The Relationship Instinct You Should Ignore

Research reveals that giving your man too much support can hurt more than it helps.

Okay, so your man’s in a bad mood. Maybe he had a crappy day; maybe he’s been feeling down for a while. Either way, when you see him struggling—whether he’s studying for the bar exams, trying to outsmart a shark-like coworker, or dealing with tough family issues—your instinct is probably to do whatever you can to help. You offer possible solutions, give him a hand with other stuff so he doesn’t have as much on his plate, and text him that you love him and everything’s going to work out. Having each other’s back is one of the most important elements of a good relationship...right?

It seems counter-intuitive, but a new series of studies from the University of Iowa discovered that too much support can actually hurt your relationship. “There is this myth that the more encouraging you are, the better,” says lead researcher Erika Lawrence, PhD. “In fact, being overly helpful does greater damage than providing too little assistance.” That totally surprised us, but some Cosmo readers illustrated for us this unexpected phenomenon, as some of them who had experienced firsthand the dark side of supporting their guy shared with us their stories. Their men had been in a tough place—often those having difficulty finding jobs—and the women dropped everything to help them: searching for position openings, proofreading their résumés, being extra affectionate, etc. They thought they were doing exactly what a loving girlfriend or wife should do. But in case after case, guys actually ended up leaving the partners who’d been the most outwardly compassionate.

So, we explored how the sympathetic routine can backfire with a guy and found out a better way to be there for him.

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Why Too Much Love Drives Him Crazy

People tend to assume (incorrectly) that their partner wants the same type of help they themselves would crave, according to one of the University of Iowa studies. But, there’s a big gap between what men and women need when they’re upset. “Men retreat and deal with things alone,” says Paul Dobransky, MD, director of womenshappiness.com. “Women, on the other hand, band together.”

See, guys learn from an early age that their role is the provider and protector. “Being overly helpful sends him the message that he needs assistance and can’t handle it without you,” explains Paul Coleman, PhD, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Intimacy. “He doesn’t want to be with someone who thinks he’s weak.” So, give him space to decide for himself how much to share with you and the kind of input he wants. And, resist sharing your opinion about what he should do next. One of the University of Iowa studies discovered that no one wants unsolicited advice.

For instance, let’s say he got passed over for a promotion. Telling him “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” as you give him a huge hug, suggesting he talk to his boss, and promising to help him look for something new can read as though he failed to live up to your expectations—not to mention pile pressure on him to succeed next time. Instead, express confidence in him. “Just tell him ‘I know you can handle this,’ and leave it at that...unless he asks for more,” Coleman urges. “Listen to him, then remind him of a time in the past when he kicked ass.”

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What’s more, overreacting compounds the issue, because now he has yet another thing on his mind: whether you’re okay. Suddenly, he’s not only worrying about the original problem, but he’s also worrying about you being stressed over it.

“Your concern can amplify the magnitude of the situation for him,” Coleman adds. For example, if he got into a fight with a friend, firing off a ton of questions and coming up with ways to fix things might make him feel like it’s a bigger deal than he had thought. Play down the drama by letting him take the lead in talking about it.

And, It Doesn’t Work For You Either 

When you get up in his grill, chances are, some of his anxiety will rub off on you, and the last thing you need is two stress cases. Distancing yourself a bit will help you stay calm and level-headed—hopefully he’ll pick up on your cue and chill out, too. Plus, “if you keep offering more support than you receive, you risk building up resentment,” Coleman warns. Sure, at times everyone gives more than they get, but there should be a general balance. It’s exhausting to always take on the role of morale booster. So, give yourself a break.

Another risk of shifting into comfort overdrive: You start acting like his mom, Dr. Dobransky says. Don’t go there. You won’t see him as your strong, capable boyfriend or husband, but as someone who needs coddling. Do you think that’s sexy at all? We thought so.

The One Kind Of Support You Can Never Go Wrong With 

Interestingly, there’s a certain type of help that always works, no matter what the circumstances. According to recent research from Columbia University, “invisible support”—giving someone a hand behind the scenes so that he doesn’t even realize you’re assisting him—boosts a person’s mood and relaxes him. (Conversely, support that’s done out in the open actually increases a person’s stress level. He feels bad that you’re going out of your way on his behalf and also feels indebted to you, which adds to the burden.)

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So, be sweet to your guy in subtle ways, suggests Barton Goldsmith, PhD, author of 100 Ways To Boost Your Self-Confidence: Cook up his favorite dinner one night without mentioning anything about it, casually give him a back rub while he’s working on the computer, or let him off the hook about attending your family gathering with you. It turns out, the best assistance you can give him is concealing the fact that you’re even lending him a hand in the first place.

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