Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Positive Support in a Successful Marriage:New Findings

smilingcoupleRecently the American Psychological Association reported the latest findings on what makes love last in a marriage. The results of one series of studies by Shelley Gable and colleagues were particularly interesting because they were unexpected. They invite speculation and application.

Responding for Better and For Worse

These studies revealed that although we need our partners to be there for us during the “worst” of times, it is our partner’s positive responses to the “best” of times that we receive best and remember most.

Adding to this and surprising is the finding that our partner’s responses to positive events directly contribute to the perception that our partner will be available in the worst of times-regardless of the specifics of their actual support during those times!!

How Do We Explain This?

It seems that context matters. Crisis, be it the aftermath of surgery, the lost job or family problem, makes giving and receiving support challenging and more complicated.

In difficult life situations, a partner’s attempted or enacted support is often not well received or not perceived as helpful for a number of reasons:

Missing the Mark

  • When one partner is in crisis, the other shares in the distress so both are actually in crisis.
  • Many people in the face of anxiety, pain, and frustration, find it difficult to know, much less communicate, what is needed. Even if a partner wants to help—often he/she doesn’t know exactly what to do.
  • Given their closeness and expectations, partners often assume the other should know what they need, or resent the other for thinking that they know.

“ You should know that I didn’t want any visitors.”

“ I didn’t know what soup to get so I got a few…you don’t want soup?”

Can’t Work the Miracle

  • Very often loving partners have the need to work a miracle and relieve their partner’s pain. The failure to work the miracle can leave both stressed.
  • Often the helper falls into the trap of trying to solve the partner’s problem rather than just listening or just being there. The helper often feels unappreciated-the other, unheard.
  • Sometimes in the relentless attempt to help, a partner can miss the fact that their insistent efforts are becoming additional burdens. The one in need is more frustrated than appreciative.

Negative View of Self

  • In the face of illness, crisis or depression, etc., a partner can have a difficult time holding on to a positive view of self.
  • Often the challenge for both partners is the reality that the help of one is having the unintended consequence of making the other feel more vulnerable, incompetent or weak.

“ I can’t stand being pushed by you in the wheel chair in the airport!”

“ It doesn’t make me happy to realize that you now have to pay all of our bills.”

The Challenge of the “ Worst of Times”

Clearly, despite the efforts, giving and getting partner support at the stressful times is not easy.

The worst that can happen is for a partner to give up with the thought “ I can’t get anything right.”

The Potential of the “ Best of Times”

According to the studies cited above, when partners shared a positive event compared with sharing a negative event, they were significantly more thankful, and they felt significantly more gratitude, support, admiration and less resentment toward their partner.  Why?

Easy to Share and Easy to Hear

  • Unlike problem events, most partners are forthcoming about the events of life that bring them joy or for which they feel pride.
  • Whether you respond to your partner with interest, affirmation, support or celebration, your response is likely to be received and perceived in a loving and positive way. When people are feeling good they welcome and utilize positive connections.
  • Unlike negative events, there is no stress that becomes a filter through which behavior must be perceived.


  • In addition, the sharing of positive events with a partner who receives it in a positive way provides “ added value.” Described as capitalization, Christopher Langston suggests that the sharing actually capitalizes on the event and results in a positive experience independent of the actual event.
  • For example, when you tell your partner that you have just been promoted to manager, his/her excitement becomes another positive event that you share.

The Positive “ Halo” Effect

  • Research findings suggest that over a set time period, when people are asked if they have been supported in the face of stressful events, there is no correlation between what they actually received and what they perceived.
  • During that same period, however, the more support they experience for positive events, the more they perceive themselves supported for problem and stressful events!

You may not respond perfectly when his job is threatened, but if you are really excited about the meal he just cooked or interested in his idea to go out with some new friends—it really matters.

The Positive Roadmap

As difficult as the road may be, if a couple keeps affirming the positives each experiences along the way, they will increase their sense of well-being. They will trust each other to be there“ for better and for worse.”