What's the worst way to helping your partner with a thorny problem? Offer advice.
Image by Dan Woychick
In an experiment involving 85 romantic partners, CLA psychology professor Jeffrey Simpson and grad student fellow Maryhope Howland found that overt support, either practical or emotional, usually backfires. It often makes the recipient feel even more anxious or angry, indebted to the support-giver, and experience lowered self-esteem.
This was especially true among anxiety-afflicted males receiving emotional support from their sweeties.
Effective support, the researchers found, is invisible--given so skillfully that the recipient isn't aware of it. This was true of both practical and emotional support: the more "under the radar," the more effective. In order for this system to work, however, a recipient must trust the giver's good intentions.
How to give invisible support? The research warns against playing an overtly "supportive" role, and instead making the discussion equal and conversational. Invisible support de-emphasizes the roles of supporter and supported. One approach is to avoid calling attention to the partner's problem or limitations by using oneself or a third person as an example.
The research, published in Psychological Science, emphasized that, like most everything else in an intimate relationship, it takes two to tango when it comes to support. In delivering it the one partner has to be skillful; in receiving it, the other blissfully ignorant.