Have you ever felt like your help went unnoticed or was unappreciated by your partner? Likewise, are there times you have felt your partner didn’t do much to help support you during a difficult time?
Feeling supported is a hallmark quality of a good relationship. We want to feel like we’re helping our partner through mundane or everyday tasks as well as difficult times, but we also want to feel that our partner is reciprocating.
Sometimes we do things for our partners that help make their day-to-day lives easier but aren’t super obvious. This is called invisible support.
For instance, imagine Mitchell is especially busy at work this week. Cam takes care of all of Mitchell’s usual chores around the house and spends extra time with their daughter, all so Mitchell can be his best at work. By the end of the week, Mitchell’s case at work is complete and the family can have a relaxing weekend. Cam finds himself a little salty though—he made sure everything ran smoothly all week and didn’t even get a “thank you” from Mitchell. This is, in part, because Cam provided invisible support.
As the name implies, invisible support is not directly noticed or interpreted as support. As in the case of Cam and Mitchell, Cam completed Mitchell’s chores when he was not around, so the house just happened to be clean when he got home from work. Invisible support doesn’t always have to be practical though. Someone might be able to discreetly provide advice, not by directly telling their partner what to do, but by referring to how someone else in a similar situation handled it and how that ended up working out for them. It’s something helpful, but not obvious.
While not being recognized for your help can make you feel like you’re being taken for granted, invisible support may actually be more helpful to your partner than more obvious support.
Past research has shown that receiving more overt forms of support can actually be detrimental to people’s self-image. Some may feel like they are receiving help because they are incompetent and cannot manage what’s going on in their life on their own, which in turn may make them feel poorly. They may also feel like they have to “pay back” the support, which may also feel like a burden.
For example, let’s say you’ve decided to host your family for the holidays this year. If your partner keeps asking about the event, offering to help, and taking over the planning for you, this might make you think that your partner doesn’t believe you can handle what you volunteered for.
In comparison to more obvious or visible support efforts, invisible support doesn’t threaten someone’s beliefs about themselves and their abilities or make the other person feel like they have to reciprocate the support. Instead, it helps someone succeed in their current goals while still feeling good about themselves.
What are the different ways in which we support others?
Previous research has identified five types of support that we provide to others.
Emotional Support includes expressions of love, reassurance, concern, positive feedback, and care for your partner. This is a really important type of support in romantic relationships, specifically. In particular, it is often the most desired type of support from a romantic partner. Receiving emotional support from a partner is associated with emotional improvements, reductions in uncertainty, improvements in perceptions of self-esteem, and stress reduction. This type of support has its best impact when it is highly visible to your romantic partner!
Esteem Support includes voicing how much you value a particular part of your partner’s character or person to bolster how they feel about themselves. We all have moments where we can be down on ourselves, particularly after a difficult event. Expressing that your partner is a good friend or parent, that they are kind or selfless, can help your partner to understand the things you value about them and overcome a self-esteem-impacting experience.
Network Support includes actions taken to make your partner feel included or like they belong. Offering to spend quality time together, or setting up a time to hang out with mutual friends can be an effective way to help a partner feel supported. Similarly, in a specific time of need, offering to connect your partner with someone who has been through similar issues can also be a form of network support.
Tangible or Instrumental Support is physically doing something to assist your partner. This can be cleaning the house, driving them to an appointment, cooking a meal for them, or making the offer to help complete a task in any way you can. These are the kinds of tasks that often get overlooked by a partner but still are important and supportive behaviors.
Informational Support is giving your partner advice on how to handle a situation. If they aren’t sure what to do, you can teach them how to do it, provide options and explain which you would recommend, or help explain why something didn’t work out the way they expected.
Some of these types of support are more obvious than others. For example, providing information to a partner to help them deal with a difficult situation is a more obvious form of support, whereas tangible support, which can include housework or regular physical efforts to maintain the relationship, is more likely to be invisible.
When and how should we provide invisible support to others in our daily lives?
People enjoy feeling capable, and offering support can sometimes undermine that.
When you notice your partner feeling overwhelmed or struggling with a difficult situation, instead of immediately jumping into solving their problems for them, consider what other, less direct, things you can do for them.
Can you take care of something on their to-do list? Can you tell them how a friend or colleague faced a similar challenge? Can you remind them of what you admire most about them? These things will not question your partner’s capability; instead, it will keep the ship sailing smoothly.
Be understanding if your invisible support goes unnoticed. That’s why it’s called invisible support! Realize that there are probably instances where your partner has gone the extra mile for you, but you didn’t realize they have. Remember, the end goal is supporting someone you care about.
If someone directly asks for help, then help them. If someone is distressed and asks for help and you try to provide invisible support instead, they will perceive that you’re not doing anything to help them. In this case, you won’t make someone feel incompetent by helping them. Let your partner know you care by helping!
Supportive efforts are almost always beneficial to the long-term health of your relationship. Try to acknowledge when you notice your partner putting in the extra effort. Help your partner feel better when they are down without dismissing their concerns. Little consistent supportive efforts go a long way to cultivating a happy and healthy relationship!
Katherine Zee and Niall Bolger, Visible and invisible social support: How, why, and when Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2019
Niall Bolger and David Amarel, Effects of social support visibility on adjustment to stress: experimental evidence. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2007
Yan Xu and Brant Burleson, Human Communication Research. 2001
Yuthika Girme, Nickola Overall, and Jeffry Simpson., When visibility matters: Short-term versus long-term costs and benefits of visible and invisible support. Personality and social psychology bulletin . 2013
Jennifer Priem and Denise Solomon, Emotional Support and Physiological Stress Recovery: The Role of Support Matching, Adequacy, and Invisibility. Communication Monographs. 2014
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.