What (not) to do when an adult is emotionally vulnerable

Alison Lees Relationships March 28, 2017

The last blog post covered practical steps that you can follow to stay connected to a child while they are experiencing emotional distress. In the next few posts we would like to focus on staying present and connected while an adult is experiencing emotional distress.

It is extremely common for adults to feel unprepared and even fearful when faced with the emotional distress of another adult. Lets say for instance you are eating dinner with your partner and while discussing the events of the day your partner starts sobbing while recounting something that happened. What do you do? Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Immediately rush to get them tissues?
  • Tell them everything will be okay?
  • Give them a hug and distract them with compliments?
  • Offer them food or drink?
  • Give them a pep talk on how they need to harden up?
  • Think of all the ways you can rescue them and make the situation better?
  • Tell them a joke to make them laugh and stop crying?
  • Plan all the solutions to the situation?
  • Insult the person or thing that triggered the emotional distress?
  • Tell them what they could have or should have done in the situation?
  • Tell them about an exceptionally sad story that you have just heard so that your partner realises their situation isn’t that bad?
  • Share with your partner how bad your day has been so that they are in good company?
  • Ignore the sobbing and continue eating?

This type of situation can occur frequently in our day to day lives and the way we respond to them is very important, particularly if the distress occurs within an important relationship. Did any of the above reactions sound familiar? It’s vital to consider the way we automatically respond and the underlying messages we give to the other. For example if your partner is emotionally vulnerable in front of you and you leap up for tissues, could you be subtly and unconsciously telling them that you aren’t comfortable with their tears and distress? Or if you tell them everything will be okay when you have no control over the situation whatsoever, the message you could be giving them is one of “it’s not okay to have negative emotions. I can’t tolerate you unless you are positive and happy”. Telling them a story about someone who is worse off could give your partner the message that their emotions (and a part of themselves) are not worthy of your attention and focus. Although these underlying messages are not consciously or purposefully given, they can leave your partner or other feeling ashamed, alone, and disconnected.

There are many alternative, simple, and positive ways that we can respond to emotional distress. The key to responding well is our ability to ATTUNE to another’s emotions whilst also REGULATING our own (recognising our own feelings and responses so that we don’t get overwhelmed by another’s emotions).

Dr John Gottman described attunement in adult relationships as “the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world”.

Through attempting a correct response to the distress we reassure our partner, or other adult, that we are connected to them and work towards a secure and healthy relationship. Stay tuned for the next post where we will discuss these alternate and positive ways of responding.