- To achieve goals—whether related to work, lifestyle, or health—couples rely on each other for support.
- Predictors of perceptions of support include various individual and relationship variables.
- To help your partner feel supported, focus less on personal factors and more on relationship quality.
We all have many goals we want to achieve. These may include career goals (getting a big promotion, starting your own business), health goals (stopping smoking, losing weight), and lifestyle goals (getting on a better sleep schedule, living a less stressful life).
To achieve goals, we often rely on the support of our family, friends, and/or coworkers; and those of us in a romantic relationship, on our partners—on their encouragement, reassurance, advice, or tangible assistance, such as money or transportation.
Of course, you may have a very caring and helpful romantic partner, yet feel alone, invalidated, and unsupported. And vice versa. So, an important research question is how can we predict not just partner support but perceived partner supportiveness?
Published in the July 2023 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, a study by Vowels et al. from the U.K. suggests, “relationship variables and attachment avoidance are central to perceived partner support, whereas partner similarity, other individual differences, individual well-being, and demographics explain little variance in perceiving partners as supportive.”
The authors’ investigation and findings are detailed in the rest of this post.
Investigating what determines the perception of partner support
Source of data: Five data sets. These included cross-sectional self-reports from couples who were dating (n1 = 74; n4 = 92), newly committed (n3 = 178), and married (n2 = 120; n5 = 77). This resulted in a final sample of 550 individuals in a romantic relationship. Note, the third data set was used to predict partner support perception six months later.
Sample characteristics: Average age of 28 years old (range of 18 to 79 years); mean relationship length of 5.6 years (0.1 to 62 years); 80 percent White; mostly well-educated (60 percent with a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate); 48 percent married; 84 percent with no children.
Measures: Perceived partner support was assessed with the 18-item responsiveness scale and/or the partner affirmation scale.
Results: As discussed in the next section, researchers were able to predict “a large amount of variance in both outcomes at baseline and 6 months later.”
The biggest predictors of perceived partner support
Perceived partner support, both initially and six months later, was predicted by two types of variables, the first of which is related to the quality of the relationship:
- Less conflict.
- Higher commitment.
- Greater empathy.
- Deeper trust.
Another variable, willingness to sacrifice, was not predictive at all. This is not surprising, since previous research shows that sacrifice may be a “mixed blessing” and can even have harmful consequences for the relationship.
Aside from relationship factors, there was also one predictive individual factor: Attachment avoidance. People high on this factor tend to assume that, in times of need, their attachment figures will not be available or responsive; hence, they find it difficult to depend on their romantic partner.
In line with this, highly avoidant study participants experienced their partners as less validating and responsive.
Compared to attachment avoidance, the variable attachment anxiety was much less predictive. Why? Perhaps because individuals with anxious attachment styles are willing to depend on others to receive help but, at the same time, doubt if they are worthy of receiving it. Therefore, they often become preoccupied with relationship maintenance and sometimes ignore their personal goal pursuit.
Partner responsiveness and supportiveness are important because they correlate with higher relationship satisfaction, better relationship functioning, and well-being.
Vowels et al. found that feeling supported in a romantic relationship has more to do with a person’s emotional and psychological environment (i.e., the quality of the relationship) than with most partner-specific factors.
In summary, to feel supported—and help your romantic partner feel the same—you may want to consider the following tips:
- Reduce conflict and other stressors. The goal is to create a safe and nurturing relationship environment.
- Improve the quality of your relationship by showing higher commitment, more compassion, and a greater willingness to trust.
Working together to create a safe and nurturing relationship environment will benefit you both, making it easier for you and your romantic partner to be vulnerable and rely on each other in times of need and to feel supported by the other person’s attention, loving words, and helpful behavior.
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