Why partners’ attempts to support each other often miss the mark.
A Common Misunderstanding That Leads Couples Into Conflict
One of the major roles that relationship partners play in each other’s lives is in giving and receiving support—and quality support matters to satisfying relationships and personal well-being. Couples aid each other in a million large and small ways—for example, helping with household tasks, offering a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, or cheering each other on towards goals and dreams.
Researchers classify support into different types to study how different ways of helping each other matter to relationships. Here are three commonly studied ways partners support each other:
- Emotional Support: Expressing concern, empathy, love, or encouragement.
- Tangible Support: Helping your partner with hands-on practical things, such as cooking a meal or financial assistance.
- Informational Support: Sharing information, helpful facts, or advice.
Each of these kinds of support meets a different need—and couples often run into a mismatch between the support one partner is seeking and the support their partner offers in response.
Mismatches in Support
One common mismatch in support conversations occurs when one partner shares about something causing them stress, sadness, or frustration, and the other partner responds by jumping in to “fix” their problem—or offering suggestions to that end.
When someone opens up about their challenges, they are often seeking emotional support—to be heard and shown compassion in their current struggle. Thus when the conversation turns to “fixing” the issue—via tangible or informational support—they may feel emotionally invalidated.
On the opposite side of the conversation, the partner trying to offer support may feel rejected if their attempt to help is not well-received. They also might be confused or frustrated because they feel like they are offering a perfectly good solution to an issue causing their partner strife.
Regardless, when hurt feelings are involved, the push and pull between one partner’s desire for emotional support and another’s desire to “fix” the problem may escalate a couple into conflict—despite the good intentions that both partners brought to the interaction.
Complex Constellations of Feelings and Needs
People have a fundamental need to feel like they can make their own choices and competently act upon them—we maintain a sense of empowerment by calling the shots in finding our way through our own struggles, so long as the issues we face are reasonably within our scope of influence. We can therefore feel somewhat belittled, rather than supported, by advice we did not seek out.
People also often have strong preferences as to how to pursue a solution to their problems. It therefore can feel frustrating to have our struggle “fixed” on our behalf in a different way than we would have addressed it ourselves. We also may wrestle with guilt in turning down our partner’s attempts to enact a solution.
When your partner is reaching out to you for emotional support, they are actually making a very practical ask—even if all they want is to share their feelings. Supporting them in processing their anger, comforting their sadness, or regulating their anxiety helps them to move into an emotional state where they feel grounded enough to respond to their own struggle.
Much of the time emotional support is an end goal in itself—the point is simply to connect and find comfort with someone who cares about the ups and downs of our days.
Conversely, sometimes we do have a pressing need for information, advice, or hands-on help, and our partners’ emotional support feels beside the point—some relationship partners are also less comfortable with receiving emotional support and would prefer tangible help when feeling stressed.
Given the many possible feelings and needs at play in a moment of giving and receiving support, it’s useful for couples to learn to dialogue about the kinds of support that best fit a given situation.
Being Explicit About Support
Being clear about the type of support you are seeking helps your partner to better show up for you. No matter how well partners know each other, they can’t read each other’s minds—so be specific if you know the kind of support you need when reaching out. Perhaps you know that you could use a hug and emotional validation, or perhaps you would like your partner’s advice.
When your partner comes to you for support, it can be useful to ask what type of support they think would be helpful—or to focus first on empathizing with them, then checking in to see if they would like informational or tangible help. Explicitly discerning what kind of support your partner needs helps you to be responsive, showing that you understand their problem and care enough to assist them in a way that accepts their preferences. Such responsiveness builds closeness and trust.
Importantly, misattunement and conflict are a normal part of healthy relationships—the process of finding alignment in a support conversation can take trial and error, as you may miss the mark before showing up in a way that genuinely helps—and partners will never perfectly support each other. Hanging in there together when support conversations go awry gives you a chance to practice the vital relationship habit of finding your way as a couple back from misattunement to connection.