Here’s what to do when you fall apart, or your partner does.
Emotional meltdowns are no longer occasions for me or my partner to feel abandoned, unheard, or uncared for. Nowadays, they’ve become opportunities for us to strengthen our trust and deepen our intimacy. But before I could really receive his help, or offer my help to him, I first needed to learn how to be fully present for my own painful emotions. I needed to become my own compassionate witness.
Fear, anger, sadness, grief can be very uncomfortable, and our first instinct is to run from them. We’ll do anything not to feel them. We’ll read a book, watch a movie, go out, or call a friend. But the most important thing we can do is stay with the feelings while cultivating an attitude of gentle care and witnessing.
Of course, we like having someone there to hold us as we cry or feel scared. But what if we could learn to do that for ourselves first? The more we show up for our pain, the more fearless we become. We may feel really sad or afraid, but we know we’ll be okay. We begin to trust in our own presence, and the feeling of abandonment—which we all hate, and which often comes from abandoning ourselves—will dissipate.
It’s true that we don’t exist in isolation and that we do have a network of friends and family to rely on. But partners, friends, and even family will come and go. At the end of the day, you are the only constant. The person who will reliably be there when you’re down and out, again and again, is you.
Once you cultivate your own ability witness your emotions compassionately, you’ll no longer expect your partner to rescue you from pain. It’s not their responsibility. They’re only there to support you. It takes a huge burden off your partner and inspires them to show up for you with much deeper presence. And when your partner needs emotional help, you won’t be scared, confused, overwhelmed, or tempted to run away. You’ll be able to stay and be present for them, exactly the way you do for yourself.
A few tips to move through difficult emotions on your own:
- Recognize that thoughts and feelings come and go. Every feeling has a beginning, a middle and an end. Emotions and thoughts are like clouds in the sky. They may seem intense and compelling in the moment, but eventually they’ll pass. Everything does. After they’re gone, you remain. You are the sky where emotional storms emerge and then dissolve.
- Get support from the most trustworthy of places: the earth. Since the moment you were born, the earth has been there beneath you, holding and supporting you. It is the ground you walk on and can fall upon, anytime. During times of emotional distress, surrender yourself to the earth—literally. Go lie down on the grass or in the sand. Pour out your sorrow and grievances, and let it receive them. Let the earth, in its steady, firm and dependable way, be your witness.
- Tune into to your body and ask how it wants to be supported right now. It could be a hand on your heart or belly, some pressure on your back, or a tight self-hug. It could be a big glass of water, a hot cup of tea, a blanket, a bath, or to get up out of your chair and walk or stretch. There is a deep intelligence the body transmits through intuitive nudges, showing you concrete actions you can take to move emotions through more smoothly.
Once you cultivate the ability to stay with your own emotions, you’ll be much better able to get your partner’s support and give it as well.
Before a Meltdown
If you need support: To the best of your ability, let your partner know your emotional patterns in advance. For example, I’m quite sensitive and can burst into tears unexpectedly. So I’ve told my partner: “Sometimes when I’m with you, I may cry for no reason. It may have nothing to do with you. When that happens, I don’t need you to fix or solve the situation. I don’t need you to save me. I only want to know that you’re here. I want to just feel your steady presence. I may also ask for supporting touch from you. And trust me, I will be okay.”
If you’re giving support: Ask your partner what works for them when they’re highly emotional. Is there a specific way they need to be touched? Do they generally want you around or prefer to be alone? Do they want you to ask them questions or do they prefer to stay quiet and only share verbally when the emotion has passed?
During a Meltdown
If you need support: First, remind yourself that your partner is not responsible for chasing your emotional clouds away. They’re simply here to support you with their presence. Then, ask very clearly for what you need. For example, “Would you place your hand on my heart, please?” “Firmer pressure, please.” “Would you stroke my lower back, please?” “Would you put your arms around me?” If you don’t want to speak at all, gently take your partner’s hands and guide them onto your body. And also let them know if you simply want space to be alone.
If you’re giving support: When your partner is going through their storm, reassure them through your breathing, your touch, and your words. You can breathe with them and try match their breaths. You can touch them in the way they request, or however you intuit would help them. You can affirm them with words like, “I’m right here. It’s okay. I love you.” Ask your partner: “Is there a place on your body you’d like me to touch to support you? Is there anything else I can do for you? Would it help you to talk or would you rather be quiet?” When your partner does speak, listen deeply. Look them in the eye. Gently hold their hand. Resist the temptation to offer advice or solutions, unless they specifically ask for it.
After a Meltdown
If you’ve received support, thank your partner for their loving presence, for being your co-witness. If you’ve given support, thank your partner for showing you their vulnerability. The more your practice, the more you’ll find that even the most challenging emotional storms can offer beautiful opportunities for a couple to deepen their bond.
Emily Nature helps smart, successful career women have fun in the game of love and relationships.