My husband is going through a challenging time at work and dealing with an illness in his family. We have been married for 30 years so I am pretty good by now at being supportive. But lately, I am noticing that being a supportive spouse at 50 is much different than being a supportive spouse at 30.
Like most couples in their 50s, my relationship today is different than it was pre-kids and aging parents. My husband and I are both trying to be relevant in our careers and evolve into our soon-to-be role as empty nesters. Around us, digital devices are fighting for our attention and its easy to feel ignored by a spouse who is physically there but mentally in cyberspace.
The good news is that more marriages are withstanding the test of time. Researchers have found the rate of divorce in the U.S. peaked at about 40% around 1980 and has been declining ever since.
A big factor that holds a marriage together is showing support for your spouse throughout the phases of life – and particularly during the rough patches. Psychology Today reports about two-thirds of men and at least 80 percent of women want more support from their spouses.
With those statistics in mind, I offer suggestions from my own experiences, combined with advice from experts to help all of us be a truly supportive partner.
Sitting next to your spouse on the couch or riding somewhere together in the car is not being present. To truly support your spouse, you need to listen and engage and be in the moment. That means pushing that running to-do list from the front to the back of your mind. It means resisting looking at Facebook or responding to a text message that can wait. It means giving your spouse as much attention as you do your smartphone. When we all have a lot on our plates, this can be a challenge. I have had to train myself to get better at this.
Listen to more than words.
Anyone who has been in a relationship for at least a year knows his or her partner’s body language. Showing support means reading the cues and offering a hug or a listening ear even when your partner doesn’t ask. Our failure to spot small behavior changes can have enormous consequences. Every stage of life comes with stressors and they affect people differently. So, reading the cues and acting on them early can make a world of difference for a relationship.
Resist giving solutions
Sometimes a person just needs to vent or feel heard. Life demands change over time and it can be difficult to cope. Taking care of an aging parent can be as stressful as amusing an overactive toddler. Living up to a boss’s expectations can be as draining as proving yourself when you’re new on the job. Let your spouse vent about work and life without jumping in to offer a solution. Sometimes, your partner isn’t ready for a solution.
Ask for what you want
Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, a clinical/forensic psychologist, says no partner should have to be a mind reader. She says couples will be happier if they learn how to say, ‘This is how I’m feeling, and this is how you can help me.’” For me, that’s a great piece of advice that I’m taking to heart. I am guilty of over the years saying, “You should have known….”
Notice what’s missing
If your spouse used to engage in an activity that made him or her happy and stopped, consider suggesting he or she takes it up again. If your spouse has slowly moved away from healthy eating, realizes she’s 10 pounds heavier and depressed about it, offer to join a gym together or go for nightly walks or bike rides. When you know your partner well, it may be easier for you to see what’s missing that can boost the other’s happiness level.
Years ago, I interviewed Joel Block, author of Making it Work When You Work A Lot. Block offered a piece of advice to me for a Miami Herald column, and it stuck with me. He said every partner deserves at least 10 minutes of quality time from their spouse a day. He also said we need to make the most of that time. If you only have 10 minutes together before going to bed, “say something that will nurture your relationship,” Block said.
Be a Team All the Time
Philip Swindall, author of Confessions of a Terrible Husband, says there will be opportunities for you to tell your spouse that you’re there for them. When you get those opportunities, take them. You can say something like, “We’re a team. You can count on me.”
In a post titled 9 Steps to Becoming a Supportive Spouse, Swindall says statements about being a team demonstrate ongoing support and can be particularly important to say in front of other people. I always notice when a spouse compliments his or her husband in front of other people or does the opposite and disputes something said. To me, complimenting your spouse or presenting yourselves as a team in front of others (including your children) is the ultimate form of support.
Get professional help if needed
You may find yourself in a situation in which your spouse could benefit from professional help to cope with grief, depression, anxiety, fear or confusion over life events or career change. As a life partner, showing support means doing the research to find the resources available and presenting them in a loving way.
We all like to think of ourselves as a supportive spouse. But on Valentine’s Day, why not make the effort to up your game!