In many cases, visible support in a relationship can be very beneficial. Yet in a study by psychologists Maryhope Howland and Jeff Simpson, the receivers of direct support typically felt more anxiety and distress than people who received invisible support. So, what is that?
We all like recognition for the things we do, especially in relationships. When you do something nice for your partner, you want to make sure he knows about it. If your sacrifices go unnoticed, it may seem like your expressions of love pass by unappreciated and fail to benefit the relationship. Yet this is hardly the case.
What invisible looks like
One way of understanding what invisible support looks like is to contrast it with visible support. Visible support occurs when one person is clearly in need of advice or encouragement, and the other person is clearly the one offering support. Visible supporters often use phrases such as, “You should,” and typically, the focus of the discussion is on the specific problem the support-receiver is experiencing.
In situations where invisible support is being given, the roles of support-giver and support-receiver are blurred, thereby creating an interaction that looks more like a regular conversation. Further, during this conversation, attention is directed away from the specific problem at hand by, for instance, describing similar experiences the support-giver or others have had.
Change your vocabulary
Jay Geier, founder of Moodism, suggests that one way of helping your partner deal with a difficult situation is to help him reflect on times when he had success in a similar circumstance. Reminding your partner of previous success or of existing resources available in the current situation (e.g., patience, intelligence) can turn him from a passive problem-sufferer to an active problem-solver.
Start by cutting phrases like “You should” out of your vocabulary. Replace them with phrases like, “You know, this is kind of like the time…” Think of similar situations that you or other people have faced, and offer thoughts on how comparable problems were solved.
Whether you draw on past experiences or your partner’s past successes, the point is that as you offer invisible support, that it feels more like a situation you are exploring and discussing together, something you probably do quite often.
The long-term effect
You might be wondering how this invisible support will impact your relationship in the long run. After all, if your partner is less aware that you are offering support, how does that bring you closer together? There are four major ways this expression of love and support will make you stronger as a couple.
Less anxiety outside the relationship
Our relationships are affected by outside circumstances, like work and friendships. Stress outside the relationship often spills over into the relationship. Invisible support, then, helps the support-receiver solve problems outside of the relationship, diminishing the amount of anxiety that can spill over and cause problems within the relationship.
Less anxiety within the relationship
Every time invisible support helps reduce stress in a situation, couples have a more pleasant, or at least a less unpleasant, experience. The better your shared experiences, the less anxiety you will have within your relationship.
Greater trust and intimacy
Your partner may not be overtly aware of each instance of invisible support. But consistently feeling better after coming to you with problems will cause him to return to you to discuss issues in the future, rather than, perhaps, confiding in someone else. This builds trust and intimacy.
Stronger sense of commitment
Givers of support benefit from a process of self-perception where they see themselves giving support over a long period of time. They recognize those instances of support-giving as evidence of love and concern for their partners, which has positive effects on their commitment to their relationships.
So the next time your partner comes to you full of worry or upset over an incident at work, don’t tell him what he should do. Instead, offer invisible support, and forget about the recognition. It’s better to have a strong, healthy, lasting relationship than to hear praise for your wisdom.