You know those days, the ones where nothing seems to be going your way? Your shower runs out of hot water, you’re late to work and your boss gets mad, you spill mustard on your favourite shirt, and, the kicker is, you don’t even like mustard. Those might be the days when you want nothing more than to curl up in your bed and be left alone, and yet it seems like everyone keeps barging in on you to make sure you’re ok. Sure, you appreciate the thought, but what you really need is for everyone to stop reminding you about your no-good, awful, terrible day.
The one shining light in all of this is your partner, who sits on the bed with you and, in one small conversation, has you laughing and smiling again. Your mood is instantly lifted, and you didn’t even have to ask for a single thing.
How do they do it? This may come as a surprise, but you’re not dating an Edward Cullen-type. Instead, your fang-free partner is practicing something called invisible support, a type of support that is delivered less directly and is subsequently less noticeable to those receiving it (1). But, why does it work? Isn’t it better if you know you’re being supported?
Actually, when it comes to support, it’s been found that overt support could be detrimental to the person receiving it in a multitude of ways. If you’ve had a bad day, the last thing you want to do is to be reminded of it, right? Direct support tends to highlight the things you’d rather not think about, including your vulnerability in that particular moment in time (1).
Additionally, a 2000 study investigated whether being aware of receiving support actually diminished the benefit due to an associated emotional cost, likely feelings of obligation to return the favour. Researchers conducted a diary study, collecting data from 68 couples, in which one partner of each was preparing for the New York State Bar Examination (the major stressor!). Interestingly, the one under stress reported feeling less stressed on the days where their partner had provided support without the stressed partner knowing it (2).
It seems that being supported without knowing you’re being supported takes some of the pressure off; you’re no longer faced with your own feelings of distress or inadequacies, and less likely to engage in exchange-based interactions. The question still remains, though: what makes your partner uniquely equipped to provide such a unique type of support in the first place? The secret is empathic accuracy (EA), or the ability to correctly infer what your partner is feeling. In 2016, one researcher, Howland, conducted two studies with couples: one study involved data collection from diaries of high-stress situations over a month-long period, and the other involved lab-observation as one partner discussed mildly-stressful situations. Howland correctly hypothesized that increased EA demonstrated by the support provider would be positively associated with invisible practical support; that is, advice or “instrumental” support. There was little association between EA and emotional support, though, perhaps due in part to the possiblity that emotional support requires less nitty-gritty involvement: practical support, in contrast, must be tailored to the specific situation (1).
EA and invisible support may have the potential to benefit romantic relationships, or at the very least ameliorate stress. You may be asking, though, how can I develop EA if I want to start supporting my partner better? Somewhat paradoxically, a 2021 study found that the secret to developing better EA is actually to expressing thoughts and feelings during conflict. Huh? But what about everything we just taked about in terms of not wanting to draw attention to the unpleasant and our own vulnerabilities? As it turns out, through studying 155 couples and the conflicts they spoke about, as well as how the target perceived how clearly they had communicated their feelings vs. a rater’s observations, researchers found that expression genuinely led to greater EA by their partner (3).
So, what does this mean? The main takeaway is that direct support draws attention to something that the target may not necessarily want to focus on, whether that be vulnerability, feelings of inadequacy, or a sense of indebtedness (1). In contrast, the couples engaging in self-expression in the 2021 study are doing so voluntarily; they are not seeking support consciously or unconsciously; they are simply having a conversation with their partner (3). Thus, EA allows a partner to correctly infer what their partner may need in a moment of vulnerability, where more overt behaviour may cause more harm than good. And the way to develop EA? Communication in moments where self-expression is welcome, so as to allow EA when those moments are not.
(TL;DR) Your partner is not a mind-reader, and neither are you. Developing good empathic skills is vital to being able to anticipate your partner’s needs and provide invisible support. It just so happens that the process itself isn’t so invisible.
- Howland, M. (2016). Reading minds and being invisible: The role of empathic accuracy in invisible support provision. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(2), 149–156. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615606195
- Bolger, N., Zuckerman, A., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Invisible support and adjustment to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 953–961. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1243
- Sels, L., Ickes, W., Hinnekens, C., Ceulemans, E., & Verhofstadt, L. (2021). Expressing thoughts and feelings leads to greater empathic accuracy during relationship conflict. Journal of Family Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000871