You might not always be in the mood to hear it, but listening to your partner complain is what you signed up for. Whether or not it was explicitly laid out in your marriage vows, being the sounding board when the venting starts — and hearing about gripes with work, family, life in general, even you — is just part of the gig. Of course, this can be a fraught zone to enter into. When the complainer’s emotions are running high, even the most well-intentioned listener can feel like they’re being unhelpful, or just “listening wrong.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Once your eye contact is fired up and any distractions have been put to the side, there’s a lot you can do to make your partner feel truly supported in these situations. Dr. Amy Mezulis, the co-founder of Joon Therapy, recommends that you ask what your partner is looking for at the start. Do they just want to be heard? Are they looking to be reassured about how they handled a situation? Are they soliciting feedback? Once you know, you can put the part of mind that worries about misinterpreting these things at ease — and avoid the very natural but very wrong impulse to try to solve the problem — and focus solely on what your partner wants.
“Listening is learning,” says Dr. Mezulis. “When we’re learning, we do best when we’re curious… A mental image I’ll hold is that of an empty vessel, where I’m letting the other person’s thoughts and feelings pour into me.”
Have you turned yourself into an empty vessel, up for getting poured into? Good, then you’re ready to be there for your partner. And when you are, here are the words and phrases that can be the most helpful.
1. “That’s rough!”
Basic, empathetic reaction statements can work wonders, especially in the early phases of the venting process. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with your partner’s position, or if you don’t understand why the situation has them so upset, verbally acknowledging something you can see right in front of you — that it has made them this upset — goes a long way toward making them feel heard. Sara Miller, LCPC and owner of Confluent Relationship Therapy, says that this response can be “as simple as ‘Wow, it’s been a busy day for you’, ‘I know you’re going through a lot right now’, or ‘Oh man, that is a tough situation!’ “Providing empathy is vital to the person feeling like they have a partner to support them with non-judgement in their everyday endeavors,” she says.
2. “It sounds like…”
Restating, paraphrasing, or summarizing what you’ve just been told might sound like a redundant step, but it establishes that you’ve been listening carefully enough to have an interpretation. “You're showing that you're 100% focused on your partner and what they're experiencing,” says marriage and family therapist Kristen Marguerite Doidge. “It's also a chance to clarify what you heard and can be a super helpful phrase when conflict arises or when something seems unclear.”
3. “What happened next?”
This follow up question — which can also be rephrased as “tell me what happened” or “what did you do/say next?” — keeps your partner’s tale moving forward, but won’t make it seem like you’re rushing it to a conclusion. “Open-minded, nonjudgmental fact-finding questions” like these, according to Dr. Mezulis, “allow your partner to tell the story and demonstrate your active listening without defaulting to solutions or judgments.”
3. “I can understand why that would bother you.”
Once you’ve heard your partner’s complaint, this phrase builds on the empathetic reactions you gave them earlier, and gives them something they may deeply desire, but not necessarily be able to ask for directly: confidence that in their position, you might feel or react the same way. Mary Smith, a relationship coach and the founder of Vowness, says that this phrase “helps to establish a connection between their experience and your understanding, fostering a deeper bond beyond mere words.”
4.“How are you handling it?”
“I like this because it offers validation about the general stress of the situation,“ says Dr. Mezulis, “and then takes a curious stance about their emotional reaction.” This last part is crucial. Your partner’s emotional reaction to what they’re describing is, after all, the crux of why the whole thing matters to them and (by extension) to you. How they’re handling it is also the aspect of the conflict that you, as their partner, are most likely to be able to assist with.
5. “What do you think will happen next?”
Note the crucial difference between this phrase and phrase number three. This is a transitional phrase, giving your partner a gentle cue to finish recounting the story of what’s bothering them, and look ahead—towards articulating (and hopefully dissipating) some of their anxieties about how this conflict will continue to play out. It could also, says Dr. Mazulis, get them to “generate potential next steps (which might provide an opportunity for you to offer feedback).”
6. “In a perfect world, how would you want this to look?”
That said, sometimes it can be difficult for your partner to wrap the story up and look to the future. When we’re venting, we have a tendency to want to restate and relitigate the issue we’ve just experienced without allowing ourselves to even think about how it could be fixed. This phrase can be rearticulated in any number of ways to suit the occasion. “A powerful question to ask your partner if they seem stuck in an endless complaining loop,” says New York Times bestselling author Laura Doyle, “is ‘what if you had the power to change this situation and have it be the way you want it? How would it be?’ This can help them get out of complaining mode into visioning mode, which is a good springboard to problem-solving.”
7. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Now we come to the ‘you’ of it all. Yes, your partner may not want you to help, and yes, neither of you might know how you could help, but stating your desire to do so if possible is still important. “It creates an opening for further connection and a chance to turn towards each other during times of distress,” says Kristin Marguerite Doidge. “The key here is to be ready and willing to help if asked -- whether it's just with more listening, a comforting hug, or giving space, this is a great phrase to have in mind to practice verbalizing needs.”
8. "I'm proud of you for sharing this with me."
At the end of the experience, you may be struggling to articulate an appropriate closing statement. Sex therapist Aliyah Moore, PhD, recommends this phrase as a way to ensure that your partner feels good about their decision to engage with you about the issue they’re facing. “Trust is precious,” says Moore. “By saying this, you're thanking them for trusting you with their feelings. It can also encourage them to open up more in the future.”