Your wife feels lonely after two years of COVID-induced isolation. Your husband was recently laid off and feels rejected and insecure. Your wife struggles with depression and is having a particularly rough day. Your husband just lost his father, and his heart is bleeding. Your spouse is emotionally suffering. What do you do?
In a broken world that only seems to be breaking more with each passing day, the question is important. How do you minister to a suffering spouse who is riddled with heartache, hopelessness, anxiety, angst, disappointment, doubt, or despair? A spouse who is overwhelmed, overworked, or overstressed? A spouse who is battling fear, guilt, shame, exhaustion, grief, or a plethora of other soul-testing emotions?
What do you do when your spouse is suffering on the inside?
What not to do
First, let me share three things not to do:
1. Fix. Don’t put on your relational tool belt and offer quick fixes. It makes your spouse feel like a problem to be solved, not a person to be loved. It’s dehumanizing. It certainly doesn’t mirror the way that God treats us in our emotional distress. He rarely gives us quick fixes. He meets us in our pain, links arms with us, and walks with us through our suffering. Do the same for your spouse.
2. Make it about you. It’s easy to make your spouse’s emotional pain about you. How does the pain make you feel? What impact is the pain having on your life? How did you possibly contribute to the pain? STOP. Stop making your spouse’s suffering about you. It’s impossible to love your spouse well when your eyes are fixated on yourself. Adjust your lenses, and focus on your spouse. Not on you.
3. Make it not about you. It’s also easy to check out when your spouse is hurting inside. Why do we check out? We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to help. So we walk away. Don’t. Stay connected. You are one flesh with your spouse (Gen. 2:24). Just like shedding a hurting body part is not an option, abandoning your hurting spouse is not an option.
What you should do: BLESS
So what should you do when your spouse is in emotional distress? Allow me to provide a step-by-step framework. I call it BLESS. It stands for Be, Listen, Empathize, Speak, Solve. Before I explain, I want to share three disclaimers:
First, this is a framework—a rule of thumb. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula. Every spouse is different. Every situation is different. People are complex. Life is complex. It won’t work for everybody—just most people in most situations.
Second, order is important. If you go out of order, you may frustrate your spouse at best or cause additional emotional damage at worst.
Finally, you might only do the first one, two, three, or four steps. That’s okay. Not every situation calls for all five steps. Be prepared to stop at any point in the process.
Be: Sometimes all your spouse needs is your presence. Not your listening ear. Not your words. Not your actions. Your spouse only needs to know that you are there. You are not going anywhere. Your shoulder is there to cry on. Your hand is there to hold. You are there to hug and be hugged if necessary. You. Are. There.
I suspect this might be tough—to simply be present without saying or doing anything. It is. It requires self-control. It requires patience. It requires you to relinquish control and know that God is God (Ps. 46:10); that his love and sovereignty are ruling and reigning over your spouse in that moment. It requires you to surrender your spouse into Christ’s hands, which are far more capable hands than yours.
Listen: If your spouse speaks, close your mouth and listen (James 1:19). Concentrate on what is being said; not only the words but also the body language. Don’t think about what you are going to say. Don’t think about how your spouse should feel. Don’t think about how to make the pain go away. Don’t think about anything except what your spouse is saying. Just. Listen.
Empathize: If, and only if, you’ve thoroughly listened to your spouse, you may now open your mouth. What should you say? Precisely what your spouse said—in your own words. In other words, empathize with your spouse. Speak what you heard back in a way that makes your spouse say, “Yes, you get me.” If you aren’t sure what your spouse just said, ask questions to gain clarity.
Why is empathy important? It makes your spouse feel known—the first half of the core human desire to be fully known and fully loved. It lets your spouse know that you are tracking, that you care, and that you are, once again, 100% present. It’s healing. It’s restorative. It says, “I know you, and you are worthy to be known.”
Speak: If, and only if, you’ve been present, listened, and empathized with your spouse, it may be time to speak words of life into your spouse’s heart (Prov. 18:21). You might share a passage of Scripture. You might offer a nugget of theological truth. You might give a word of encouragement. You might even (and tread lightly here) tell a joke! The point is that your words should be specifically calculated to build up your spouse (Eph. 4:29). They should infuse life. They should revive, refresh, and restore. They should heal your spouse’s heart.
Solve: If, and only if, you’ve been present, listened, empathized, and spoken life-giving words, it may be time to offer advice. Perhaps you suggest a list of action items that will assuage your spouse’s pain. Perhaps you point out ways that your spouse is unknowingly and unintentionally exacerbating the pain. Perhaps you offer a gentle admonishment if you see sin in your spouse’s life. Again, be careful. You don’t want to unintentionally wound your spouse with an ill-timed solution. One helpful tip is to ask if your spouse wants a solution. If the answer is yes, then proceed. If not, put your tool belt back in the closet.
Be. Listen. Empathize. Speak. Solve. In that order. It’s hard. It’s unnatural. It takes discipline. You might not see immediate results. But that’s okay. It isn’t about results. It’s about love. It’s about incarnating the love of Christ and about being a blessing to your suffering spouse.
Questions for reflection
- Why is it so hard to enter your spouse’s emotional pain without offering solutions? Why is it so hard for you to listen without speaking? What in your heart prevents you from following the sequential steps of BLESS?
- Have you ever been in a state of emotional turmoil, and somebody offered you a trite platitude or a quick fix? How did that make you feel?
- Psalm 139 tells us that we are fully known and fully loved by God. He sees and understands us and still loves us. Why is this so healing? What can you do to make your suffering spouse feel this way?