The Best Way To Support Your Partner


Gabrielle White

It goes without saying that finding support during a breakup is important. A study done in Malaysia tells us more about which kinds of support have the most impact on our relationships.

“Goal instrumentality” is the term used in the literature to describe how we can make other people partially responsible for our own success. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve asked your partner to smack your hand if it reaches for the chocolate stash. But there are many different ways your partner or friend can support you in reaching your goals, besides swatting at sugar-seeking hands. Some people give us support in a very unassuming way, leaving the reigns up to you (autonomous support); others tell us what we should do (directive support); others tell us what we are doing is wrong and then proceed to tell us what to do (controlling support).

The researchers recruited 149 students, and asked some students to think about a person who has helped them reach their goals, and others to think of someone who wasn’t so helpful. The researchers then surveyed the students about their chosen person on scales designed to measure the different types of support: autonomous, directive, and controlling.

The students felt closer to someone when they reported receiving more directive support. Similarly, students felt less close to those who offered controlling support. However, students only preferred being told what to do when a goal was at stake; otherwise, they preferred being around someone who offered autonomous support, which revolves more around empathy and listening than offering advice.

So timing is key to understanding what kind of support our partners need. But does it make a difference? To find out, the researchers then tracked the goal progress of 73 couples. After surveying the couples to determine each partner’s support style, the researchers followed up about their goal progress over the course of 3 months. The more autonomous support was offered, the more closeness and commitment to the relationship was measured. When instrumental support was useful, it brought partners closer. When advice was offered without actually being helpful to the progress toward the goal, it pulled partners apart.

The bottom line: thinking carefully about a partner’s needs and where they are relative to their goals can help you figure out what kind of support will help them the most. If your partner feels that you bring out the best in them in regards to meeting their goal, it’s going to bring you closer together.

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