Optimism Helps Relationships Last

Do you expect the best or plan for the worst?  Do you think good things generally happen to you or are you usually unlucky? If you saw a half glass of water would you describe it as half-full or half-empty? OK, have your answers? If you answered each question with the first option listed, then, congratulations, you just might be an optimist.  And is that good?  Well, according to every piece of research I have seen, being optimistic is very good.  Optimism has been linked with, among other things, happiness, improved physical health, longer-lasting friendships, and.…..you guessed it……higher levels of relationship satisfaction.

As I started to write this article, I realized it would be very hard to give full coverage of the importance of optimism in relationships in one blog post.  There are many aspects of optimism worth discussing. But it is such an important topic I wanted to write at least a little about it here.

First, let’s be sure we are on the same page.  Dictionary.com defines optimism as “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”  Optimists expect the best and believe things will generally go their way.

Given that optimism has been linked to so many positive outcomes, it is probably no surprise that optimists are more satisfied with their relationships.  And if that was all there was to it, optimism wouldn’t merit even a short blog post. But like my post on gratitude, the point is not merely that optimism predicts relationship satisfaction.  Rather recent research suggests how optimism can bring about relationship satisfaction.  And knowing how it works is much more useful.

Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, and his colleagues recently examined the influence of optimism on relationship satisfaction.  They asked 108 dating couples to answer questions about level of optimism, perceptions of how much support their partner provides in the relationship, and relationship satisfaction.  As expected, optimists experienced higher levels of relationship satisfaction.  Additionally, partners of optimists also experienced higher levels of satisfaction.

Along with reconfirming the idea that optimists have higher levels of satisfaction, Srivastava and his colleagues also discovered at least one reason why there is a link between optimism and satisfaction.  Earlier I said they measured perceptions of support from their partner.  They did this with a measure called the Maintenance Questionnaire (developed by Laura Stafford and Daniel Canary). According to Srivastava and his colleagues: “The MQ has five subscales that cover a broad range of supportive behaviors: (a) positivity (e.g., “Does not criticize me”), (b) openness (e.g., “Encourages me to disclose my thoughts and feelings to him/her”), (c) assurances (e.g., “Stresses his or her commitment to me”), (d) social network (e.g., “Focuses on common friends and affiliations”), and (e) sharing tasks (e.g., “Helps equally with tasks that need to be done”)” (p. 145).

Optimists were more likely to report that their partners were positive, open, reassuring, focused on friends in common, and willing to share in tasks.  And these things, then, predicted who was satisfied in their relationship.  One take-home message of this post is that these five types of behavior are all ones each of us can spend more time on. That is, if you engaged in more of these behaviors, your partner is likely to perceive you as more supportive which, in turn, should have an influence on their level of satisfaction in the relationship.

There is another bonus of being a supportive partner. In a later part of the study, Srivastava and his colleagues had each couple engage in a conversation about “the most stressful area of current disagreement in their relationship” (p.148).  They predicted those who perceived their partner as supportive would also see their partner’s participation in an argument as more constructive, thereby influencing how satisfied each partner was in the outcome of the argument. Indeed, the authors report that “both optimists and their partners agreed that their conflicts had reached a more satisfactory resolution 1 week later” (p. 149).  Further, Srivastava and his colleagues also measured whether the couples they studied were still together one year later.  And they found that for men, level of optimism did indeed predict whether or not a couple was still together one year later.  The authors are not sure why optimism is a stronger predictor of long-term satisfaction for men than for women.

Though the results of this study may seem fairly predictable, consider just how powerful the effects of optimism are.  Optimism is just one of the many, many aspects that influences relationship success, and to find that this one variable can play such a large role is striking.

So keep in mind the five types of supportive behaviors: positivity, openness, assurances, focuses on common friends and affiliations, and sharing tasks.  Each can help relationships last and, as is true with many things, a little will go a long way.

In case you are interested…..

Srivastava, S., McGonigal, K. M., Richards, J. M., Butler, E. A., & Gross, J. J. (2006). Optimism in close relationships: How seeing things in a positive light makes them so. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 143–153.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

Invisible Support in Lasting Relationships

Lasting Relationships

I often think people are funny.  And in this case I don’t mean funny like humorous.  I mean funny like odd. Like when you see someone walking down the street in 10° weather with no coat. Hmm…funny…why would they do that?  And today I want to focus on a way in which men tend to be “funnier” than women.

My friend Kevin is a good example.  When he does a nice thing for his wife, he has a strong need, at some point, to say something like “That was a nice thing I did.”  I have asked him if he does it because he thinks his wife might not notice, and he says that’s not the reason; his wife is usually aware of the nice things he does. He can’t actually say why he needs to do it, but I think that’s often the way human needs work.

Unfortunately for Kevin, recent research by psychologists Maryhope Howland and Jeff Simpson suggests that he is going about this in the wrong way.  Howland and Simpson believe that providing help or support for your partner is most effective when your partner is unaware that they are receiving help, what they call “invisible support.”

You may be wondering how someone could provide support to another person without that person being aware they received support. Psychologists have devised a clever method.  They ask a participant in a study to do some task.  Then before doing the task the participant either gets advice from someone directly or overhears that same person giving advice to someone else.  Those participants who “overheard” the advice (that is, who had received invisible support) felt less distress than those who had received the advice directly.

In the Howland and Simpson study, couples entered a room and were told they would be having a videotaped conversation.  One partner was asked to spend a few minutes thinking of something they would like to change about themselves such as work, health, relationships with family, etc.  Couples were then left alone for 7 minutes to discuss this topic. This procedure created a conversation where one partner described what they wanted to change and put the other partner in the role of supporter.

After the discussion the supporter reported how much support they provided and their partner rated how much support they felt they had received. Trained observers watched the videotape and rated how much support had actually been given. The researchers looked at two kinds of support: practical support – advice and information that helps to fix the problem, and emotional support – feedback and reassurance to make the person feel better.  In both cases, when participants received more invisible support from their partners (as rated by the trained observers) they perceived that they had received less support, but they also reported less anger and anxiety about the issue.

The question then is what invisible support looks and sounds like.  Howland and Simpson say that invisible support has two important qualities.  First, invisible support deemphasizes the roles of provider and recipient.  Imagine your partner comes home from work and is having trouble with a coworker.  If you say, “Let’s sit down and talk about this” you are making it clear that your partner is the one having the problem and you are the one trying to help them solve it. You might instead talk about it in a way that, as much as possible, resembles the kind of conversation you would have about anything else. The more the discussion seems like a help session, the more support your partner will be aware of, and the less beneficial the discussion will be.

Second, invisible support deflects attention away from the recipient’s problem. It is not useful to start sentences with phrases like “You should” because it directly focuses the conversation on the problem. Instead, try to think of a similar situation you or someone you know has experienced.  If you can say something like, “I had kind of the same problem with that guy I used to work with, you remember him?” you are engaging your partner in working on the problem together.  It might also help to suggest that theirs is a common problem, one for which others have, no doubt, found a solution.  You can also focus your partner away from the problem and remind them of the skills they have to handle problems of this kind—like patience, perseverance and dedication.

Invisible support conveys support “under the radar,” so recipients remain unaware that they have received support.  It fosters feelings of cooperation and equality rather than the image that one person is telling another what they “should” do. These techniques can help you and your partner find solutions together.

In case you are interested…..

Howland, M., & Simpson, J. A. (2010). Getting in under the radar: A dyadic view of invisible support. Psychological Science, 21, 1878-1885.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

More Evidence for the Value of Give-and-Take

Lasting Relationships

John and Ann Betar of Fairfield, CT were recently named The Longest Married Couple for 2013. They have been married almost 81 years. They are humble people who don’t feel like they have done anything special and don’t like to give marriage advice. But when asked for their secret, their answer was no surprise: compromise and don’t hold a grudge.

Not coincidentally, the longest married couple for 2012 had the same answer: given and take and compromise. I say not coincidentally because the evidence for the value of give and take in lasting relationships, both anecdotal and scientific, is very strong.

You can read more about the value of give and take in lasting relationships in a recent article I wrote for GalTime.com.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.