Invisible Support in Lasting Relationships

Lasting Relationships

I often think people are funny.  And in this case I don’t mean funny like humorous.  I mean funny like odd. Like when you see someone walking down the street in 10° weather with no coat. Hmm…funny…why would they do that?  And today I want to focus on a way in which men tend to be “funnier” than women.

My friend Kevin is a good example.  When he does a nice thing for his wife, he has a strong need, at some point, to say something like “That was a nice thing I did.”  I have asked him if he does it because he thinks his wife might not notice, and he says that’s not the reason; his wife is usually aware of the nice things he does. He can’t actually say why he needs to do it, but I think that’s often the way human needs work.

Unfortunately for Kevin, recent research by psychologists Maryhope Howland and Jeff Simpson suggests that he is going about this in the wrong way.  Howland and Simpson believe that providing help or support for your partner is most effective when your partner is unaware that they are receiving help, what they call “invisible support.”

You may be wondering how someone could provide support to another person without that person being aware they received support. Psychologists have devised a clever method.  They ask a participant in a study to do some task.  Then before doing the task the participant either gets advice from someone directly or overhears that same person giving advice to someone else.  Those participants who “overheard” the advice (that is, who had received invisible support) felt less distress than those who had received the advice directly.

In the Howland and Simpson study, couples entered a room and were told they would be having a videotaped conversation.  One partner was asked to spend a few minutes thinking of something they would like to change about themselves such as work, health, relationships with family, etc.  Couples were then left alone for 7 minutes to discuss this topic. This procedure created a conversation where one partner described what they wanted to change and put the other partner in the role of supporter.

After the discussion the supporter reported how much support they provided and their partner rated how much support they felt they had received. Trained observers watched the videotape and rated how much support had actually been given. The researchers looked at two kinds of support: practical support – advice and information that helps to fix the problem, and emotional support – feedback and reassurance to make the person feel better.  In both cases, when participants received more invisible support from their partners (as rated by the trained observers) they perceived that they had received less support, but they also reported less anger and anxiety about the issue.

The question then is what invisible support looks and sounds like.  Howland and Simpson say that invisible support has two important qualities.  First, invisible support deemphasizes the roles of provider and recipient.  Imagine your partner comes home from work and is having trouble with a coworker.  If you say, “Let’s sit down and talk about this” you are making it clear that your partner is the one having the problem and you are the one trying to help them solve it. You might instead talk about it in a way that, as much as possible, resembles the kind of conversation you would have about anything else. The more the discussion seems like a help session, the more support your partner will be aware of, and the less beneficial the discussion will be.

Second, invisible support deflects attention away from the recipient’s problem. It is not useful to start sentences with phrases like “You should” because it directly focuses the conversation on the problem. Instead, try to think of a similar situation you or someone you know has experienced.  If you can say something like, “I had kind of the same problem with that guy I used to work with, you remember him?” you are engaging your partner in working on the problem together.  It might also help to suggest that theirs is a common problem, one for which others have, no doubt, found a solution.  You can also focus your partner away from the problem and remind them of the skills they have to handle problems of this kind—like patience, perseverance and dedication.

Invisible support conveys support “under the radar,” so recipients remain unaware that they have received support.  It fosters feelings of cooperation and equality rather than the image that one person is telling another what they “should” do. These techniques can help you and your partner find solutions together.

In case you are interested…..

Howland, M., & Simpson, J. A. (2010). Getting in under the radar: A dyadic view of invisible support. Psychological Science, 21, 1878-1885.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit