Couples having problems are often advised to be more supportive of each other, but a series of University of Iowa studies shows that too much support -- or the wrong kind of support -- may actually do more harm than good.
In recent studies of heterosexual couples in their first few years of marriage, researchers learned that too much support is harder on a marriage than not enough. When it comes to marital satisfaction, both partners are happier if husbands receive the right type of support, and if wives ask for support when they need it.
The findings illustrate the need for couples to understand the various ways they can be supportive, and the importance of communicating what they need and when, said Erika Lawrence, associate professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"The idea that simply being more supportive is better for your marriage is a myth," Lawrence said. "Often husbands and wives think, 'If my partner really knows me and loves me, he or she will know I'm upset and will know how to help me.' However, that's not the best way to approach your marriage. Your partner shouldn't have to be a mind reader. Couples will be happier if they learn how to say, 'This is how I'm feeling, and this is how you can help me.'"
Too much of a good thing
In one study, Lawrence and colleagues discovered that receiving more support than desired is a greater risk factor for marital decline than not being there for a spouse.
"If you don't get enough support, you can make up for that with family and friends -- especially women, who tend to have multiple sources of support," she said. "When you receive too much support, there's no way to adjust for that."
The study involved 103 husbands and wives who completed surveys five times over their first five years of marriage. The questionnaires looked at how support was provided and measured marital satisfaction.
Four kinds of support were identified in the study: physical comfort and emotional support (listening and empathizing, taking your spouse's hand, giving your spouse a hug), esteem support (expressing confidence in your partner, providing encouragement), informational support (giving advice, gathering information), and tangible support (taking on responsibilities so your spouse can deal with a problem, helping to brainstorm solutions to a problem).
Results showed that too much informational support -- usually in the form of unwanted advice-giving -- is the most detrimental. In contrast, you can never go wrong providing esteem support, assuming it's genuine.
Too little support was more common than too much. Receiving less support than desired was a complaint of about two-thirds of men and at least 80 percent of women. Only about one-third of men and women reported receiving more support than they wanted.
The paper, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, was co-authored by Rebecca L. Brock, a UI graduate student in psychology.
Support isn't one-size-fits-all
A related study showed that for men, it's important that their wives provide the right kind of support, offering emotional, informational, tangible or esteem support as needed. For wives, it's more important that their husbands try to be supportive -- even if what they do doesn't quite hit the mark.
"Both parties are more satisfied if the husband gets the right kind of support, and if the wife feels like she's supported," Lawrence said. "Husbands shouldn't throw their hands up if they're not sure what to do. They need to stay in there and keep trying, because we found that women appreciate the effort."
Lawrence said dialog is key. If you need support, request it; if you're providing support, ask how you can help -- don't assume you know what to do. Afterward, talk about what worked and what didn't, and adjust accordingly.
"The assumption is that men just want to be left alone and women want to be held and listened to," Lawrence said. "In reality, different men want different kinds of support, and different women want different kinds of support."
For this study, 275 newlyweds completed questionnaires about marital satisfaction, the type of support they received, and whether it was sufficient. Twice during the study, 235 couples visited the lab to discuss how they would approach a goal such as stress management, a career change, improving family relationships or being more assertive. Researchers shot video of the 10-minute conversations and observed how couples asked for, provided and accepted support.
The paper was published in the journal Personal Relationships. Lawrence was the lead author, with co-authors from the University of Iowa, CIGNA Health Solutions, Santa Clara University, the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Both studies were supported by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute for Child and Human Development, and the UI.
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