Is the woman you’re seeing going through a really rough patch?
Here’s how to help her through it
When the woman you’re seeing is going through a difficult time — she just got laid off, her beloved dog died — you want to be there for her… right? Right. But what does being there mean, exactly? Is it offering a shoulder to cry on? Giving her advice? Taking her mind off her problems? Turns out it just might be a combination of all of the above. Sure, knowing how to act or what to say can be confusing—after all, women generally handle stress much differently than men. So to help you out, here are the tools you’ll need to help her through a tough time. Use them correctly and this experience can help you move from “seeing each other” to “real relationship” status.
Simply listening to her problems can be the best gift you can give her, according to Susan M. Axtell, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. “Make her feel heard and understood,” she advises. “Women need someone to listen to them. They need to vent about a situation and talk it through because they don’t want to keep their pain inside. Throughout history, women have been socialized to emotionally connect with others when times get tough.” Axtell recommends active listening, where you reflect back what you’re hearing. For instance, if she says, “I’m so disappointed in my sister for acting like that,” you could say, “I totally understand your disappointment; I’m really surprised by her behavior, too.” This shows her that you’re hearing what she’s saying and that you’re validating her feelings. “Then put on your empathy hat and say it’s natural for her to react this way,” Dr. Axtell advises. She wants you to assure her that she’s not crazy for feeling angry, upset, confused, disappointed, or whatever.
Be her cheerleader
When Lori Miller, 26, of Austin, TX found out her mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she was devastated. “I literally felt like I wanted to die, too,” she recalls. “I felt like there was no way I could get through this. But my guy was the one who picked me up and convinced me that I could survive.” When crisis hits, women’s insecurities often overwhelm them. Many times, their knee-jerk reaction is to think, “I can’t do this.” It’s your job to convince her she can . “Tell her that she can handle this—then help her think of two or three other specific times that she’s survived difficult situations,” says communications expert Laurie Puhn, J.D., author of Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life . These reminders will empower her and boost her confidence.
Don’t try to fix everything
“Guys generally like to fix situations,” says Dr. Axtell, “and when they can’t, they get frustrated.” But she says it’s important — make that imperative — to give yourself an attitude adjustment. “Women don’t need things fixed the way men do. She’s not looking for you to repair what’s wrong—she’s just looking for you to be there for her,” Axtell says. Many times, women need to scream, wallow, cry, or do whatever it takes to process their emotions. Only then will they be able to develop a plan of action or plot their next move. That’s when it’s time to offer help—without telling her what to do. “Say, ‘What can I do to help you?’” advises Puhn. Then listen and follow her cues. What if she says there’s nothing you can do? Puhn suggests asking, “Would you like my suggestions on some things you can try?” To avoid adopting a know-it-all attitude, you can preface your advice with: “This is something that worked for me when I was in a similar situation.”
Help her maintain perspective
When women are stuck in the middle of an ordeal, they can feel like it’s the end of the world. Men are usually more apt to look at the big picture—which is why it’s your job to give her a reality check. “If she missed a big deadline at work and is convinced she’s going to get fired,” Puhn says, “tell her that other people have been in this situation and have escaped unscathed. Give specific examples.” You don’t want to dismiss her problems or appear unsympathetic—you simply want her to see that she will survive this, no matter how bad it gets. That’s what Joseph Franklin, 38, of Tulsa, OK, did when his girlfriend was audited by the IRS: “She was going into total panic mode, so I started listing the people we knew who had been audited and had lived to tell the tale,” he recalls. “We even called a buddy of mine who was audited last year and had actually gotten a refund from the IRS in the end.” Real-world examples like this will remind her that she can indeed weather the storm.
Take her mind off it
When Jamie Horne, 35, of La Crescenta, CA, lost her mother to cancer, her boyfriend was a pro at helping take her mind off her grief. “He would pick me up at work and take me to Disneyland for no reason,” she recalls. “Or he’d bring over some bad 80s movies and popcorn and tell me we were having a movie night.” Pampering and distracting her helps because it shows that someone’s taking care of her needs. Because women are conditioned to be caretakers, it feels wonderful when someone takes care of them for a change. So massage her shoulders. Take her out for Thai food. Buy season one of her favorite show on DVD and watch six episodes straight. Just remember: While it’s fine to distract her from her problems, you should never ignore them. “Taking her mind off her troubles for a little while is an appreciated break,” Dr. Axtell explains, “but if you ignore her problems or get down on her for talking about them, it will seem like you’re avoiding them altogether—which isn’t helpful at all. “
Curb the criticism
Guys are raised to be protectors and solve problems, says Dr. Axtell. Women have a different way of dealing with a crisis, so don’t get bent out of shape if she doesn’t follow your advice. Just because she deals in a different way than you might have, doesn’t mean that you issued bad advice or that she doesn’t respect your opinion. It just means that she followed her own heart—which is never a bad thing. Simply be supportive of her decisions and resist the urge to tell her what she “shoulda/coulda/woulda” done instead. She handled her crisis the way she needed to—all the while drawing strength and courage from the fact that you were by her side. And once you’ve survived this tough time together, the good times ahead, as your relationship blooms, will be even sweeter.
Julie Taylor is a writer and editor in Los Angeles, CA, who contributes frequently to Redbook, Cosmopolitan and other national magazines.