I’ve self-harmed or if he’s said or done unhelpful things. He feels far more confident that I’m safe if he knows that I’ll tell him when I’m not. There may be all sorts of things your partner can do differently to support you – if so tell them. They’ll want to help.
I hope these ideas have provided some food for thought. If you’re reading this because your partner is facing any kind of difficulty and you want to help them better then thank you. I can’t begin to describe the difference it has made to me having Tom walk alongside me through difficult times and I’m sure the same will be true for your partner too. Good luck!
If you have ideas to add, please leave a comment – and if you found this post helpful, please take a moment to comment below or to share it. It means a huge amount to me when people do so.
P.S. you might also like this video which is about self-care when you are a carer, beause you matter too..