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Partner Power: Supportive Relationships Linked To Personal Development

By August 23, 2017Blog
supportive relationships

Your romantic partner can be a source of encouragement or discouragement and whether they uplift you or deflate you can determine what you achieve in life. New research also suggests that if you have a partner that is supportive, you are more likely to take advantage of opportunities for personal growth that come your way (Feeney et al. 2017). On the other hand, if your partner is not so supportive of you in your relationship, you are more likely to forgo opportunities for personal growth.

In this study, 163 married couples who had been married on average 9.68 years and romantically involved for an average of 12 years, were divided into two roles where one was given a decision making role and the other, unbeknown to either of them, was observed for their role in supporting their spouse during the decision-making process. The ‘decision-maker’ was given the choice to accept the potentially challenging opportunity of giving a speech and compete for a prize worth up to $200 or decline it in favour of the non-challenging opportunity of solving a very simple puzzle for no external reward.

The researchers found that those with a supportive spouse – as determined via questionnaires and secret cameras – were more likely to take advantage of the potentially challenging opportunity. The researchers also found that those who had supportive partners and had opted for the challenging task during the first phase of the study, also reported more personal growth, mental well-being and better relationship experiences six months later than those who had opted for the simple puzzle task.

Clearly, your choice of partner can influence your personal growth via the way in which he or she supports or hinders your decision making when it comes to important choices that will help you to develop yourself as a person, increase your skills, achieve goals and develop your self-image. As demonstrated by the research, and as one would expect, how you personally develop over time is integral to how happy you will feel and this will inevitably impact the quality of your marriage or partnership.

Applying This To Your Romantic Relationship

Do you have a partner that helps you to believe in yourself and encourages you to take on challenges that help you to develop as a human being or do you have a partner that keeps you from personal growth? To help you answer this question, allow me to share with you some of the great questions the researchers posed to the participants.

The ‘decision-maker’ in the study was asked to describe, in their opinion, the role their partner had played in their decision-making process. Questions like the following were used:

  1. To what extent did your spouse encourage you to pick the speech activity?
  2. To what extent did your spouse encourage you to pick the puzzle activity?
  3. To what extent did your spouse give you assistance or advice about how to perform either activity?
  4. To what extent did your spouse communicate emotional support? (For example, affection, compassion, understanding, reassurance, compliments, etc.)
  5. Overall, how negative, critical, or unsupportive was your spouse during the time you were together before deciding on an activity?
  6. To what extent did you ask your spouse to help you decide which activity to pick?

You could use questions like the above to consider the role your partner plays in your life by replacing ‘speech activity’ and ‘puzzle activity’ with the real life choices you have been, or are, faced with. If you answer questions like the above using a scale such as, ‘massively’, ‘moderately’, ‘neither did nor didn’t’, ’not much’ or ‘not at all’, you will begin to notice how encouraging or supporting you perceive your partner to be when it comes to your personal growth.

You can also flip this around to answer questions like those above based on how supportive you have been, or are being, towards your spouse or partner, so for example:

  1. To what extent do/did you encourage your partner to pick an activity that would foster personal growth?
  2. To what extent do/did you encourage your partner to pick a non-challenging activity?
  3. To what extent do/did you give your partner assistance or advice about how to perform an activity they are pursuing?
  4. To what extent do/did you communicate emotional support towards your partner? (For example, affection, compassion, understanding, reassurance, compliments, etc.)
  5. Overall, how negative, critical, or unsupportive are/were you during the time you spent together before your partner decided on an activity they wanted to pursue?
  6. To what extent does/did your partner ask you to help them decide which activity to pick?

What’s The Motivation Behind The Behaviour?

Now if you want to understand yours or your partner’s motives for encouraging/supporting or not encouraging/supporting one another in making decisions that lead to the other’s personal development, here are some more questions to mull over. These too have been taken from a questionnaire used in the study.

Participants were given the phrase, ‘On occasions when I encourage or support my partner’s goals, I generally do so because…’, followed by 32 motivational reasons that they either rated as ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’. The 32 motivations fell under the following categories and the researchers give one example question per category:

  1. Avoid Negative Consequences, e.g. ‘My spouse would get angry or withdraw from me.’
  2. Keep Spouse, e.g. ‘My spouse will be more likely to remain in the relationship if I encourage and support him or her.’
  3. Avoid Own Goals, e.g. ‘When I support my spouse, I don’t have to think about my own goals.’
  4. Gain Rewards, e.g. ‘I expect something in return for my encouragement and support later.’
  5. Needy Spouse, e.g. ‘My spouse really needs my encouragement; he or she would be reluctant to do anything otherwise.’
  6. Feel Obligated, e.g. ‘I feel obligated to encourage and support my spouse’s goals; it’s expected of me.’
  7. Enjoy Helping, e.g. ‘I truly enjoy helping my spouse.’
  8. Love Spouse, e.g. ‘I love my spouse.’
  9. Connect With Spouse, e.g. ‘It helps me to stay connected to my spouse.’
  10. Make Spouse Feel Good, e.g. ‘I want my spouse to feel good about himself or herself.’
  11. Makes Me Feel Good, e.g. ‘It makes me feel good about myself when I help my spouse.’

Several categories were classed as relatively selfish motives (i.e., avoid negative consequences, keep spouse, avoid own goals, gain rewards, feel obligated), and the other categories were classed as relatively altruistic motives (i.e., love spouse, enjoy helping, connect with spouse, make spouse feel good, makes me feel good).

You can answer the above 11 questions to establish your motives for supporting or not supporting your spouse or you can think about what sort of answers your partner might give based on any patterns you’ve noticed in your relationship. If your motives and those you suppose your partner would give, seem to fall under the ‘relatively altruistic’ categories, you’re likely in a happy, healthy relationship where you allow each other to grow and flourish. If on the other hand, one or both of you works to ‘relatively selfish motives’, your relationship likely needs attention because you will be holding one another back in some way, either hindering personal development, psychological well-being and/or relationship quality.

Why The Unsupportive Relationship Dynamic?

When you support one another you help the relationship to prosper, when you don’t, it won’t, certainly not as much as it could. When you’re in a long-term romantic relationship, you’re a team, so their success is your success and vice versa; equally, their loss is your loss and your loss is their loss, in some form or another. Therefore, if you or your partner aren’t playing with a team mentality, why are you not? For example, is it because you/they don’t want the other to flourish because of a fear that if one of you does, the relationship might end? Or is it a fear that if you/they grow as a person, you/they may then have to grow as an individual, too, to keep up? Such answers could indicate poor mental well-being that needs addressing in one or both of you in order for you to have a happy, healthy, lasting relationship, e.g. perhaps one of you has deep insecurities. Or such answers could be a sign that you’re not meant to be together and the relationship will dissolve at some point anyway or not be anywhere near as satisfying as you may want for your life. Or maybe it’s a sign that you’re just not as committed to one another as you thought were.

One thing I always say to clients is that you mustn’t be afraid of finding out the real answers to those questions that you keep pushing away to the back of your mind. Bring those questions to the forefront, answer them now and deal with them now, with or without professional help from someone like myself, because otherwise those questions will pop back at some point demanding that you address them and that ‘some point’ is better now than five, ten or twenty years down the line when so much more of your life has passed you by. If you seek those answers now, you might be able to fix the underlying issues now and go on to have a fulfilling, happy life together and if you’re not meant to be together, you’ve just saved yourself time you’ll never get back and that is priceless.

Remember, a supportive partner encourages personal growth which in turn leads to psychological well-being and a happier, healthier relationship. For your relationship to flourish, you both need to flourish.

Feeney, B. C., Van Vleet, M., Jakubiak, B. K., & Tomlinson, J. M. (2017). Predicting the Pursuit and Support of Challenging Life Opportunities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43 (8), 1-17. DOI: 10.1177/0146167217708575