In a successful marriage, we see our partner as the go-to person in our time of need. Supportiveness is actually considered to be a pure form of love because the one giving support does it for their partner and not for themselves. We might confide in friends and family members, but often don't do it to the same extent as with our spouse—and in some cases, nor do we want to.
There are a lot of ways partners can be supportive, but most important is emotional support. Knowing that we can rely on our partner for comfort, security, and advice makes us feel like we’re not facing our problems alone; that enhances feelings of connectedness and the value of our relationship.
However, as with many things, men and women who are married to one another can have very different ideas as to what it means to be emotionally supportive, and how to go about providing it. For some marriages, these differences can cause misinterpretations, which can lead one or the other to feel they’re not getting the support they want and need. That, in turn, can foster a breakdown in emotional connectedness.
To begin, women are generally more comfortable giving and receiving emotional support, and it’s easier for them to relate to other people’s problems. In a heterosexual marriage, they’re more likely to be on the lookout for difficulties faced by their husbands, are better at reading when their husbands are distressed, and so are in a better position to step in without being asked. Women also value support more, and the extent to which they receive it has a lot to do with how positively they feel about the marriage.
Many husbands, on the other hand, value support less and are not as prone to talk about their problems—they’re not as comfortable with such discussions, prefer to handle things on their own, or don’t like to admit they need help. They’re also less prone to be tuned into other people’s distress, including their wives, and so can appear insensitive to their wives’ needs. While wives might regard their husbands as unhelpful, uninvolved, or uncaring, it might be the case instead that they’re not able to identify when their wives are having problems because they tend to pay less attention to such things.
Some wives might unintentionally exacerbate this situation by the way they prefer to communicate their need for support. They might do it indirectly, by talking about a problem without openly asking for help, or by using emotional messages, such as moods, rather than words. That leaves it to her spouse to pick up on her need for help, and if he fails to read her subtle or non-verbal cues, she might interpret that as not caring enough about her.
Some husbands might also trivialize their wives’ issues. He may feel her problem is not as big as she’s made it out to be. He might then choose to ignore her distress, or worse, ridicule her or behave impatiently when she tries to explain what’s wrong. Such reactions can undermine her ability to cope with the problem but also gives her the added problem that her husband doesn’t understand her. He might do that because he places less importance on some issues that she does, rather than out of disregard for her feelings.
Some husbands may not understand the kind of support their wives are looking for. Men typically give instrumental support—that is, they try to provide specific advice as to how to fix a problem. Women, on the other hand, give more emotional support, that is, empathy and sympathy, and very often that is the kind of support they want for themselves. When husbands are posing solutions, their wives might instead really want understanding and a discussion of options. Even if his solution is a good one, she may interpret it as unhelpful because it doesn’t take into account her feelings. If her reactions then suggest he’s not helping, a husband may come to approach such discussions with dread because he expects to fail. He may then withdraw, become impatient, or change the subject when confronted. His wife’s take on this behavior is that he can’t be depended on when she needs him.
When partners feel they’re not as close as they could or should be, they can feel more connected by learning to be supportive. As one concrete step, avoid relying on outside people for help since that eliminates the need to rely on each other. Then set aside time at the end of each day to discuss the issues each of you had to deal with, regardless of whether or not they were a problem—but make sure you talk about the emotions you experienced with each issue. You will eventually get into the habit of talking about your issues and might come to look to each other as a source of help and guidance.
For dealing with some of the specific issues we brought up, if a wife feels her husband isn’t in tune with her need for support, she needs to take it on herself and get the conversation started. The simplest solution is to tell him directly that you want to discuss an issue, rather than wait for him to figure it out. Your husband would probably be relieved to find out that your problem isn’t about him and so would be happy to talk about it with you.
Men do well to acknowledge that wives take very seriously the support they receive from their husbands. His involvement implies that he cares about her and that makes her feel better about him. While he might consider some of her issues unimportant, note that her emotional ties to others run deeper than his and she is more likely to notice there are problems in relationships that he would probably miss. Trivializing or ignoring problems serves no good purpose whatsoever, and can lead to quite a few negative emotions.
When your wife approaches you with an issue, sometimes she needs guidance for decisions and sometimes she just wants a sympathetic shoulder or a sounding board. Learn to identify what she is looking for and avoid thinking there is only one right way to deal with problems. Knowing the difference and responding in the right way is the difference between appearing supportive and not. If you’re not sure how to respond, go with empathy and sympathy—that approach can lead to a continued discussion of the problem so you can work out a solution.
Remember, supportiveness in all its forms is reciprocal. If the relationship is even-handed, the amount you give is roughly equal to what you get back. If you’re there to help when needed, you’ll likely be repaid in your time of need. And as a final point, each of us has a responsibility for our partner’s well-being, and they have every right to expect that from us—just as we have a right to expect support from our partner.