As I write this blog no one, I think, and that includes Emma Raducanu herself, knows if her body is up to playing a string of matches at this year’s Wimbledon.  Despite some successes, on several occasions since winning the U.S. Open she has been forced to retire from a match because of blisters, a leg problem or a back one. And all of us I am sure can empathise with a person facing a string of difficulties in their lives.

Certainly that sort of scenario is what brings a number of couples and individuals to my counselling room.  A bereavement, the breakdown of a relationship, family difficulties, the loss of a job, unexpected financial problems, ill health are all bad in themselves, but the cumulative effect becomes even worse when one of them piles in on another.  

So how can partners in a relationship support each other when either both of them or one of them is experiencing a string of life challenges or hardships?

In my experience the key thing initially is to help them to talk about the feelings and emotions that they are going through.  There can be some resistance to this because of internal belief systems about not wanting to burden the other or feeling that they should cope with it on their own, but talking is very often the first necessary stage to change a dynamic.  

Some of these feelings and emotions may well include a sense of loss – be that a relationship or friendship, a job that gave them a sense of value or losing one’s health.  Then there are feelings of guilt and shame, often irrational, but nevertheless keenly felt, and often linked to messages they internalised at an early age.  I must have done something wrong to be experiencing this or I should be being strong and not be allowing this to get to me, are common, unhelpful responses to the sense of being overwhelmed with the feelings of hopelessness, resignation, and depression those can bring.

Feelings of anger can very often be among this myriad of feelings.  Life at times isn’t fair and it does no good to try to pretend that it is, but anger that gets focused on the partner – it’s all their fault – is often as destructive as it is irrational.  It is harder not to blame and to sit with the anger and the feelings of a lack of control when life just deals us a bad card.  Sometimes life is just tough.

So what can be worked at further by a couple who have begun to acknowledge these emotions.  Well these are five things that have helped couples that I have worked with.

  1. Hit the pause switch – survival at times like this is success.  Lower the expectations – trying to be some sort of super hero helps no one.
  2. Make more time to be genuinely available to each other and that could well include putting screens, both computers and phones, to one side for a time.
  3. Try to ensure that you are both getting enough food, exercise and sleep.  Sleep can be particularly hard during these times, but eating healthily – keeping up some form of exercise – even if it is just going for a walk can help with the sleep.
  4. Encourage and avoid criticising.  In times of stress things will go wrong, or get left undone, but it is more important to offer appreciation than to point out deficiencies
  5. Form some sort of game plan, even if it is largely focused on survival, and try to include something ‘nice’ – even if that’s at a pretty low level – a bath or a walk in the park.

As we hear in the safety instructions when we go on a plane – do ensure that you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.  Self-care is important and if you are supporting a partner through a difficult time or illness, then you need to be looking after yourself too in order to be of use to them.

Sarah Fletcher