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How to Be a Good Support System for Your Partner

You can react in several ways when your romantic partner is going through a tough time or experiencing pain. You might attempt to lift their spirits with humor or try to divert their attention. Alternatively, you could provide empathetic listening or offer alternative viewpoints on their situation.

These are all instances of what researchers refer to as “extrinsic emotion regulation” — assisting someone else in coping with their challenging emotions instead of managing your own. Helping others deal with their distress can foster closer connections and is linked to happier, more resilient relationships.

However, which strategies are the most effective? Do certain approaches have a more significant impact on your relationship than others?

In a study, researchers sought to determine the most effective approaches for supporting an upset partner. They surveyed 277 adults of various ages, most of whom were in heterosexual relationships. Participants were asked to describe how often they used eight emotion-regulation strategies to help their distressed partners.

The eight strategies are:

1. Expressive suppression

  • Pros: This can help to calm your partner down in the short term.
  • Cons: It can lead to your partner bottling up their feelings, making them feel worse in the long run.

2. Distraction

  • Pros: This can help take your partner’s mind off their problems for a while.
  • Cons: It can prevent your partner from fully processing their emotions, which can make their problems worse in the long run.

3. Downward social comparison

  • Pros: This can help your partner to feel better about their situation by realizing that others have it worse.
  • Cons: It can make your partner feel like their problems are invalid.

4. Receptive listening

  • Pros: This is one of the most important things you can do to support your partner. It shows that you care about them and that you’re there to listen.
  • Cons: It can be difficult to listen to someone who is upset, especially if you’re not sure how to help them.

5. Humor

  • Pros: This can help to lighten the mood and make your partner feel better.
  • Cons: It can be not easy to use humor in a way that is supportive and doesn’t trivialize your partner’s feelings.

6. Reappraisal

  • Pros: This can help your partner to see their situation in a different light, which can make it seem less daunting.
  • Cons: It can be difficult to help your partner to reappraise their situation, especially if they are feeling very upset.

7. Valuing

  • Pros: This can help your partner to feel loved and supported.
  • Cons: It’s important to be genuine when you express your appreciation for your partner.

8. Direct action

  • Pros: This can help your partner to feel like you’re taking their problems seriously and that you’re willing to help.
  • Cons: It’s important to be mindful of your partner’s autonomy and to avoid taking over their problems.

The researchers found that humor, receptive listening, and valuing were the most effective strategies for supporting an upset partner. These strategies were associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction.

The least effective strategies were downward social comparison or emotional suppression. These strategies were associated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction.

The researchers also found that using humor, receptive listening, and valuing positively affected the person being helped.

Couples Should Agree on How to Help Each Other Emotionally

In another study, the researchers surveyed 395 couples. Each couple was asked to report on how they supported each other when they were upset. The researchers then asked both partners about how happy they were with the relationship.

The researchers found that all of the strategies for supporting an upset partner were associated with greater relationship satisfaction, except for expressive suppression. However, if both members of the couple agreed that expressive suppression was being used to help, even that was tied to relationship satisfaction.

The researchers concluded that the most important factor in whether a strategy is effective is whether both partners agree on it. If one partner thinks they are helping by using a particular strategy, but the other partner doesn’t see it that way, it will not be effective in improving the relationship.

Here is an example that the researchers gave:

  • If you are upset and your partner tells you a joke to try to make you feel better, you may not appreciate it if you don’t think they are taking your feelings seriously.
  • However, if you are upset and your partner listens to you and helps you to feel better, you may be more receptive to a joke later on.

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