WAfyWF: When you don’t know how to help

Question: How do I support my partner through trauma when we speak different love languages?

My partner and I speak different love languages, especially when it comes to sex. I like to feel emotionally connected before being intimate and my partner likes to be intimate to help feel emotionally connected. I also tend to value verbal communications, reassurances, and external validation as part of being supported, while my partner processes a lot of feelings internally. These different languages have been highlighted lately because of a traumatic event in my partner’s life. Lately, I have had a hard time feeling supportive because I don’t actually DO anything. My partner considers just basic stuff as supportive so, for example, if dinner is covered and one less thing to think about, that is support. Coupled with the differences in our sexual styles, it feels like my partner only affirmatively asks me for sex and I feel like I don’t have much to offer besides that (but again, this is based on what I value, not necessarily what my partner values). I know cognitively what is happening but I can’t seem to stop feeling like I am not very helpful in my partner’s healing. I realize I should probably talk about this but I also feel like I am centering myself in my partner’s healing process, which feels a little shitty. I would appreciate any advice or insight you may have on this!

Answer: You can’t do the work for them, but you can be present with them.

When someone we love is suffering, we can’t carry the burden, heal the heartbreak, learn the lesson, or solve the puzzle for them, so we provide the practical things — sustenance, intimacy, comfort, safety. It’s the most basic way we care for one another, but it doesn’t remove their pain. And it doesn’t feel like enough, does it? So for starters, recognize that you’re coming from a place of love and wanting to help (because you’re a good human!) and that there are limits to what you can do (because … human). 

It sounds like your partner has been somewhat consumed by their experience, but that doesn’t mean your needs disappear. If your partner can’t provide the closeness you need, you may be depleting your reserves to support them.  It can feel extra awful to need something we know our partner isn’t currently capable of providing, but your needs are valid. I urge you to take comfort in your friends. Lean in to your community. Ask for a hug. Call your family members. Nourish yourself by connecting with people who have joy to share. And don’t be ashamed of asking for support from your friends or engaging in extra self-care.  

The pain of trauma does not disappear quickly, and it doesn’t deal well with being ignored, so while your partner may not want to talk about it, the two of you will need to find a way to let it be present without putting it in control of your lives. Try talking with your partner about how you’d both like to spend time together. Do you need to veg out and watch reality TV for a few days, or would it feel like a release to go for a hike? Hang out together in a way that doesn’t require a lot of talking. Mental and emotional exhaustion are very real, and trauma can leave a person feeling hollowed out and unable to give more than the most basic level of connection, so keep it easy for now. Play video games. Color. Sit quietly together or listen to a record. Sometimes just by being physically (platonically) present with someone, you can feel connected in a quiet, comforting way that helps to build the intimacy and connection you both need. If your partner needs time alone, try to respect that. This is another opportunity to lean in to your community and fill your reserves of positivity. If possible, encourage your partner to spend time with friends who you know to be a positive influence for them. Ask whether they’ve checked in with their best friend lately. 

I hope you and your partner have a few mutual friends who would enjoy laid back hangouts with you both. A little bit of outside support from compassionate people can help stabilize things for both of you. Be sure to pick friends who you know to be non-judgemental and kind. If you have friends who have opened up to you in their time of need, it’s a pretty safe bet that they will understand your need for connection now, and they can help you both feel less alone and more supported. If you and your partner feel up to a casual cookout, hike, or other low-key activity, invite a friend or two and go do something that will help shift your minds away from the suffering that’s been holding your attention. Time spent in nature is especially helpful for emotional healing, so get familiar with your nearest park. The pain will not go away entirely, but you might be reminded of the goodness in the world, which can help in dire times. 

You mentioned that your partner likes to have sex in order to feel close while you work the opposite way. In these cases, sometimes it can be hard to find the middle ground, but remember that you don’t have to have sex when it doesn’t feel right to you. If your body is saying “no thank you” or your mind is elsewhere, don’t force yourself to do anything. I think your partner would feel pretty bad if they thought you were having sex with them out of obligation rather than a truly free choice. So take your time, and try to be patient. Remember that not all physical intimacy has to be sexual. You can snuggle together, take a shower, trade foot rubs, or even work out together. There are tons of ways to be physically present with a person that help build connection without requiring you to have unwanted sex. 

When you both have very low emotional and energetic resources, your relationship may look and feel quite different than when you’re both at your strongest. The point is not necessarily to get back to where you were pre-trauma, but to love each other through this challenging situation and come out stronger on the other side. Your relationship will very possibly be changed forever after this, but it can be a change for the better if you’re both willing to approach it as a learning and growing process.