“Comfort me, god dammit!” My sister and I agree this is perhaps the most “our mother” phrase of all time. My mom said this to her husband earlier this week when, to the surprise of no one, he wasn’t sure how to deal with her frustration over a medical issue. She’d just been told she is supposed to stop drinking alcohol, tea, caffeine, and anything carbonated, which, if you do the math, leaves you with basically nothing fun to drink. She was pissed (and rightly so!), and he had no idea what to do. She eventually called me, and I did a fantastic job of comforting her. Or at least I knocked it out of the park in comparison to her unendingly sweet but ultimately lost husband.
As a general rule, women are better at comforting people. I don’t know if it’s because of our biology or the way we’re socialized—probably both—but women tend to be better at empathizing and emoting. And even if a woman isn’t actually very good at providing comfort, the task often falls to her anyway. That means that in hetero relationships, there are a lot of times when women carry your emotional burdens as well as their own. Part of being a good partner (along with never wearing basketball shorts in public, unless you’re actually playing basketball) is learning how to be a source of comfort for your significant other. I know it's hard, because I used to be terrible at comforting people: Watching a person cry or even just vent was like the feeling of not knowing what to do with your hands in a photo, but 100 times more uncomfortable. But once you learn the rules, it becomes easy.
So listen up. No, really, that’s the rule. Your number one priority when dealing with an upset person should be listening. My fifth-grade science teacher used to have a poster in her room that said, “Listen and silent have the same letters,” and I remember thinking, “I get your point, but that doesn’t mean they relate. Bored and robed also have the same letters.” But the advice behind the terrible poster is solid. Shut your mouth. Talk even less than you think you should, and then even less than that. A great exercise to help you listen is staying silent just two seconds longer than you normally would. Not only will it make your partner feel heard, but often a person will continue talking when presented with the opportunity to do so—and you want an upset person to talk. Let her fill that extra space, not you. Your job is not to fill silences but to leave them wide, wide, wide open.
Even if what we're dealing with doesn't have the magnitude of an actual death, a lot of less grave sadnesses and disappointments include some degree of grief. One of the most useless things to say when you’re confronted with sadness and grief (as opposed to worry) is "Everything is fine." It’s okay for things to be bad; acknowledge that things are bad. It’s not going to make the person despair more; it's going to make them feel validated. If you ask yourself what people are really grieving over when you’re comforting them, it can help you figure out what to say. Maybe they’re grieving abstract things like “my friendship with Kendra” or “not getting the promotion” or “the trips I won’t go on now that my car is totaled,” and in those cases, helping someone articulate why they're upset can be helpful. A handy plug-in equation: “It sucks that" + the thing that sucks about the situation. If you must say something (listen!), say variations of that over and over.
But, you say, I have a good idea for how to fix the problem! No. Even if it is so, so, so, so obvious to you that if your girlfriend should just tell her friend Kendra that she doesn’t want to be a bridesmaid. Even if it’s very clear to you that she should stop expecting her father to change. Or quit her second job to focus on school. Or not have rented such an expensive apartment right now. Giving advice when someone wants comfort is the epitome of Alanis’s "10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife." No matter how evident the solution seems to you, giving advice at an unwanted time only ever comes across as patronizing. Usually people already know how to solve their problems. They just want to vent. So when you try to solve their problems for them, it reads as a dismissal of what they’re feeling about it. They want to talk about that, rather than the problem itself. You can always ask at the beginning of the conversation, “Do you want to vent or problem solve?” It’s shocking how helpful straightforward communication can be.
A good way to avoid giving advice is to just ask questions. Supportive silence (please add in a few “uh-huhs” and “mmm-hmms,” for the love of God) is your best friend, but if you do feel the need to say anything, make it a question. “What is it that worries you most?” works. Or “What is your best-case scenario?” Even a simple “Why?” after she makes a statement will give her room to do more emoting, and for women, often the verbal diarrhea that comes with emoting is what leads us to the solution we were looking for, if there is one.
It’s also worth noting that advice is different than encouragement. You can absolutely encourage your partner without telling her what to do. “You’re doing great already; we’re going to take this one day at a time” is infinitely better than “The reason you aren’t losing weight is because you keep eating seven Trader Joe’s Hold the Cone mini ice cream cones every night.” We know the cones are bad.
If you can listen and then say, “I’m sorry, that sounds very difficult” in a sincere way (“Wow, that sucks shit”), you’re already doing better than most men. Just don't you dare start a sentence with “You know what I would do…”
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