Making Helping Helpful

Not all help is useful, so how can partners give effective support?

Posted Jul 23, 2018

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Relationships are a matter of give and take. I’ll wager you’ve heard that maxim somewhere along the line. And it’s relevant to assorted aspects of a couple’s life. Take compromise. We can’t (and arguably shouldn’t) have everything our way, and it’s not healthy or sustainable to continually give in and never have what we want either. Another case of give and take is how partners help each other. Whether it’s comfort, advice, knowledge, encouragement, information, errands, or tasks, to name a few examples, sometimes we’re the ones accepting support. And at other times, we’re the ones providing it.  

The topic of whether and how we give our partner permission to help is a crucial one that deserves attention. But for the purpose of this piece, we’re mainly going to focus on what it means to support our partner in an effective way.

Now, if you’re thinking that the notion of being there for your partner seems pretty straightforward, I appreciate where you’re coming from. At one level, it’s simply about being a loving ally, who stands by as a safe, thoughtful, and affectionate harbor amid the seas of life, regardless of whether those waters are still and calm, or choppy and wild. An apt illustration of this idea is a picture of the opposite scenario, a relationship in which partners aren’t willing to help and care for each other. Do you have a question? Go figure it out yourself. You’re sad, because you didn’t get that promotion you were aching for? Looks like you’re on your own. You’ve just come down with the flu and can barely stand? Thankfully, you’ve got your phone and can order some soup. Yipes, I don’t think either of us wants to continue imagining that. Undeniably, it’s wonderful for partners to buoy one another up. And it’s not just your partner who benefits when you offer encouraging words and assistance. When you’re there for your partner, I'm assuming you’re doing what’s important to you, and it probably makes you feel good. And on top of that, it’s connected to the quality of your bond. According to relationship research, there's a link between nurturing and looking after a partner and contentment in the relationship.

And yet, at another level, the notion of being supportive is anything but clear, in large part because not all help is equal. First, take the notion of when we help. It may be important to you to lend your partner a hand in general, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be in a position to do so at the exact moment or day when your partner might want it or need it. For instance, I can recall times when I wanted to get my husband’s advice on a particular issue, but I put the question on hold because I knew he was in the middle of his busy workday, and my question could wait. Or perhaps, thanks to that stomach virus that decided you’d be the perfect place to set up camp, you can’t pick up your partner from the airport like you promised. Second, there’s also the matter of what kind of help we give. Sometimes what we think our partner wants and needs doesn’t map onto what they actually want or need, and this mismatch can impact our partner and our relationship. So how can we offer help that’s actually, well, helpful? Here are a few considerations.

1. When in doubt, ask.

It’s not creative or subtle, but I’m a big fan of asking, because it usually provides you with useful information that will light your way forward. And it doesn’t matter whether you think you know what your partner needs and just want to check, or you have no clue. There’s no harm in giving yourself permission to pause and say something along the lines of, “Just so I’m clear, what do you need most from me right now?” You can even bring up some possibilities if you want to explain the question a bit more: “For example, do you want me to listen, give advice, give you a hug and some love, or just crack bad jokes and take your mind off all this?” It may seem a bit silly at first glance, but people tend to appreciate it. I’ve asked some variation of that question a number of times, and so far no one has scoffed, “I can’t believe you just asked me what I need from you!” Instead, people have given thoughtful answers that helped me give them the support they needed in that moment.  

2. Embrace your inner cheerleader.

We humans have a remarkable capacity to healthfully change and grow throughout our lifetime. Thankfully, there’s virtually always room to pursue that kind of self-enhancement, to live life just a little bit better than we do now. For example, one area where we can all improve, at least to some extent, is our lifestyle (e.g., exercise, sleep, nutrition, leisure, time outdoors, relationships). And just as most of us can likely pinpoint room for an upgrade in that department in ourselves, we can probably see it in our partner too. So if we want to help our partner make healthy changes, how can we do it effectively? 

Let’s say your partner is trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, but has been having limited success so far. You’re worried that if your partner doesn’t change their eating habits, you won’t enjoy as long a life together as you might otherwise. So your intentions come from a loving place. Check. But what about your methods? Many people find themselves believing that a sterner touch is the only way to motivate their partner to make meaningful changes. For instance, they might scold, mock, or try to shame their partner. Or they may raise their voice, snap at their partner, or downplay their partner’s perspective on how to change and insist on their own approach, thinking they know how to do it better. And it’s understandable why they’d hold this view. A megaphone receives more attention than a whisper, and a powerful delivery may seem necessary to spur a partner to get better at following through on their goals. But despite the caring, well-meant intentions behind these methods, they don’t work. On the contrary, when partners receive encouraging, tender, positive support, this forecasts greater success in making healthy changes, as well as greater happiness for them in the relationship. Examples of this kind of support include highlighting progress, making uplifting comments about your partner’s ability to reach their aspirations, being affectionate and warm, offering to assist in some way, or sending articles with information related to your partner’s goals.

3. Remember that more isn’t always better.

When we offer help, it’s sort of like a tightrope walk. A delicate balance is required. Just as it’s possible to give too little assistance, it’s also possible to go overboard. And doing too much can take a variety of forms. Although the mental picture of one person supporting another often creates the impression that help is always beneficial and welcome, sometimes people don’t want any assistance at all. Just think of every time someone offered to help you. Did you always accept it? I know I haven’t; I can recall being on crutches and turning down many a kind offer to open doors for me, stubbornly wanting to do it myself. Alternatively, someone may want help, but feel like their partner is giving them more of it than they wished for, such as running all of the errands for the week instead of just one or two extra. Or a partner might want a different sort of help than they’re getting. For example, maybe our partner wants a hug and some reassurance, while we’re doling out advice or trying to fix the problem.

Now if you’re feeling perplexed at this point because it’s hard to imagine what could possibly be problematic about being a little too eager to assist, it makes sense why you'd wonder. Yet, as counterintuitive as it may seem, science suggests that when spouses try to help too much, this forecasts dwindling happiness in their marriage, even more so than doing too little for each other. And it’s all too easy for that balance to get thrown off, and anyone can overdo it at times. What’s tricky about striking the right harmony between being helpful enough without doing too much is that the type and degree of assistance someone desires are not necessarily straightforward. What feels useful and reasonable to you might feel excessive to your partner, and vice versa. Not only that, a variety of factors can affect how much help someone wants. Take personal autonomy and self-reliance, for instance. One study revealed that for people coping with osteoarthritis who highly value being self-sufficient, their partner’s help was linked to feeling worse, not better. Another example is a couple’s history. If a partner doesn’t feel like they’ve been as helpful in the past as their partner is being now, they may feel stressed in the face of this imbalance. And then there’s also what message the help conveys, even if that message is unintentional. If your partner experiences your help as a sign that they’re somehow incapable or ineffective, which no one wants to feel, they’re likely to feel quite differently about it than if they're able to receive assistance while holding on to their sense of competency and capability.   

Fortunately, it’s nearly always possible to do a course correction. When your partner lets you know that your aid isn’t required, goes beyond what they want, or isn’t the sort they need, take their cue. And if you’re not sure, you can always ask your partner directly. This sort of heart-to-heart conversation can pave the way toward greater understanding and connection. And if you find you have a tendency to over-help, consider agreeing on a quick, light-hearted signal that your partner can give you to let you know. Maybe it’s a humorous phrase, word, facial expression, or gesture, as long as it feels kind and clear to both of you.

4. Clarify what you need.

This one may seem a little out of place, because it’s about how to get the support you want, but it feels worth including because, after all, you deserve to have useful help too. People aren’t always candid and direct with their partner about the assistance they’re hoping for, and yet this a practical, effective way to get the support they truly want. According to research on couples, there’s a link between the language someone uses when they open up to their partner about a stressful situation and the kind of support they get. For instance, if we’re afraid of losing our job and we ask our partner what we should do, our partner is going to be more inclined to offer suggestions on how we can manage the problem, rather than give us emotional comfort. And if it’s guidance rather than comfort that we want, that’s great. But if we’re hoping for words of solace as well, then we might want to ask for that too. No matter how well our partner knows us, they can’t read our mind (even if it feels like they can sometimes), and by letting them know what we need, we’re giving them worthwhile guidance they’ll very likely respect.


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