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The Best Way to Support a Partner May Be Invisibly

The best way for partners to support each other isn't how you might think.

Key points

  • Often the best way to support your partner is for them not to know you're doing it.
  • Support a partner doesn't see not only bolsters relationships, but comes without emotional costs to the partner receiving help.
  • Examples of invisible support show how one partner can boost the other's moods without them feeling guilt or the need to reciprocate.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

Imagine you have a really stressful week at work with lots of demands, emails, and meetings. You feel like you're drowning. Your partner notices and says, “I know you’re having a really hard time; let me help you. I’ll take care of getting the taxes done for you and will handle dinners this week.” Super helpful, right?

Sort of. Receiving support like this is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, we can clearly see that our partner cares about us and wants to help. As you might expect, research shows that when partners received visible support like this, they were more satisfied in the relationship. (Girme et al., 2018)

So what’s the problem? That same research shows that when we know our partner is helping us out, it can also lower our mood and make us feel more anxious. In part, acknowledging that we need assistance can make us feel inadequate. Now we’re someone who can’t handle life and needs outside help. It can feel like if we were a more capable person we would be able to deal with a stressful week and things around the house without needing anyone to step in and save the day. When we see our partner doing things to help us out it can also make us feel indebted: Because they’ve done so much, we now owe them and need to find a way to reciprocate. All of this shows how partner support can come with a bit of baggage.

There’s a better way.

Invisible Support

Your partner also helps you in ways you don't realize. “Invisible support” occurs when your partner does things for your benefit, but you don’t realize it. Your partner is there, working silently in the background trying to make your life easier. They don’t mention it, and never ask for recognition or benefits in return. They simply do it because it helps you.

There are plenty of things your partner does behind the scenes to help you and the relationship that you never see. Make no mistake; there’s a lot that you’re missing. Research shows that partners miss half of the sacrifices their partner makes for them. (Visserman et al., 2017) Clearly there is a lot that’s flying under the radar. But all of those things you don’t see can help you.

When researchers tracked law students taking the bar exam, they found that despite students having no idea what their partners were doing to help them, they had less depression and anxiety when they received invisible support. (Bolger et al., 2000) Similarly, when people receive invisible support they report higher relationship satisfaction the following day, without any decrease in mood. (Girme et al., 2018) There were other benefits, too: Recipients of invisible support were also happier with their interactions with their partner, such as how much time they spent together, their affection toward each other, conversations, and sex life. Clearly, what we may not notice one day, has benefits for us the next day.

12 Examples of Invisible Support

Because invisible support is hard to see, examples are in short supply. Here are a dozen ways you can provide invisible support in your relationship:

  1. Doing some of the household chores that aren’t normally your responsibility.
  2. Stifling the urge to correct your partner about something they did wrong.
  3. Take the kids out so your partner can get work done.
  4. Not eating the last piece of cheesecake, even though you really want it.
  5. Resisting the temptation to offer unsolicited advice or solutions to your partner’s problems.
  6. Making your partner’s favorite meal or letting them pick the restaurant.
  7. Filling your partner’s gas tank, checking their tire pressure, or getting their car washed.
  8. Watching a show you don’t really want to, because your partner likes it.
  9. Avoiding overscheduling extra activities during your partner’s busy weeks.
  10. Encouraging the kids give your partner thoughtful cards and gifts.
  11. Hyping up the dog so they’re really excited when your partner gets home.
  12. Not piling on extra problems when your partner had a stressful day.

When looking for ways to provide invisible support, it's as simple as finding ways to lighten your partner’s load, decrease their stress and obligations, or increase their enjoyment — all without them knowing you played a role. One important corollary: Both partners need to participate. If only one partner provides invisible support, and the other constantly takes advantage, that’s going to undermine relationship quality. Also, providing invisible support doesn’t mean you should be a doormat or a martyr. It just means you're looking out for each other. Everyone deserves a great relationship. The best relationships make our life better, and the best partners help make that happen in ways we never see.

Facebook image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

References

Bolger, N., Zuckerman, A., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Invisible support and adjustment to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 953–961.

Girme, Y. U., Maniaci, M. R., Reis, H. T., McNulty, J. K., Carmichael, C. L., Gable, S. L., Baker, L. R., & Overall, N. C. (2018). Does support need to be seen? Daily invisible support promotes next day relationship well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(7), 882–893.

Visserman, M. L., Righetti, F., Kumashiro, M., & Van Lange, P. A. (2017). Me or us? Self‐control promotes a healthy balance between personal and relationship concerns. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8, 55–65.

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