Couples in Crisis: How to Support Your Partner Through a Rough Time

When your spouse or partner is in the midst of a personal crisis, do you feel confident that you’ll know how to offer the right kind of support?

Many of the couples I see in marriage therapy struggle to work together effectively during dark times. The reasons for their difficulties usually go far beyond the stressful situation they’re facing.

The partner in crisis may say, “I need a lot more support than you’re giving me right now.” The other may respond, “I am trying to support you, but you don’t notice or appreciate it!” Or, “I wish I knew what to do for you. You’re expecting me to read your mind.”

What is causing these partners to miss each other’s signals? It may simply be that we don’t know what we mean when we ask for each other’s support.

Research conducted at the University of Iowa suggests that the concept of “support” has almost as many meanings as we assign to “commitment” or “love”. A 5-year study of more than 100 newlyweds identified 4 kinds of support:

  • Physical comfort and emotional support — Listening and empathizing, taking your spouse’s hand, offering a hug
  • Esteem support – Showing confidence in your loved one, offering active encouragement
  • Informational support – Offering practical advice, gathering helpful information
  • Tangible support — Taking on responsibilities so your spouse can deal with a problem, helping to brainstorm solutions

After studying how the couples offered these differing forms of support, the researchers concluded that too much of the wrong kind of support led to the thorniest issues.


To be clear, I want to emphasize that most partners complain about getting too little support, not too much. In fact, the research showed that nearly 75% of male partners and 80% of female partners wanted more support.

However, the group whose marriages suffered the most included couples where the male partner felt he had received too much informational support. (These men were in the 25% who reported they were getting too much input from their spouses.) Many women also said they were flooded with unwanted advice from their partners, which led to anger and conflict.


Have you ever said to yourself, “If my partner really loved me, s/he would know what I need right now?”

Most of us have. But I can tell you that this thinking will sabotage your efforts to get the love and support you require. No partner should have to be a mind reader. In fact, when it comes to marital satisfaction, both partners are happier if the one struggling is clear about the kinds of care and support s/he needs.

If you’re in the supporting role, open a conversation with your spouse. Ask for specifics on what you can do to make life easier. Don’t make assumptions; really LISTEN to your spouse’s answers. Clarify with detailed questions: “If I do research on job options, would that help? Or do you just want me to listen when you need to talk?”

As you work to fulfill your spouse’s requests, talk about what’s working and what isn’t. Make adjustments. If you see yourself trying to fix the problem instead of simply taking care of your partner, move your attention back to your loved one. It isn’t your job to fight his or her battles. You are there to offer compassion, understanding, perspective and (when asked and welcomed to do so), constructive suggestions.


As a long-time couples counselor, I have helped hundreds of married and committed couples to make their way through difficult times. Adult life has its struggles, but the painful times need not weaken your marriage. In fact, they can serve to strengthen the bond between you as you work together to find solutions.

Many couples find they need professional help when one or both are navigating their way through a crisis. If you are having difficulty and need expert support, please don’t hesitate to contact me.



Psychology Today