If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship, you know the honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever. Insta-worthy sushi dates, Friday night parties and Netflix marathons are only half of the experience. Whether you’ve been seeing your SO for three weeks or three years, chances are they’ve struggled—or will struggle—with something. College is one of the most difficult times in a person’s life, especially with additional unexpected personal struggles. A family death on top of three exams in a week may call for extra support on your part. When your SO faces a challenge they didn’t plan, there are things you can do to help them overcome it.
1. Listen attentively
No one should ever have to go through a tough time alone. While it’s really important for your SO to have a supportive tribe of friends and family members, sometimes those people aren’t always available or willing to listen. If you want to help your SO, be their go-to person who can just sit and listen to whatever they have to say. Madison Becker, a junior at Kent State University, agrees that doing this one simple thing can make all the difference.
“I would say not only listening is important but also showing that you’re actively paying attention,” she says. “Sometimes all people need is someone to talk to, but if the listener isn’t mentally present, it’s like talking to a wall.”
It may be hard for you to listen to your SO’s problems when you have plenty of your own. A fight with a sibling, a late homework assignment or an unexpected breakout are the least of your problems. However, your job is to listen whenever your SO wants to rant or feels the need to cry.
2. Provide empathy and advice if asked
While silence may be enough for a particular situation, your SO may seek comfort or advice in others. Kind words can do wonders. Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist, media personality and bestselling author based in Beverly Hills, believes there are certain things you should and should not say to a struggling SO.
“You should tell them, ‘I get it. It must really hurt that (such and such) happened,’ or, ‘I feel bad that you’re going through such a tough time. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,’” she says. “You shouldn’t tell them, ‘You’re such a downer and no fun to be with anymore,’ or, ‘Why can’t you just get over it already?’”
Sometimes all your SO wants is comfort, not advice. Voicing your own opinion about something you don’t know much about, such as their financial situation or mental health history could possibly create a new conflict. Madison also says, “Unless your SO is asking for advice on what to do, I would avoid offering your own opinion on the situation and remind them that everything is going to be alright in the end.”
Knowing when to stay quiet can be confusing and abiding by your SO’s wishes can be tough, but if you really care for them, you should respect their wants and needs.
3. Be there for them physically
If you ever performed in a recital or concert as a kid, you probably looked out at the audience to find your loved ones. Having someone you care about support you from the sidelines honestly means everything. The same concept applies to supporting your SO through a difficult situation. Although you shouldn’t spend your every waking hour with them, you should try to open up your schedule and spend some quality time together. If that means watching a movie together while cuddling or having a heart-to-heart conversation, do those things. If your SO wants you to attend a funeral or an appointment with them, do those things, too.
Kaitlin Rush, a senior at the University of Scranton, made sure she was available for her boyfriend when his father passed away. “Just being there was the best I could do for him,” she says. “I was a shoulder to cry on and tried to remind him of the fun he had with his dad.”
In long-distance relationships, physical presence can prove to be nearly impossible in some cases. You can call and FaceTime your SO, but it’s not going to be the same as being there next to them. You can’t hug through a phone. Jay Hurt, a relationship coach and author of The 9 Tenets of a Successful Relationship, insists that if you can manage a trip to see your SO, it’s totally worth it for the both of you.
“There’s like an energy that we pull from each other when we’re there for each other,” he says. “I think it’s important to find a way to be there periodically—either once every six months or once a year or whatever it is. There needs to be some way to fill in those gaps when you can.”
Making a small sacrifice to be there physically for your SO can make a huge difference.
4. Encourage them to seek outside help if necessary
Although it’s critical to be honest and open with your SO, there comes a point when too much emotional dependency can take a toll on both you and the relationship. A tough situation can strengthen the bond between two romantic partners if one doesn’t rely consistently on the other for heavy advice and physical presence.
“If you start taking on all the emotional responsibility for your SO, it will be very harmful to your relationship,” Dr. Lieberman says “You will become their crutch and you will start to resent it. They will feel bad about themselves and start to resent you, too.”
If your SO won’t talk to another trusted individual, you might want to consider sitting down with them to discuss pursuing professional help, such as a therapist. Staging an intervention and catching them off-guard is much different than clear communication. Hurt believes that communication is key to avoid a rift in the relationship.
“You have to communicate how you feel, what the expectations are, and how you want to interact,” he says. “You have to communicate and let that person know and talk through these things or eventually you’ll pull away. You’ll lose the relationship because you didn’t work through that issue.”
It’s going to get really complicated if you can’t learn to advocate for both you and your SO.
5. Give them space if they want it
Everyone deals with negative feelings differently. If your SO is the type of person who builds walls and shuts down when they’re stressed, it may be best to leave them alone. Healing is a unique emotional process. Some yearn for constant attention while others want complete isolation. It might be hard for your SO to let you know they need space.
Dr. Lieberman advises, “If your SO closes up during a tough time, don’t keep nagging them. Although the cause may have nothing to do with you, if you keep nagging, you’re liable to finally get them to explode with, ‘You’re what’s wrong! I don’t ever want you to see you again!’”
You don’t want your helicopter tendencies to be the source of a new divide between you two. Your SO is already stressed and inside their head. Let them know you’re available to listen and talk whenever they’re ready, but don’t keep pressing them.
Being there for your SO during a rough patch in their life can be both rewarding and draining. However, it’s a part of a romantic relationship that simply can’t be avoided. We all experience failure, loss and disappointment. Having the support of not only your friends and family but also your SO can expedite the process of conquering whatever stands in your way. A relationship is a two-way street. Hopefully by helping your struggling SO now, they’ll return the favor in the future.