gimmie shelter
June 28, 2014 8:43 AM   Subscribe

How do you be a 'safe space' for someone? Have you defeated your habit of emotionally checking out when things get hairy?

pretend that I am an alien come to earth to learn your customs and culture. (this is not far off, both my parents were personality disordered) How do you be a safe space for someone?

my bf is going through a stressful period at work. I am great at being materially supportive, buying little gifts or making dinner or trying to make him laugh. But recently he told me that I emotionally check out when things get rough and he's left feeling unsupported and alone with his emotion. He expresses his stress through venting. He doesn't take it out on me, he just talks about his day with emotion in his voice, usually frustration, hopelessness or resentment. (he's leading a large expensive project with several sub-par members). I find the rawness of his emotion a little hard to take sometimes. I can handle sadness and pain but truthfully I find his anger uncomfortable. He gets in a funk like there's a storm cloud around his head and his body language is lethargic and I figure I'll just give him space and leave him alone until it all blows over. He says thats hurtful and he wants me to just be with him but I don't know how to be with him without starting to feel bad myself, or starting to get worried that his anger is somehow a threat to our relationship.

I'm your typical 1950s husband (except I'm a woman), so I go into logic solve your problem mode. I listen to his problems and then try to give him ideas to help. Part of me also thinks he brings this on himself by his approach to the situation and I want to correct that. When he says he feels alone and unsupported I want to say: look I come home don't I? I buy you shit, don't I? What more do you want? You want me to sit and be depressed with you? because I can't do that it will bring us both down. I don't know what to do or how to be that would communicate presence & support.

The thing is I'm pretty sure he's right on the money. My mother was the same way - technically there but emotionally absent. She would cut me out and it felt like I didn't even exist. I've known people like that too, they are casual friends only, can't handle depth. So clearly I am disappointed to hear him say that he's feeling that shallowness from me when things hit the fan.

He is definitely more dialed in emotionally than I am. When I'm the one with the problem he is very sensitive and knows the right thing to say to make me feel better. He comes from a normal family & had a good rel with his mom. He's more your securely attached type whereas I am anxious/ambivalent/avoidant/disorganized. He likes intimacy and I can only handle so much before I want to run off and do other things. It is work for me to stay and 'be' there. Yes I know I'm lucky to have him.

We have talked about all this, we can talk very deeply and honestly so that's good. But he can't describe what he actually needs me to do when I 'be there' for him, or what I'm doing that leaves him feeling like I am not there and that is where you all come in.

so... how do you be a safe space for someone? how do you keep connected to your s.o. during strong emotions? have you grown from being emotionally shallow to deep? have you had people emotionally check out on you, what did it look like and how should they have done it differently? I have tried mindfulness, so moment-by-moment descriptions are welcome. thanks everyone.
posted by serenity soonish to Human Relations (25 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Vent to your therapist. (What you should say to him). Keep doing the nice things you feel good about. You don't have to be everything for someone. He needs other outlets for processing his raw emotions.
posted by nanook at 8:59 AM on June 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

"You want me to sit and be depressed with you?"

I think that you have to be with him, and show empathy, show as much as you can that you understand. I also think that you should approach it from a soothing perspective - how can you make him feel better? You don't have to know the right thing to say either. But that empathetic listening is really important. By focusing on offering solutions, you are showing that you're
'not there' in some sense - he's trying to deal with the emotions he's feeling about the situation, and you're trying to change the situation right now. You can still express these solutions at another time when things are less keyed up, but perhaps not when he's feeling bad.

You also express though that being in the presence of this raw anger makes you feel bad, and this is entirely fair as well. For this reason I think its fair to ask that this doesn't occupy your entire evening, and that you have a chance to either have time on your own, or time where you can sit together and have normal conversations or activities. I agree that you aren't responsible to be the person he vents too all the time, but you express in your post that you want to find a way to support him, and being 'present' emotionally is important.
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:04 AM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

But he can't describe what he actually needs me to do when I 'be there' for him

Have you ever vented to him when you were angry? How did he respond? You could take a cue from that.

BUT ... I am very threatened by anger and intense emotions, even when not directed at me, and I will absolutely check out and/or panic. I have Reasons for this and I'm sure you do too. It's not something that can be switched off overnight.

Coming from this POV, I think this is something you can work on but if he really needs to vent to someone who is comfortable with the venting he should seek support from others (therapist, family, friends) who are more able to do this. He needs someone to help lift a 100-pound couch - he can handle 50 and you can handle 40. With weight training you could definitely be able to lift a full 50 but not tomorrow, and it's ok to ask someone else to pitch in for the extra 10% for the time being.
posted by bunderful at 9:10 AM on June 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

It sounds like the things you, making him dinner or trying to make him laugh...these are things that would be helpful to you in a similar situation, but they're not helpful to him.

I'm sure you're aware of the AskMe trope of Chapman's 5 Love Languages, but it seems like you're providing gifts and acts of service and he needs...I don't know...not those.

You feel like you're giving it your all, and you are. You're speaking a language, though, that he doesn't understand. So you're trying to be loving in a way that makes sense for you but he doesn't feel supported by it. Sounds pretty frustrating for both of you.

What I suggest is the two of you talk when he's in a good place, and you can ask him how he would best feel supported. I think you should make it clear that he really needs to think about it and help you by coming up with concrete ideas, because responding he doesn't know how you can help but what you're doing isn't helping...that's not cool. He can't complain about an issue if he has no idea how to fix it.

**I want to add that I was with someone who displayed very similar behavior. I ended up realizing that he just liked to complain, that he was just incredibly negative about everything, and that, bluntly, he drove me insane. I could NEVER help him with problems because EVERYTHING was a problem. So it can also be a personality thing. But I completely get being annoyed as hell about listening to someone carry on about issues that aren't really issues and also bringing on most of their headaches. I get it.
posted by kinetic at 9:16 AM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

What strikes me about this is that you are framing the problem mostly in terms of you having to do better, whereas your boyfriend could just as easily be asking this question in terms of how he could do a better job compartmentalizing and keeping his problems at work from intruding into his personal time with you and dragging you down.

You don't say whether he's making the connection between the way you respond here and the way your mother would respond. Maybe it's you who are making that connection, but if he's making it, that's not fighting fair.

I would continue to ask for clarification about what he thinks support looks like in these situations. He should be able to articulate what he needs if he is asking you to change something. But most of all, I hope you are willing to acknowledge and stand up for your own needs here.
posted by alphanerd at 9:21 AM on June 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

When Anger Scares You is a great, practical book for learning how to be ok with your own anger and other people's (non-abusive) anger.

The quick-and-dirty answer is generally: In order to get out of fight-flight-freeze mode, we need to breathe deeply and slowly to signal to our brains that we're physically safe. Once that's going, we can add "self-talk" reminding us that we're safe; so, saying things like "I'm safe, my boyfriend is not my parents, we can talk this through, he's not mad at me," etc. to yourself. Remember that one cannot (literally, cannot) help anyone else process their emotions until you are calm and centered yourself -- if you're in fight-flight-freeze mode, your body and brain are totally hijacked with the need to ensure survival, and that's a not a state from which anyone can do anything other than, well, fight or flee or freeze.

Time-outs can also help; if a partner is getting overwhelmed and their brain is being hijacked by anxiety, they can ask for a time out (20 minutes, an hour, a day) as long as they specify (and stick to) a time when they will return to check in. The time-out should be used as a period to do the breathing/self-talk/calming activities to get one's nervous system back under control.

All of this is a skill set that one can learn, but it does require practice and, like any new skill set, it'll feel weird and uncomfortable at first, but that's ok -- that's how we learn new things.
posted by jaguar at 9:22 AM on June 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

Look. I am your boyfriend and my boyfriend is you. He's just not Mr. Emotional.

I don't go to him for that. Frankly I don't want to wallow and feel bad but sometimes I need to vent. He makes me feel supported when he says:
- What can I do to help?
- I'm sorry, that is really rough.
- Want to get some ice cream?
- Don't question yourself or your self-worth.

And I realize that I can't get everything from one person. He is just not my go-to guy for things of a deeply emotional nature. I don't personally need or want that from my romantic partner. Perhaps your boyfriend can do some thinking about other ways he can get this need met.

You two may just not be well matched. There is only so much you can do. Keep being yourself, try asking him what he concretely needs from you - not just "I want you to be with me" but what does "being with him" practically look like and mean? Ask him what his ideal is and then try to see what parts of that you can practically do. But don't beat yourself up if you can't do it. He might need something that you can't give and that is ok. He can get it elsewhere or you two can part ways if getting this need met by his romantic partner is important enough to be a dealbreaker to him.
posted by sockermom at 9:22 AM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When he vents, he's talking about his emotions, not his problems. He doesn't want solutions, he wants acknowledgment. Going straight into problem-solving mode can feel dismissive to someone who's trying to get his emotions out, and it can sound like you're blaming him for getting into these problems in the first place. Acknowledge him, listen, let him drive the conversation, say things that are a reflection (or your interpretation) of what he's thinking rather than introducing your own ideas.

It sounds like he already knows how he likes to be supported when he gets in a mood like this, so ask him for more help. Do it when neither of you are stressed; it'll be easier for him to clarify what he needs. Ask questions like "what can I say to help?" and "when you get angry/depressed/frustrated, what helps you release those feelings?" I get the sense he can help you help him, but it's best to discuss it when he's not tied up in strong emotions.

And remember that it's totally fair for you not to be a dumping ground for his emotions. You can say (again, when neither of you are stressed) that you're not well-equipped to handle all of his venting, and while you'll do what you can, you do have limits. It's also beyond reasonable to say, if there's a repeated source of frustration for him, something like "I've noticed that X makes you angry a lot. You're welcome to vent about X to me anytime, but it concerns me that X bothers you so often and I think you'd be happier if you started taking steps to solve it." Don't tell him how to fix it, just mention that you've noticed it's a recurring thing that could be fixed.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:22 AM on June 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

It would help if he could explain what exactly what he wants you to do, because everyone is different. Some people like it when their SO tries to help solve the problem for them, others like it when the SO distracts them with things like "so what movie should we watch"? When he says "be there for me," what exactly does that mean? What does he think it means? If he can't articulate that to you, then he's being a bit unfair.

This reminds me of a guy I knew, a potential SO, when he vented that he couldn't solve a particularly hard engineering problem at work. "I can't figure out why widget X is experiencing electrical leakage!" he fumed. I know nothing about engineering, and so what was I supposed to do? Just say "I'm sorry to hear that."? Offer him soup, or a movie distraction, or rub his shoulders? Be depressed with him? It turned out that what he really wanted was for someone to say, "Oh, I know exactly what you mean, well, why don't you try attaching widget Y?" (Hello, Me-Harmony.) And since that was the one option I couldn't do, he wasn't interested in pursuing the relationship.

Instead of just being depressed with him about a problem that you can't relate to, try leaving him alone for a while, and then rubbing his shoulders and offering him his favorite things (food, slippers, whatever it is). And that's all you can do, unless he articulates what exactly he needs.
posted by Melismata at 9:23 AM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and it might help to realize that you probably don't have to do anything other than listen. The pressure to solve someone else's problem, rather than just listen to it, can ramp up anxiety and cause the listener to check out, too.
posted by jaguar at 9:23 AM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

My dad is an angry venter and it was the most toxic part of my childhood. Have you ever told your BF, "I love you and I want to help. When you vent, your anger is palpable and understandable, but also very upsetting and scary. For me to help you effectively, I need less of that anger to be there. I also need you to tell me what you need from me when you are upset. I cannot read your mind, but I want to know what I can do."
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:32 AM on June 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This short about empathy might be helpful to you. It's hard to turn off the "problem solver", but is is important.
posted by Gorgik at 9:39 AM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The skill you're working on acquiring is sometimes called empathetic listening.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:45 AM on June 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Reflective listening and just being there, holding him if he likes that kind of comfort, may help. But this is reminding me a little bit of a dynamic with my boyfriend, in which he IS objectively doing all the "right things," but I still don't feel supported because I can sense that he desperately wishes he could leave.

It's not your fault that you want to escape! But if you think picking up on this is one of the reasons he feels dissatisfied, you could try to get into a mental space where you're 100% directed toward him, setting aside all your own stuff and just letting his stuff flow over you.

It could also be that he wants you to empathize to the point where you actually feel the same stuff he's feeling. If that's the case, you probably don't want to go there, and could help him work to find other methods of feeling supported.
posted by metasarah at 9:50 AM on June 28, 2014

It seems to me that he could do a better job of not venting to you like you're his therapist. So maybe part of what needs to happen here is for you to acknowledge that the situation isn't all your fault.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:50 AM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't give advice unless asked. Listen underneath the content for the emotions. Name and/or validate his emotions. React in kind if you're feeling it. Defend him from himself.

name / validate
- wow you seem really discouraged right now
- ah, honey, you sound like you're feeling hopeless
- it is really discouraging when you've put so much energy into those policies and they just disregard them.
- that is so frustrating!
- how infuriating!

If appropriate and you're actually feeling it, get in the same feeling with him:
- anger: "I can't believe she did that!!" "He did what!?" "This guy is the worst!"
- frustration: "what else are you supposed to do? You've tried everything!"
- sadness: "Oh, I'm so sad that happened to you."

Defend him from himself and tell him what he's doing right:
- You've been working so hard on this
- do you think Bob just said that about you because Bob is feeling guilty himself? Because you're definitely not xyz.
- you did try to prevent it, remember? You weren't careless at all, you tried everything you could think of.
posted by salvia at 10:10 AM on June 28, 2014 [18 favorites]

I got some useful answers from this question I asked a while back. I tried some of the things that were suggested, and they seemed to really work when dealing with other people.

Think of how a talk therapist would handle this. Lots of nodding, eye contact, non-verbal acknowledgement, giving the other person space to think and then speak rather than rushing to fill the silence, etc.

I do think, though, that your boyfriend needs to spend some time thinking about what you can do that would help and then telling you that. It's a little unfair to make out that something is wrong without telling you how you can improve. If he wants you to hold his hand, that's cool, but if he doesn't tell you that, he can't really expect you to know that, especially if you haven't been in the sort of environment where you would have learned.

It's OK that you don't know this. People can't always be what other people need them to be. If you really want to learn, that's cool too. But you're not a bad person for not wanting to sink into someone else's sadness with them. Maybe he could find a more appropriate outlet for his emotional states.
posted by Solomon at 10:12 AM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Try to figure out the emotion behind what he's saying, acknowledgement can go a long way..
'it sounds like you feel x/y/z?'
'Do you feel x/y/z? when a/b/c happens?'
'How do you feel?'
'I'm sorry you feel x, y, z'
'Is there anything that would help you feel less angry/a bit better/ a bit more in control in the situation?'

You don't need to know it all.. some things he will be better be able to figure out with a receptive ear.
posted by tanktop at 10:28 AM on June 28, 2014

.. and a big hug!
posted by tanktop at 10:28 AM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

He expresses his stress through venting. He doesn't take it out on me, he just talks about his day with emotion in his voice, usually frustration, hopelessness or resentment.

I am him. Oh, god, do I just need to BITCH sometimes about how shitty things are. And, oh, god, most people just do not deal well with that. They wind up feeling attacked by me and then I end up apologizing and feeling crappy for venting and it's horrible.

My oldest son knows exactly how to handle these situations. He is not an emotional person, so his approach might work well for you. He basically just gives me lots and lots of validation.

I bitch and moan about something for a bit too long, he humorously calls me "Ms. Crankypants" and suggests my period will probably start soon. He doesn't expect me to stop bitching. But he does point out that it is bitching.

I express Big Feels about something. He acknowledges that I feel that way, without judgment. And just feeling heard and not judged does wonders for me. He often says "Geez, NO ONE listened to you or validated you when you were little." because I act like the happiest four year old ever just to be validated and acknowledged.

He often describes the feeling I am having: "Boy, you sound mad." or "Well, aren't we pouty today." He does not do it in a way that suggests I need to just stfu and get off his back. He just mirrors back to me "You are so obviously feeling x emotion." And I feel like I can breathe and I enthuse 'YES, I totally feel X. I feel so much X!!!" and I feel tons and tons better. And, usually, all he has to do is acknowledge how I feel and I promptly feel better and stop bugging the crap out of him.

He also laughs when my mood is so bad that it turns to dark humor. I make an ugly joke and he laughs. Other people are horrified and then I feel bad and it's a terrible experience. But he actually laughs at my ugly, pissed off jokes and I adore him for that. I think he is the bestest person ever.

So maybe some of that will help.
posted by Michele in California at 11:59 AM on June 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Acknowledging his emotions is the way to go, e.g., "sounds like you're angry... I would be too." Empathy means getting in there and feeling along with him, and that can be really hard to do when he has a negative (and scary) emotion. I wonder if it might be helpful to practice this with another person, where the stakes aren't so high. Maybe tell a friend you are working on this skill, and if they feel comfortable with that, ask them to tell you about something that annoyed them or even made them angry. It can be really hard not to jump in with solutions, but if you remind yourself ahead of time, that will help.

Another thought-- after he does some talking about his job, could you both go for a walk or a run? I find exercise really helps me to calm down from an intense emotion, perhaps that will help you too.
posted by tuesdayschild at 12:31 PM on June 28, 2014

Best answer: I also feel threatened by my husband's venting. What helps me is, weirdly, emotional distancing. I pretend I'm like a help line employee/ professional empathiser and it's my job to listen the shit out of his rant!
It helps me feel like his emotions are nothing personal and therefore not threatening. Additionally, it lets me try out different things to say and file away the results for next time.

I would encourage you to try out some of the following lines that worked for me.
- Oh my goodness, he really said / did that?!
- i would be so pissed off. I totally get why you're mad.
- that sounds awful / annoying / bad / stupid!
- (if he appreciates angry joking, maybe invent stupid nicknames for the stupid people in his life, or wish worse fates on them than he would.)
- You rock because you didn't let x happen / said that snappy thing / kept your temper etc.
- listening words like huh, wow, uhuh, damn, etc.
- you sound depressed / mad / frustrated
- so how do you feel / think about it now?
If his steam level decreases, use the phrase again next time. If it makes it worse, discard phrase.

Things that didn't work:
- why didn't you do x / I would have done x ( criticism)
- he probably did it because he felt... (Who gives a shit why!)
- why don't you try... (Advice = criticism)

Basically, don't be an expert on his problem, don't problem solve. Instead, be his biggest fan. Show him he is the expert and you have complete faith in his version of events. you're his Team You.

I have to say, though, how often does he vent? Because more than twice a week would get old for me pretty fast.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:49 PM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

You're focusing on the problems he is experiencing instead of the feelings he is experiencing. He wants you to focus on the latter and validate those feelings (wow that sucks, that must've been frustrating (or whatever emotion he is expressing), I'm sorry that happened, etc.). He is not looking for you solve the problem, so stop trying to.

I know that sounds really counter-intuitive for someone who is solution-focused but try to trust your bf's ability to handle the situation in practice (aka trust that he doesn't need advice on what to do) and instead see yourself as someone who helps him get his emotions balanced so he doesn't feel emotionally exhausted.
posted by buteo at 5:23 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think one of the main issues here is that you not only feel triggered by his anger and sadness, but you also fly into identifying with his emotions.

Being a safe space doesn't necessarily mean feeling your partner's feelings. Sometimes it requires you having some distance and seeing your lover as a completely separate person. You can affirm and validate their feelings without feeling pressured to share in the experience of their negative emotions. Sometimes you want someone to feel your pain, but other times you want them to simply allow you to be in pain and hold your hand through a difficult moment. I suspect in your case, it would help to work on the "hand-holding" without also trying to take on your boyfriend's emotional experience. Try to maintain some neutrality (internally) even if you say something empathetic like "I feel you.." or "I understand.."

So in other words, try to validate his feelings and stay with him but inside, affirm the following:

"We are separate people. I do not have to feel his feelings. I do not have to solve his problems. I just have to be here, in this moment."

Then, just focusing on being there. And as someone said up thread, try to breathe. Stay present. But don't try to psychically take on the burden of feeling his pain.
posted by Gray Skies at 8:27 PM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

My husband and I briefly had a rule that I was only allowed to tell x number of stories about work ppl (which were really whinging sessions) and he has to actively listen to those stories (using something like empathetic listening strategies). It was useful because it kept my ranting in check and enabled him to see an end in sight, and so engage more meaningfully. Once he listened more actively I often felt satisfied more quickly anyway.
posted by jojobobo at 2:14 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

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