When we hear someone upset or complain, or when someone comes to us with a problem, it's easy, and actually pretty common for us to want to fix the problem for that person. We don’t want to see that person suffering. But in reality, more often than not we actually end up doing the person a disservice by coming from this focus of wanting to fix their problems for them. Blatant ways of "fixing" include giving advice, such as saying things like, "You should do this..." or "you need to do that...." Even saying things like, "Don't worry," “Things will get better,” or "Everything is going to be okay," are examples of us trying to fix someone else's problem, albeit more subtle.
When we give advice or say things like "don't worry" or "it's going to be okay," however, too often we are saying much more about our own inability or discomfort in hearing their complaints.
We aren’t putting ourselves in their shoes, we’re responding from our own experience. This is not necessarily helpful, in fact it suggests we are not really listening to what they are saying. We may be uncomfortable, or we may not even know what to say.
Hearing about someone else's suffering quite often will stir up own feelings whether they are of sadness, anger, fear, distress or what have you, and quite often we know from experience that yes, in fact, it will get better. It usually does, for the most part. We know that. And so do they, but if they wanted to hear that however, chances are they would not be complaining or crying to you about it in the first place.
A rule of thumb I tell couples (but this is also true of friendships and family relationships) is that when someone is complaining, upset, sad, confused, distressed, etc.. if they want to hear your opinion, or even that "everything is going to be OK" then in fact they should come out and ask you.
If they don't ask you, it's okay to just listen to them, and empathize, not sympathize by saying "I know how you feel, " but empathize, by saying things like "that must be really frustrating," or repeating back to the person what you just heard them say. This will in fact encourage them to ask you for advice, should they need it, but even more important learn to solve their own problems, which is what most people ultimately want, to come up with a solution that works for them.
Allowing your partner to have their feelings without fixing them has one major healthy side effect.
Because it allows them to feel their own feelings, and take responsibility for them and problem solve their way out of their own problem, it empowers them as an adult, an equal adult in an egalitarian relationship.
As a society, however, we take on our partner’s problems, right? In sickness and in health, till death do us part, right? Well, yes, helping out with issues and problems is part and parcel to being in a relationship, but taking on the problems as one's own, or feelings as one's own, may leave the other individual bereft and devoid of making adult decisions and may leave them handicapped.
Worse yet, not only does it leave them in a less powerful position to handle their own life, it sets up the scenario where the "fixer" also becomes the responsible party, the one to blame when things don't get fixed. Most “fixers” are doing it to be helpful, but in the end it often does more harm than good.
Couples should definitely be there for each other, stand by each other, and give moral support. But the lines often get crossed when partner's try to take on or fix the other's problems.
By learning the difference and recognizing your own fixing behavior you can gain some well needed autonomy in adulthood and trust in your relationship.
Moushumi Ghose is a Sex Therapist in Los Angeles, CA.