'I've Got Your Back'

One of the wonderful things we have to offer each other in our relationships is to have each other's back. Being alone with difficult challenges is very hard. But all too often, this is not how couples relate to each other.
03/03/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated May 03, 2014

Have you ever had the experience of being really upset about something -- even upset at your partner -- and your partner put his or her arm around you and said, "Honey, I can see how upset you are. I want you to know that I love you and I'm here for you. You are not alone."

How would that feel to you?

One of the wonderful things we have to offer each other in our relationships is to have each other's back. Being alone with difficult challenges is very hard. But all too often, this is not how couples relate to each other.

When you have been partnered for while, you get to know what pushes your partner's buttons -- what triggers them into fear, anxiety, anger or irritation. What do you generally do when your partner is triggered -- especially when he or she is triggered by you? And what does your partner do when you are triggered by them or by something else?

Too often, when one person reacts with anger, anxiety or withdrawal, this activates the other partner's fears of rejection or engulfment and the other partner then also reacts with anger, anxiety or withdrawal. This, of course, leads to fighting or distance in the relationship. But, what if you practiced not taking your partner's behavior personally? What if, instead, you said to yourself, "This person, whom I love, is having a hard time. Even though he or she is taking it out on me, it's not really about me -- it's about something that's scaring him or her." If you said this to yourself, would you be able to offer your partner a kind word and/or a loving touch? Sometimes this is magical in diffusing the activated feelings.

At other times, your partner might not be available for a kind word or touch. Sometimes, a person is so triggered into anger that any reaching out feels intrusive or threatening. Or, he or she might be so angry with you that your words or touch feel irritating to them and they are not open to it. When this is the case, the best thing to do is to lovingly disengage, saying something like, "I see that you are upset. I'm here for you if you need me, if there is any way I can be of help to you. When you are ready to talk about it without attacking me, I'd like to hear about what is so upsetting to you." This way your partner knows that you are there -- that he or she is not alone.

Being there for each other in very difficult times is one of the things that relationships are about. Without this caring and support, we feel very lonely, sometimes unbearably lonely. We are not meant to manage very difficult feelings and situations alone. We all need love and support when we are having a hard time or facing very challenging situations.

This does not mean that partners have an excuse to abuse each other. It also doesn't mean that you can control whether your partner will allow you to be there for them -- for example, if they consistently abandon themselves. We can support each other, but we cannot do for our partner what they need to be doing for themselves, without enabling them in their self-abandonment.

However, we're all human, and there may be occasional times when you or your partner feel too overwhelmed to be there for yourself. Imagine that your feelings are your inner child, and imagine that when you feel badly, you are able to hold your inner child with a lot of caring and compassion. And imagine that your partner is holding you while you are holding yourself. This is very loving and supportive.

But sometimes, in extreme situations, we are so triggered into fear that we cannot hold ourselves. This is when we need our partner to stand in as the loving parent for our distressed inner child. We all have those times when our feelings feel so overwhelming that we just can't manage them ourselves, and partners in a healthy relationship are able to do this in extreme situations. It is important, though, that it not become a habit, as it can be a slippery slope from occasionally stepping in and being there for your partner when he or she is distressed, to giving oneself up in order to avoid the pain of seeing one's partner struggling with their own feelings.

Having each other's back is of one of the great benefits of a loving relationship.

Join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Relationships Course: "Loving Relationships: A 30-Day at-Home Experience with Dr. Margaret Paul - For people who are partnered and people who want to be partnered." The course starts April 2.