The healthiest relationships rely on effective communication and mutual support. These come fairly easily when times are good, but it gets harder to navigate the waters and know how to support your partner when things get tough. Every person is different. Our needs are different. Our ability to accept help, take advice, and what form of support we respond best to, all vary based on personality, the situation, and maybe even on the day. When you add a whopping pile of stress to the mix, it can be hard to know how to support your partner best without being overbearing or insulting. Let’s take a look at the research and dig into some personal experience as well to line out the best ways to be a supportive partner!
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How to Be a Supportive Partner
Bear in mind as you read that you’ll need to tweak each tip given. Your partner is an individual. So are you. These are basic suggestions that are generally effective, but you may need to utilize them differently than other couples. Maybe you need to try them all, maybe one small change will do. You’ll probably have to do some experimenting to see what works best with your partner in this particular situation.
Writer note: I’m not a relationship expert, but I have been in a successful marriage for 18 years and have been with my partner for 20. In those years, we have been counseled, counseled other couples, and worked through all the difficulties of life. If there’s one thing I have learned, it’s that relationships are dynamic. My marriage today is not the same relationship it was when I was 22, and as we grow and change in this life, we must grow and change in our relationships as well. If some of these tips seem out of place for your relationship, take some time to consider them, but if it’s not appropriate, just move on to the next one. You know your loved one best, and you likely have an inkling of what kind of support they’ll respond to best. Just remember the goal is not to make the problem go away or to make yourself more comfortable. The goal is to find a way to help your partner!
The Best Ways to Support Your Partner Through Good Times and Bad
1. Reassure your significant other that you’re on their team.
Your partner needs to know that come rain or shine, wind or storm, you’re their biggest supporter. Just before I got married, I got some of the best relationship advice from an elderly woman. I can still hear her voice all these years later. She said, “Honey (in the way that old Southern ladies do)… remember, the enemy is out there, not in your husband. The fight is never really you against him. It’s you and him, together, against the problem.”
I think back often on her words, and I still find them to be true. The enemy is the stress, the money problems, the mental health struggles, the health issue… the enemy is not my partner. In order to be a supportive spouse, it pays to remind your partner (and yourself) that no matter what happens, you’re their biggest fan. You’ll fight through it with them, and you’re on their side. Sometimes, especially if you’re being blamed for the problem at the moment, this frame of mind is hard to keep, but hear that little lady in your mind, as I do, and remember, your partner is just stressed and likely doesn’t mean to take it out on you.
2. Check in often… even when times are good.
Another beautiful couple once told my husband and me that every single week of their 50-year marriage, they sat down and had a meaningful conversation about the dynamics of their relationship. One of them will just say, “So… how are we doing?” The other knows that means this is their chance to openly and honestly discuss anything they need to bring up. It might be all good this week. There might be some little things that need tweaking. Either way, asking your partner regularly and adjusting keeps your relationship on track and is the best way to show you care genuinely about their happiness.
3. Learn to be a good listener.
The hardest part of any close relationship, whether it’s romantic or with a friend or family member, is learning to actually listen when your loved one speaks. We all have a tendency, especially during tough times, to partially listen while we create a fierce and furious rebuttal. We don’t take time to ponder the other person’s point of view or give them proper emotional support.
Active listening requires paying attention to your body language. When your partner needs to talk, set aside time when you and they can fully focus. Sit facing them, get off of social media, and keep good eye contact. Ask open-ended questions and repeat important aspects of what they say to ensure that you’re understanding correctly and to reinforce that you’re truly listening. Don’t interrupt, utilize silences to think about your partner’s point of view, and don’t formulate your response until they are done speaking. The goal is not to win the argument, change their opinion, or solve the problem for them. The goal is to show support.
For more tips on active listening, check out our new guide to “How to Become a Better Listener.”
4. Ask them what they need.
In seasoned relationships, sometimes the best move is just to ask your partner what they need. Even though you know them better than anyone else, that doesn’t mean you’re a mind reader. If your spouse is going through a difficult time, just ask “What do you need from me?” They may say nothing. They may unload. It depends on the day. If they say “nothing,” just reassure them that if something comes up to let you know, you’d be glad to help.
5. Pay attention to keywords.
When stress levels are high, people often don’t know what they need and will have trouble answering number 4. As a supportive spouse, pay attention to keywords in your partner’s verbiage. They may say things like, “I just wish I had more time to play with the kids,” or “I feel so fat and unhealthy. I need to change my diet.” They might mention that they are incredibly tired, would love a good bath, or need a glass of wine. Pay attention to these little phrases, and make them happen tomorrow. There’s no need to talk about it, or ask questions, just make it happen.
6. Don’t make them ask for help.
Why is it so hard for some of us to ask for help? For certain personalities, admitting that you don’t have it all together is degrading and just makes us feel like failures. We’ll literally drown in stress and tasks before asking for help. While this personality can be stressful for the other spouse, it’s part of the game. Utilize numbers 4 and 5 to make educated guesses at what your partner needs, and take action. Whatever you can do to take something off their plate, do it.
7. Don’t keep a record.
If you choose to take some chores from your partner, or you go out of your way to create a stress-free evening or two for them, there’s no need to talk about it. Do not keep a record of the good things you do for your spouse. They should not feel obligated to repay you for helping them. They shouldn’t feel indebted to you or guilty that you’re taking on more responsibilities this week. Especially if they have that personality we were just talking about, this will make them feel like even more of a failure. If your motives are genuine, then do the good deed, and be okay with no acknowledgment of it.
8. Take care of your own needs.
Self-care is vital to being a good partner. In order to protect your relationship and help your partner through tough times, you have to tend to your own wellness. See your therapist, pray or meditate, get some exercise, eat healthy, and take some alone time to rest. When you’re tired and stressed, you’re of no use to anybody else.
9. Make date night a priority.
Whether you have been dating for a month or married for 50 years, date nights are important! Life has a tendency to get away from us. If we aren’t careful, our whole world will begin to revolve around work, the kids, and community responsibilities, and before you know it, it will have been a month since you had a good conversation (or a good bedroom session)… neither of which is healthy for your romantic relationship! When couples are comfortable with one another, they tend to think they no longer need dates. It’s not a priority. They’re fine! However, pretty much every relationship coach on the planet will disagree with your assessment. You need devoted and quality time focusing on each other.
Grab a copy of Adventures From Scratch: Date Edition, and scratch off a date each week. Relationships take effort, but the results are worth it!
10. Give your partner space to think.
Some people (my husband) don’t really need anything during tough times except for room to think. If your partner is a slow processor, give them time to work it out. Don’t force them to discuss it. Avoid asking too many questions. Don’t attempt to solve the problem for them. Just pick up the slack around the house for a few days. Let them know that you’re available if they want to bounce ideas off of you. Pour them a drink, and escort them to a quiet lawn chair to think.
11. Don’t forget the power of physical affection.
One of the easiest ways to make your partner feel valued is to show physical affection. Whether sexual or not, cuddling, hugging, or even a simple offer of your hand, can release loads of oxytocin and help bring down your partner’s stress level. For everyone’s well-being, a couple of 20-second, full-frontal hugs a day are a great idea!
12. Don’t try to change their feelings.
If your partner is upset, don’t try to drag them out of it. They need to process their feelings and likely need to vent. Phrases like “Don’t be mad,” or “It’s no big deal,” are not likely to be successful. Instead, let them get it out. Listen attentively. Offer some physical contact, and let them know you’ve got their back.
Sometimes silent support is the best support!
According to an article published in the American Psychological Association journal, research shows that while visible support does increase relationship satisfaction, it can also produce an increase in anxiety on the recipient’s part. This goes back to that whole self-esteem thing and feeling like a failure when you realize that your partner is having to take on more responsibility to make up for your shortcomings. The research showed that silent support did not produce this excess anxiety. So, how can you support your partner silently?
It’s the little things! Here are just a few ideas for offering your spouse some support without creating guilt or anxiety.
- Get the pets and kids excited for their return home. Greet them at the door with a drink and a hug.
- Tidy up the house, as a cluttered space is stressful for most people.
- Make their favorite meal for dinner.
- Take out any unnecessary events or obligations from the calendar this week. They can wait for a less stressful week.
- Pick up some of their normal chores or duties.
- Take the kids outside so they have some quiet time after work to chill.
- Clean the sheets and make the bed fresh.
- Turn on their favorite movie or TV series, even if you hate it.
- Tell them some stupid dad jokes.
- Perform that one sex act that they only usually get on their birthday.
- Write them some sweet notes or a love letter.
- Prepare a date night where they don’t have to do anything but show up.
- Don’t add to the stress with your own issues. Maybe, just call your mom this week instead.
- Resist the urge to correct their behavior, argue, or push a solution.
Now, go be awesome!
Knowing how to support your partner can be difficult. Even when you know what to do, it can take some real pride-swallowing and sacrifice! Remember, it’s only for a short time. If you find that your partner’s stress is becoming chronic and that the situation isn’t resolving, then it may be time to reach out to a professional for some counseling for one or both of you. For most instances, it will be fleeting, and you’re partner will likely do the same for you next week. Healthy relationships are a two-way street of support, nurture, and patience. You got this!
Check out this list of incredible date ideas for the weekly date night you’re going to institute! We’ve even made them free!
Girme, Y. U., Maniaci, M. R., Reis, H. T., McNulty, J. K., Carmichael, C. L., Gable, S. L., Baker, L. R., & Overall, N. C. (2018). Does support need to be seen? Daily invisible support promotes next-day relationship well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(7), 882–893.
Frequently Asked Questions
Sometimes, the best support is silent support. This means watching their favorite movie, cooking their favorite meal, or doing some of their chores without talking about it.
Some of the best relationship advice is to make a regular date night a priority! Check out Adventures From Scratch: Date Edition for some unique and fun ideas!