Nobody is exempt from hard times. Sometimes we get hit as a couple and other times it is really just our spouse that bears the brunt of the burden. How can you draw alongside and support your spouse during those hard times?

There is this innate advantage to being a couple in that we have the ability to lift each other up when we fall down. The proverb in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”

The next question that comes to mind is, “How do I lift up my spouse when they’re down?” Sometimes we’re not sure how to help or sometimes we can even miss the cue when our spouse is asking for support. Other times we get stuck wallowing around in our own stuff and aren’t much use.

Even if we mess up though, we all want to be a spouse that’s really there for their wife or husband. It feels good to know what to do and how to do it and to see your spouse benefit from it.

So, let’s look at the importance of support, and then at how to give the right type and right amount of support.

The Importance of Support in Marriage

Supporting each other is important for two reasons; not only for the well-being of the spouse who is experiencing the hardship but also for the well-being of your marriage and the intimacy you experience as a couple. It works not only for your spouse but also the bond between you.

A study in 2009 looked at patients with cancer who were married or in intimate relationships. They noticed that these patients often had difficulty talking about cancer-related concerns with their spouse, so they decided to test the effectiveness of an emotional disclosure intervention between patients with GI cancer and their spouses.

130 randomly selected GI cancer patients and their spouses were selected to receive sessions of either partner-assisted disclosure (one spouse disclosing feelings and concerns to their spouse related to the cancer experience – relational and emotional) or couple’s cancer education/support intervention (including information presentations related to living with cancer as well as written handouts – educational and informative).

Results showed that, compared to the education/support sessions, the partner-assisted emotional disclosure led to greater improvements in relationship quality and intimacy.[i] This really underscores the importance of intimacy.

Husbands (although both genders can be prone to this, it is more often seen in males), don’t go on a huge search for facts about the problem when the reality is you need to connect with your wife at the feelings level. That emotional connection is so critical.

As you can see, supporting your spouse is important, but the catch is that not all support is equally helpful. The way in which you support your spouse makes a big difference in whether or not it will bring you closer together.

The Kind of Support Really Matters

This is where we talk about support preferences.

One important aspect of giving support is something known as “partner sensitivity.” What this means is that you are sensitive to who your spouse is as a person, including his or her unique preferences. Because you know your spouse so well, you know how to support your spouse in a way that matches how your spouse wants to be supported.

Some researchers in 2007, believing that ‘partner sensitivity’ is a key building block for the formation of intimacy, studied the concept in 59 married couples who were videotaped disclosing information to each other. They found that:

  1. “Matching support following the disclosure of emotions was predictive of perceived partner sensitivity.” If your support response was aligned with the way your spouse preferred to receive support, then your spouse will perceive you as being someone who is sensitive to their needs.
  2. “Mismatched support following the disclosure of emotions predicted lower marital satisfaction, through the mediation of partner sensitivity.” You’ll be seen as insensitive, which leads to lower marital satisfaction.[ii]

The first step is to get to know your spouse and his or her preferences, perhaps by asking outright or based on your knowledge of his or her responses over the years.

This is where getting to know each other is really important. Really study your spouse and observe things like:

  1. Does he/she prefer to be fussed over or to be left to have time to reflect quietly and process?
  2. Do they need to talk it out? or think it out?
  3. Prefers extra affection? or other ways of showing that you’re there and you care?
  4. Is receptive to comfort sex? or prefers to be held? or left alone for a bit?

It takes a while to study all this out, so if you’re newly married and are supporting your spouse then you may need to explicitly ask about some of these things. Bring lots of curiosity to your marriage!

Giving The Right Type Of Support

Although it is important to know your spouse and become sensitive to his or her preferences, here are some general guidelines for the type of support that most people like to receive.

In general, support can be divided into two categories. A study in 2006 looked at the differing effects of giving directive or nondirective support to an intimate partner.

  1. Directive Support (also known as action-facilitating support): “Directive support refers to behavior such as advice to handle the situation in a certain way or suggestions to follow a particular course of action.” This depends on the spouse and depends on the situation.

Don’t go straight into advice-giving or problem-solving mode without a lot of emotional connection first – at that point you’re back to facts, and not feelings. Sometimes though, it is the right time to take action – like when I got the news last April that my Dad had a stroke. Caleb, after much love and empathy, started dishing out orders and had us all in the vehicle within 90 minutes to embark on our 21-hour road trip. At that moment, that was exactly what I needed.

  1. Nondirective Support (also known as nurturant support): “Nondirective support refers to statements indicating confidence in the person’s ability to handle the situation or offers to help if help is needed. These latter displays of support provide no particular set of directions for the recipient and do not imply that the person offering the support has a clear idea of what should be done.”[iii]

It’s just nurturing your spouse. It can look like holding them or sitting beside them. Or, in Caleb’s case, slapping a bowl of ice cream down on the desk in from of him and saying “Here, drown your sorrows in this!” FYI, after a good laugh, and downing the bowl of ice cream, he felt much better! 🙂 

So, which kind of support works better?

The same researchers observed couples discussing problem areas in their life. One partner listened and was instructed to give feedback to the speaking partner.

Later, each partner rated the feedback that was given based on how helpful/unhelpful they thought it was and its perceived emotional impact, whether positive or negative. The results showed that:

  1. Couples gave more directive support than nondirective support.
  2. Nondirective support had a more positive emotional impact.
  3. There was one caveat: differences were found between individuals who were depressed and those who were not depressed. Results of the study showed that depressed individuals are especially sensitive to the negative effects of directive support.

If you’re someone who experiences periods of depressive symptoms, you may be more likely to find the direct support unhelpful and you may also believe that it even makes you feel worse.

Their conclusion was that couples tend to give directive support more often, even though nondirective support seems to be more appreciated.[iv]

So be aware of that next time you’re supporting your spouse. Make sure you have the right KIND of support – mostly nondirective. Nurturing. Drawing alongside. Being present.

Giving the Right Amount of Support

Not only does the kind of support matter, but it turns out that the amount of support is important as well.

Researchers, in 2009, assessed underprovision of partner support (receiving less support than desired, or not the desired type), overprovision of partner support (receiving more support than desired) and marital satisfaction in newlywed husbands and wives over the first five years of their marriage.

I found the results so interesting! They found that:

  1. “Both underprovision and overprovision of support were associated with declines in marital satisfaction over the first five years of marriage.”
  2. “Overprovision of support was a greater risk factor for marital decline than underprovision.”[v]

So, again, be curious about your spouse. Always watch and learn about their preferences. I know that you want to be the support your spouse needs to find out what they like and how much they like and be prepared to give it when needed!

How To Provide Support

If you need some help in figuring this all out, we’ve got a great “Support Guidelines” PDF for you. Take it to your next discussion and talk to your spouse about doing this. Yes, you may feel a little sheepish taking a worksheet to your discussion, but I know your spouse wants to feel supported in a way that actually makes him/her feel known and loved and cared for. So, put your fears aside and have that conversation.

[i] Laura S. Porter et al., “Partner-Assisted Emotional Disclosure for Patients with GI Cancer: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial,” Cancer 115, no. 18 Suppl (September 15, 2009): 4326–38, doi:10.1002/cncr.24578.

[ii] Carolyn E. Cutrona et al., “Optimally Matching Support and Perceived Spousal Sensitivity,” Journal of Family Psychology 21, no. 4 (December 2007): 754.

[iii] Steven R. H. Beach and Maya Gupta, “Directive and Nondirective Spousal Support: Differential Effects?,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 32, no. 4 (October 2006): 465–77.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rebecca L. Brock and Erika Lawrence, “Too Much of a Good Thing: Underprovision versus Overprovision of Partner Support,” Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) 23, no. 2 (April 2009): 181–92, doi:10.1037/a0015402.