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The Supportive Spouse: How to Get the Right Kind of Emotional Support

Being "supportive" means different things to different people.

“I wish he’d be more supportive.” Here’s what I’ve heard (almost as often) in response. “I try to be supportive, but she doesn’t appreciate it.” And the first-runner-up response? “I don’t know what to do when she gets upset. It’s like she wants me to read her mind.”

So what’s the disconnect? A recent series of University of Iowa studies suggests that “supportive” has almost as many interpretations as ”commitment” or “love.” For instance, a five-year study of 103 newly married husbands and wives identified four kinds of support: physical comfort and emotional support (listening and empathizing, taking your spouse's hand, giving your spouse a hug), esteem support (expressing confidence in your partner, providing encouragement), informational support (giving advice, gathering information), and tangible support (taking on responsibilities so your spouse can deal with a problem, helping to brainstorm solutions to a problem).

Apparently, it’s too much of the wrong kind of support that wreaks the most havoc in relationships.

Couples Can Overdo Being Supportive

Don’t get me wrong; couples complain about too little support far more often than too much; about two-thirds of men and at least 80 percent of women wanted more support from their spouses. However, it was the one-third of men and women who received too much informational support - usually in the form of unwanted advice-giving—that had the highest rate of marital decline.

Perhaps it’s because many couples who are less-than-thrilled with their spouse’s support level make up for it with friends and family. This is especially true for us females, who tend to have multiple sources of support. However, there’s no way to compensate for too much of the wrong kind of support.

Want the Right Kind of Support? Ask for It!

“If he really loved me, he’d know what kind of support I need.” This is the kind of thinking guaranteed to lead to unhappiness. No partner should have to be a mind reader. In fact, when it comes to marital satisfaction, both partners are happier if wives ask for support when they need it.

However, husbands shouldn’t just throw up their hands up in the air if they’re not sure what to do. Ask how you can help—don’t assume you know what to do. Afterward, talk about what worked and what didn’t and adjust accordingly. (Of course, few husbands go wrong by listening to their wives express their thoughts and feelings without being subjected to his opinion on the matter or trying to fix it (or her)—unless she specifically asks for it.)

As far as husbands go, esteem support is a no-brainer; I’ve never met a man who didn’t love encouragement, appreciation, and praise.

Arguments Require a Different Kind of Support

A heated discussion about a sensitive or contentious issue is one of the hardest times to give your partner the support s/he needs. Not only do arguments create tension in the relationship, they also elevate levels of chemicals known as cytokines. These proteins are produced by cells in the immune system and help the body mount an immune response during infection.

Fortunately, research shows that the words we bring to the battle can have a powerful impact on our immune system as well as our relationships success. Couples who use thoughtful words with emotionally charged partners—words like “I think,” “Here’s my reason for” and “Because”—signal to the other person that the speaker is either making sense of the conflict or at least thinking about it in a deep way. Researchers found that this cognitive support not only helped prevent the argument from escalating, it lowered certain stress enzymes, especially in the husband.

Graham speculates that women may be more adept at communication and perhaps their cognitive word use had a bigger impact on their husbands. Wives were also more likely than husbands to use cognitive words.

The Bottom Line

No matter what the situation, dialog is key. Couples will be happier if they learn how to say, 'This is how I'm feeling, and this is how you can help me.'” And if the asking doesn’t lead to giving, well, that’s a topic for another post.

More from Joni E Johnston Psy.D.
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