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Want your partner to ‘melt’? Offer simple support rather than solitude

Offering simple support to a depressed or stressed partner, rather than backing away to provide some space to sort out feelings, can go a long way in fostering a healthier relationship over the long term, concludes a new study by Alberta researchers.

Matt Johnson, an assistant professor of family science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, researches how couples’ relationships might contribute to their mental health.

In a study published earlier this month in the journal Developmental Psychology, Johnson and his co-authors surveyed about 1,400 couples on their levels of depression, self-esteem and mutual support annually for six years.

“We found that for men and women, when they received support from a partner during times of stress, they had lower symptoms of depression a year in the future, so quite a while later,” Johnson said in an interview.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson is an assistant professor of family science at the University of Alberta. (CBC)

The researchers found that when men offered support to struggling partners, it increased their own self-esteem.

“It feels good when men are able to be supportive to a partner when they’re experiencing stress.”

Genuine attitude key

For women in the study, receiving support from a partner also boosted their sense of self-worth.

The support doesn’t have to be “grand gestures,” Johnson said, but day-to-day help.

Registered psychologist and author Sara Dimerman in Thornhill, Ont., said the study shows a link between spousal support, especially if it’s reciprocal, and the development of self-esteem and depression.

Since every couple is unique, it’s important to inquire what your partner needs.

“I think it’s important to communicate with one’s spouse,” said Dimerman, who wasn’t involved in the research. “Your partner will melt if you say, ‘What can I do to help?'”

It’s worth asking if the person really does want to be left alone, or if they’d like a simple cup of tea when they’re going through a stressful period, such as studying for the bar exam.

“So as long as you’re offering with a genuine attitude, you sincerely want to help, and you do it without a hmpf, then I think it’s very meaningful and really important that it feels reciprocated.”

 ‘There’s a tendency for partners to shut down because it’s all or nothing.’ 
– Ora Goldin 

Ora Goldin has been married for 11 years and has struggled with depression.

“I think there’s a tendency for partners to shut down because it’s all or nothing,” Goldin said. “I’ve got to do the right thing, or I’m doing possibly the wrong thing.”

Honestly labelling how you feel can help, she said.

“I want to be here for you, I am here for you. I’m doing my best.”

She said her partner, Ryan Goldin, is open to give her what she needs.

“Sometimes it depends on my mood and where I’m at, in terms of what I’m able to give,” he said.