If you think the support you’ve been giving your romantic partner has been helping them—and your relationship—you may need to think again.
A new study suggests that the best way to provide support to your partner is to do so “invisibly,” meaning without them being aware that they are receiving it. And it identifies the subtle, skillful ways this invisible support should be provided.
Published in Psychological Science, the study involved 85 couples who had been together for a year or longer. Researchers randomly assigned one spouse to give support to the other. The recipient of support was asked to come up with something they wanted to change about themselves. The couples discussed the issue while being filmed; observers later watched the interaction and classified the support as either “visible” or “invisible.”
Visible support is obvious, with the roles of supported and supporter being very clearly defined. When you give visible support, you explicitly call attention to the difficulty of the situation and your partner’s capacity to deal with the situation on their own.
By contrast, invisible support is more indirect. When you give invisible support, you focus attention away from your partner’s problem and how upsetting it is, and you de-emphasize your partner’s capacity to handle the situation. For instance, it may involve talking about the problem through a third-person example.
“Imagine you’ve had a bad interaction with your boss,” says Maryhope Howland, a graduate student in the department of psychology at the University of Minnesota and the lead author of the study. “One way your partner might respond would be to say something along the lines of, ‘Why don’t you talk to human resources? I bet there is a protocol for this kind of thing.’ This would be an example of visible practical support: It is directed right at you, highlights the problem you’re having and that you are the one in the conversation who needs support.”
“Another way your partner might respond,” Howland continues, “would be to say something like, ‘You know, my sister ran into a similar problem, and she found human resources to be really helpful. They had a protocol for her issue.’ This is invisible practical support: It presents a practical solution, but overall is much more conversational and does not highlight the role difference between support provider and recipient.”
Howland and her co-author found that those partners who received invisible support reported a greater decrease in anger and anxiety after the conversation than those who received visible support.
However, this was only true when the recipient remained unaware that they were receiving support. If one partner used the techniques of invisible support but the other was still aware they were receiving support, the positive effects disappeared.
The researchers also observed that when couples were discussing a practical problem, as opposed to an emotional one, those who received invisible support—and were unaware they’d received it—later reported feeling more self-sufficient, competent, and capable than they had before.
The researchers speculate this is because the invisible support led the receivers to believe that they were able to handle the problem and weren’t dependent on their partner, avoiding feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability.
So why do some partners notice when they’re receiving invisible support, while others remain, in the authors’ words, “blissfully unaware”? They believe the answer may involve the amount of trust the recipient feels toward their spouse.
“If recipients are confident that their partners have good intentions, they may be less likely to monitor their partners’ behavior closely and to interpret supportive overtures as actual attempts to provide support,” they write. “This might explain why invisible support continues to work, even in long-term relationships in which partners know each other very well.”