How to Help a Partner Through a Difficult Time

Forget what you know about relationships from Hallmark and Hollywood, because things won't always be sunny skies and smooth sailing. In the real world, times get tough, people struggle, and it will take some serious effort to hold things together. In rare instances, the problem doesn't admit of a fast or easy solution.

Miss a bus to a job interview? That’s a bad day. Flunk a big test at school? That’s a bad week. Get dumped right before Valentine’s Day? That’s a bad month.

But what happens when the sadness lasts longer than that? What if one bad month becomes two, three, or becomes even more than that? And what if this even isn’t happening to you, but the person you’re in a relationship with?

Knowing the right way to be there for your partner when they’re going through a seriously tough stretch can be tricky.

At the outset, it may seem like any other string of bad days, but as it gets longer and longer, you might start to feel overwhelmed by seeing the person you love suffering without knowing how you can help ease their pain.

Is there anything you can truly do?

AskMen spoke to a couples therapist and a dating expert to understand how to help your partner through a hard time without making things worse. Here’s what they had to say:

Recognizing Your Partner’s Going Through a Difficult Time

When it comes to helping your partner through a difficult time, it’s important to recognize the severity of the situation you're dealing with. How do you differentiate between a few bad days and something bigger that requires a more serious response.

According to Dr. Janet Brito, a sex and relationship therapist based in Hawaii, there are usually clues.

“You may notice that your partner is acting differently than how you typically know them to be,” she says. “It's possible that due to the difficult situation, you may notice that your partner’s behaviors are more in alignment with a threat response and may be responding in a fight, flight, or freeze mode. This means that your partner may be experiencing a significant threat, and their nervous system is responding in kind.”

So what does that look like in practice? An easy thing to pinpoint is a noticeable change in their mood.

“A usually happy person is sad and withdrawn, or cranky and irritable,” notes Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of “How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together.”

“Your partner stops talking to you about things he or she usually chats about: work, friends, the news. Your usually abstemious partner starts drinking more, or vaping, or taking antidepressants. Your partner doesn’t want to get up in the morning, or interact with you. Any truly noticeable change in behavior, attitude or communication can indicate your partner is having trouble.”

Another sign of your partner dealing with a lot internally, according to Brito, is their decision to “retreat, isolate, or be more activated and therefore more hypervigilant and aggressive.”

“Also, your partner may be sleeping more; there may be more conflict; they may miss work more often; what you used to experience as pleasurable, they may no longer find pleasurable. They may also have a hard time concentrating or staying present with you,” she adds.

How to Help Your Partner Through a Difficult Time

If you recognize some of the above signs, you’re probably no stranger to the reality that a situation like this — regardless of what’s triggered it, whether it’s something easy to pinpoint or not — can be seriously emotionally draining.

But regardless of how difficult it is for your partner, what can be less clear is how, exactly, to help. It could be physical or mental health issues, career or financial struggles, interpersonal conflict, any combination thereof, or something else entirely.  

While each of those situations will require a different solution for your partner, when it comes to supporting them, some basic principles will apply in almost all cases. Below, you’ll find some pointers for how to make your partner’s tough period as easy as possible for both of you:

  • Check In on What’s Going On

A good first step is talking to your partner in order to get on the same page about what’s going on

“Take a moment to figure out why you think your partner is having difficulty,” says Tessina. “Have they said something? Can you tell they're isolating? Then have a frank conversation.”

She suggests saying,

‘I notice that you seem stressed,’

then explaining what it is that’s given you this impression — without seeming like you’re blaming them for it.

Don’t Minimize the Situation

One instinct many people have when someone else is suffering is to make them feel better by insisting that the problem isn’t that bad.

While it may be rooted in a desire to alleviate the other person’s heavy emotions, your actions can potentially make the person feel like you’re being dismissive of their very real feelings.

Instead of minimizing the situation, Brito says it’s best to “be kind and let them know that although you may not understand fully what they are going through, that you are there for them, and available to help them.”

Ask How You Can Help

Once you’ve identified the issue at hand, the next step is asking,

“‘What can I do to help?’”

Brito believes that it’s important not to impose your own ideas of how to fix things on your partner, who may be feeling overwhelmed enough as it is.

“It is best to be available for your partner, although it is not a good idea to be too pushy,” she explains. “It is best to be invitational, and let your partner know that you are there for them if they would like to lean on you a little bit more. Giving them options is always best, so that they do not feel pressured.”

Don’t Try to Steal the Spotlight

When one person in a relationship is floundering, it can feel like they’re getting constant attention without any care for the needs of the other half.

Whether it’s in conversations with people you know or just between the two of you, it’s possible to feel like their problems are eclipsing whatever it is that you’re dealing with. Still, that’s not a good reason to try to reclaim the spotlight by centering your own problems.

“Don’t add to your partner’s struggle by telling him or her a stream of yours,” says Tessina. “Instead, write (real) problems down, and invite your partner to help solve them.”

  • Engage in Small, Sweet Gestures

When you’re going through a dark period, it can be easy to feel hopeless and unloveable, no matter how far that is from the truth.

One way to push back against this specific facet of your partner’s struggles is to ensure you’re not letting the romantic moments slip by the wayside. That doesn’t mean you need to break the bank by showering them with expensive gifts or swanky dates, but rather understanding the things that make them feel most loved by putting in an effort in those areas.

“Offer things your partner likes,” suggests Tessina. “Make their favorite dessert, buy some flowers, offer to set up a video chat with friends. Offer, but don’t push or insist.”

A key asset here? Understanding your partner’s love language.

Don’t Let Your Partner Make You the Villain

You may find yourself on the receiving end of various expressions of your partner’s hurt and frustration, which can be a deeply unpleasant place to be. That said, their suffering doesn’t mean it’s OK for them to victimize you.  

“If your partner is being critical, it's probably more about him or her than you,” says Tessina. “You can be understanding, but don't allow him or her to browbeat you. Confront it, and ask what's really wrong.”

She suggests saying something along the lines of,

‘Look, I know you’re upset, but please don’t punish me for it. Tell me what’s upsetting you, and I’ll help you fix it or deal with it.’”

Consider Asking for Outside Help

Unless they specifically ask you to take charge, by and large, you want to let your partner take the lead in how they deal with the problems they’re dealing with. However, in extreme cases, it may be worth taking another tack.

Specifically, if it seems like your partner is having a serious mental health crisis and doesn’t seem able or willing to tackle it in a proactive manner, Brito notes that it may be a good idea for you to take a role in getting them that help.  

“In some cases, if your partner is suffering so much that they are unable to get help for themselves, it may be useful to obtain help for them, meaning helping them to make the phone call in order to receive help from a healthcare professional,” she says.”

Taking Care of Yourself While Still Helping Your Partner

Whether you live with your partner or are long-distance where seeing them in-person is a rarity, a primary romantic partner is typically someone whose well being can have a massive impact on your own.  

Caring about them so much means their suffering can be a form of suffering on its own for you, and that can put you in a situation where you feel like you can’t go to them for support the way they come to you for it.

So how do you take care of someone else while still taking care of yourself? Brito notes it’s important to look out for signs that you may be feeling burnt out.  

For one, you may find yourself getting in arguments with your partner more often as the tension leads to outbursts that feel like overreactions. That’s understandable — stressors like this can put you both in a place of frustration.

“It's an emotional thing,” says Tessina. “People who overreact are scared, feel helpless, and are trying to get in control of what's happening. It's not rational thinking; it's an emotional reaction. No matter what you do, don't get into a fight about anger. It's better to choose your battles, even if you're the only one choosing.”

It’s important, however, not to let these confrontations overwhelm you. Rather, you can take them as a sign that it’s time for you to check in with yourself and take your own well being seriously.

“If you find yourself feeling resentful, or doing more than your partner, then this may be an indication that you are overextending yourself,” says Brito. “It is best to find a sweet balance between taking care of yourself, and taking care of your partner. Ideally, you are prioritizing their needs as much as you are prioritizing your own.”

Depending on the seriousness of what your partner’s going through, it may be totally understandable that you’ve just hit a point where it’s too much to handle on your own.

“Depending on the situation, you may find yourself overextending yourself, such as when your partner is in the hospital, and not able to be independent,” says Brito. In such scenarios, she says “you may find that you are feeling overburdened, and during this time it is best to utilize your support system to help you get through this.”

That means reaching out to friends and family yourself and asking them to help you shoulder the burden, whether that’s helping financially, taking care of tasks for you, or simply listening to what you’re going through.

“It is also important to identify your coping skills,” says Brito. What makes you feel better when you’re feeling down? Whatever that is may not be able to help your partner directly, but if you can continue to engage in it — things like “exercise, socializing, writing, eating healthy,” as Brito says, that can make a huge difference.  

“The more you're able to take care of yourself, the more likely you will be able to take care of your partner.”