Giving and receiving emotional support

emotional support“My ex-girlfriend wanted me to support her emotionally, but she didn’t do the same in return,” my sweetie shared.

“Hmm. I’m not sure I’d know the signs that someone was wanting emotional support unless they were crying or upset. What are the signs you want or need emotional support?” I asked.

“Good question. I don’t really know. I just know I didn’t get what I needed from her when I had an upsetting day.”

“What was missing that you wanted? If I were to emotionally support you, what would that look like?”

“Again, a great question. I’m not sure.”

So he didn’t know how to tell he needed it, or what it would look like, but he knew he didn’t get it. Sounds a bit convoluted, but I think we can relate to knowing something is missing, but not knowing exactly what that is. For some, it would be a lack of compliments or positive acknowledgment of your accomplishments. For others it is listening when they’ve had an upsetting event or a bad day, without trying to offer solutions.

Being a bit unsure myself of what emotional support meant exactly, I asked a very emotionally supportive friend for her definition.

listenng signpost“When someone is upset, you don’t try to solve the problem, especially since some are without resolution, especially around kids or spouses. But instead, just to actively listen, and ask about the person’s feelings. Things like, ‘How did that make you feel?’ or ‘I bet that hurt your feelings,’ or ‘Why do you think that comment hit you so hard?’ You don’t focus on activities, outcomes or solutions, but instead on helping them identify their feelings, and then, if they are interested, on the source of those feelings.”

In my life when I’ve been upset and someone has commented on my emotions, I’ve felt absolutely heard. If someone focuses on just the solution, I feel less heard. We know this intellectually, and many of us have taken (or taught!) courses on active listening, but sometimes in our romantic relationships we forget to apply what we know.

How do you let someone know you need emotional support? Early in my marriage, I tried to offer suggestions to ease my ex’s upsets. (I know this is counter-stereotypical.) He finally told me he needed me to hear him out first, before offering solutions. For a while after that I’d ask, “Do you want me in active-listening mode or in problem-solving mode?” Nearly always he’d say the former. I learned to listen first and he’d let me know when he wanted some ideas for solutions.

Do you know how to let someone else know you need emotional support? And what exactly it looks like to you — active listening, being held, only asking questions, not solutions? And do you know how to detect when your guy wants emotional support? What does it look like to him? It may be very different than what you need.

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5 responses to “Giving and receiving emotional support”

  1. Another Ellen Avatar
    Another Ellen

    If I wanted to emotionally support someone, I would ask “How are you?” or “How was your day?” and then shut up and listen. Slowly, I would hope the person comes to trust that I really do want to know, that I really do have the energy and love to pay attention without making it about me and my wonderful suggestions. This is not easy, as so few of us have been raised with parents or others who did this for us.

    DG’s previous blog was about “spoiling” — really listening, I think, is the ultimate spoiling.

  2. kiriecat Avatar

    Yes, it is important to actively listen and not try to problem solve. I think we all want to solve the problems of people we are about, but what most people really need is to feel understood. People in our country go to shrinks for this very reason – for someone to validate our feelings. It isn’t easy, but it is important. I know in my first marriage I hesitated to tell my husband if something was bothering me because he’s get all upset and try to fix it. I could never convince him that I didn’t need him to fix it, just to understand how I felt. I do try to do that in my current relationship and he is always commenting on what a “good listener” I am, so I must be doing OK. In return I always feel he listens to me as well. I feel truly blessed.

  3. hunter Avatar

    to kireicat,

    I agree with you, we don’t understand, how something can be bothering a woman, and her not wanting it resolved…..

    I quit trying to help women in that manner. I just try and listen, to what she really wants. Most of the time women are just babbling……making life easier for me…

  4. sdl Avatar


    Classic! 🙂
    Not critcizing you, mind.

    It’s just that most guys have SUCH a strong need to FIX the issue themselves or at least be the crew boss in charge of deciding HOW and WHEN it gets fixed…
    …that they miss the most critical way most WOMEN get to the fixing point:

    We verbalize our thoughts and emotions to get a handle on where we are, get other perspectives if it’s a witnessable issue, bounce it off of others’ reactions to get a reality-check on if it’s even worth the angst, toss ideas and potential outcomes back and forth if a ‘fix’ really IS needed.
    THEN we let it percolate and clarify in our minds and emotions, and decide if the issue NEEDS fixing or if we should get a grip or walk away.

    One is ACTION oriented NOW.
    The other is THOUGHT oriented and LATER.

    Pretty much the only time average women go outside this pattern is the instantaneous reactions to situations involving their children and risk- then men couldn’t move that fast with a jet pack on!

  5. hunter Avatar

    to sdl,

    mmmhhhmmm, yes, I quit fixing things, I won’t act until I get a “direct” order…