How to Ask for (and Get) What You Need From a Relationship
Eoin, a professor of mathematics, and Eve, a photo editor for a book publisher, had been dating for five months when they braved their first serious conversation about race. “He was really humble and admitted that he couldn’t possibly understand my lived experience but wanted to better understand and be there for me,” recalls Eve. “It made me feel supported, seen, and cared about.” Eoin aimed “to inhabit this relationship with intentionality and care and be true to myself.”
Meditation taught him how to manage difficult conversations: “I’ve learned that the waves of the mind are not that big a deal. If I feel a rise in my chest—maybe anger, maybe fear—I can just let it come and go. I don’t personalize it or blame others.”
“We’re both introverts,” confides Eve. “We talk about everything under the sun, from spirituality to gender, from what it would be like if the earth melted away to video games.” But even when they’re dealing with difficult feelings, says Eoin, neither is worried about being right or wrong. “We have a way of speaking plainly, always with compassion. The secret ingredient is holding hands; we remain connected. Just being in the relationship is the ultimate point.”
On a sunny Sunday last spring, Kara and her husband Leo arrived at her parents’ house for a few days’ stay. Their son Jake, 5, jumped into the arms of his beaming grandfather, waiting on the lawn. Kara held the baby, 9 months, as Leo wrangled the kids’ gear. “Don’t mind him,” Kara said of the infant’s growing fussiness, “he’s demanding to be fed.” “Why don’t you let your mother have the pleasure,” her father suggested. “Not yet, Dad,” said Kara, “I’m still nursing him.” “Isn’t it time to let him grow up,” her father admonished as he led Jake insid
Irritated as she was at the casual rebuke of her mothering and struck by a flash a shame for enjoying beautiful moments with her baby, Kara grew furious at Leo. He knew how overbearing her father could sometimes be and how small and worthless it could make her feel, so why wasn’t he stepping up to defend her? Disappointment overstayed the visit; the lapse in emotional support at a moment of need was still rankling Kara months later. “In front of my son, in front of my husband, I was totally invalidated. And then I was abandoned. It didn’t feel good then. It doesn’t feel good now.”
That’s how relationships begin a slide into the sea. Loyalty is like that. An alloy of emotional support, protection, and respect, it’s foundational to partnerships of any kind, but especially to love. It is the pillar of trust, the source of feeling safe in the world, a security so profoundly liberating it enables people to reveal their fullest selves, which just might be the wellspring of passion. It buffers against challenges, and it fosters well-being.
Of all the psychological strands of interpersonal connectedness, loyalty is unique in acting as a moral principle. It is not, however, an unmitigated virtue; it is subject to corruption. But when harnessed to mutual goodwill, it is a powerful positive binding force.
In a culture where romantic ambitions are high yet societal supports for couples have eroded and all the holding power must be generated (and regenerated) from within, loyalty acts as a form of superglue. It is doubly so for people of color and others in marginalized groups whose private relationships typically bear the added burden of salving regular insults from the wider world.
“Disloyalty is extremely painful,” says John Gottman, dean of relationship researchers. “It leads to insecurity and distancing in the relationship.” It’s a sin of omission—your partner isn’t there for you when you need them. In their hurt, one partner turns away from the other. Moments of connection are missed. Goodwill erodes. Fault-finding takes hold. Partners begin to keep score. Negativity shades every action, and any stress can take the whole thing down.
Who Do You Belong To?
Loyalty begins with the very structure of relationships. There must be a boundary of primacy set up around a couple, says Massachusetts family therapist Terry Real, the author of the New York Times bestseller Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. “The couple is the primary relationship. People can gain access to the couple—parents, in-laws, children—but they have to be allowed in. Loyalty to each other means that you privilege each other over everybody else.”
It can take time to firmly establish that boundary. In studying 130 newlywed couples for seven years, John Gottman found that all the arguments in the first few years are about trust. Do I come first? Will you be there for me? Are your friends more important than I am? Is your mother more important than I am? “They need to establish that sense of being a team, in which they put one another first,” he reports.
“If they can’t do that, they’re unlikely to go the next step and really forge a commitment. Every argument is then: Can I get the best for me regardless of the cost for you? Who needs this crap! They can’t resolve conflicts as a team, where I care as much about my wife’s thriving as I do my own.” In fact, Gottman’s definition of trust is behaving so as to maximize benefits for one’s partner as well as for oneself.
Loyalty conflicts related to structure are common in inter-ethnic couples where one partner comes from a culture that honors sons over daughters and the mother-son relationship is highly prized. “The wife is really on the outside of a coalition,” says Julie Gottman. “But if she doesn’t come first, the marriage will have flaws.” The wife will have little influence on decision-making, perhaps even about her own kids. “We often have to help the husband find ways to honor his parents while privileging his wife,” Gottman notes.
Given the individualistic bias of American culture, Real advises clients to “school their friends” about the primacy of the couple partnership. He suggests they tell others, “If you want to be a friend to me, be a friend of my relationship. If I come to you with a complaint about my partner, be empathetic, but I don’t want to hear ‘I wouldn’t put up with that’; tell me to consider my part in the problem and what I might do differently.” Otherwise, complaining about a partner to a parent, a friend, even a therapist—anyone outside the relationship—before discussing it with your partner is a significant betrayal, and it sets up a coalition against the partner.
For some people, especially those raised in families with a high degree of dysfunction—a parent who has paranoia or is chronically unhappy or addicted to alcohol, for example—entering into a good partnership can create a loyalty bind. “Growing up, one way to get close to a parent who is routinely unavailable is to be like them,” says Real. Having a happy relationship of one’s own is like moving to a new world. “You leave the old country behind and it kicks up all the feelings of emigrating—disloyalty, survivor guilt. Opening up to happiness feels like abandoning a parent.” Allowing people that insight, by making the implicit tie explicit, Real finds, can foster the realignment of loyalty, paving the way for movement into health, connection, and happiness.
They met two weeks into college and had no idea they’d spend their lives together—neither thought it possible. Raymond was hoping to meet a nice woman and “live the life that is projected onto you.” Randall aimed to be a less muted version of a small-town Southern kid. Career-focused—both are now executives in major organizations—they moved to Washington, D.C., then New York. It wasn’t until Randall came out to his religious family that he could dedicate himself to his own happiness and to the relationship, that the two could prod each other into realizing that they belonged most to each other, and that they could build the relationship they needed. Thus was born their annual meeting. Although they are married and own a home, each year they arrive (and later leave) separately at a restaurant they choose specifically because it is not one of their favorites. Everything is on the table, says Raymond: “What do we want for our lives? What are the things annoying us? What could we do differently? Do we want a child? A dog?” “We’re also changing—our likes, our dislikes,” says Randall. “The meeting guarantees that we connect around what that change looks like.” He adds: “The intentionality is important to make sure that you’re getting to the topics that can potentially break you.”
“I’ve Got Your Back”
Then there’s emotional loyalty, the sense of having each other’s back. Partners expect airtight emotional loyalty of each other, and it is most visible in the way one partner treats the other in front of other people: Is it respectful? Warm? Does it show affection? Or does one partner recount an event that the other ignores or, worse, dismisses? For the Gottmans, that is one of the most telltale indicators not just of loyalty—or, more precisely, its absence—but of the viability of the whole relationship.
It’s the mundane moments of life together that are the basis of romance in long-term relationships, John Gottman has famously found in his decades of monitoring couples. Because negative exchanges have a disproportionately destructive effect on relationships, it is necessary for partners to replenish fondness and admiration, and they do it by turning toward each other in countless everyday moments, recognizing any bid for connection (“Hey, look at that crazy car!”) and responding in an interested or affirming way. A partner who ignores such a bid is turning away; worse yet is actually turning against a bid (“Stop interrupting me, I’m reading”). “That turning-towards element,” Gottman says, “is fundamental to building loyalty. Loyalty underpins both trust and commitment, two weight-bearing walls of the relationship house.”
Often enough in social situations, one partner will have a conflict with others. Defending the partner is critical—for their own well-being and for the relationship’s—and articulating that support is a necessary demonstration of loyalty. That doesn’t mean your partner is always right.
“What people get wrong all the time,” says Real, “is that they turn such a situation into a teachable moment: ‘I understand why people have that issue with you because I have that issue with you, too.’” Loyalty is owed to a partner not just in public but in private, Real insists. “First, start with empathy and compassion, then ask if they want problem-solving. Turning an upsetting incident into a teachable moment is generally a bad idea.”
There are, of course, some expectations of loyalty that are unrealistic. “What a lot of people think of as loyalty is really unconditional love,” Real finds, “and that’s just a childish vision of love.” Loyalty, for example, is not lockstep agreement.” Say you have a fight with a colleague. What’s warranted first from your partner is a measure of empathy. Then, if they have a suggestion about something you could have done differently, what’s needed is a delicate negotiation to offer information while letting you know they’re on your side. “The communication of cherishing is a key element of loyalty when there’s disagreement,” says Real.
Couple loyalty encodes the expectation that your partner will act in your best interest and regularly meet your needs because it is the right thing to do. However core the expectation, it can be a setup for disappointment—unless partners are explicit about things they’re not normally explicit about. “Needs are highly individualized, and each partner has to define for themselves what is important to them,” says New York family therapist Susan Birne-Stone. “It takes a degree of self-awareness—and then articulating that need to their partner.” Her therapy practice, she says, is living proof of how difficult the task can be. “The trick is to express the need to your partner at the time you’re feeling it, to do so without anger at the need not being met, and to say it in a way that your partner can take in.”
That’s how it goes when adults shape their relationship. What more often happens, Real laments, is that people wait for their partner to fail—and then react to the failure. “Schooling your partner about what you want is a high-level skull. But it increases the odds that you’ll get what you want.” If asking your partner for what you need and getting it are essential for a loving bond, then getting what you need without asking—invisible support —takes relationships into another dimension.
The highest measure of loyalty—and perhaps the highest high-wire act of all relationship life, experts agree—is voicing complaints and problems directly to a partner when you’re upset with them. The Gottmans find it is a special problem for the conflict-avoidant, and it is a huge challenge for those who, when upset, resort to criticism and contempt, major saboteurs of listening, of solving problems, and of affection. More than ever before, the Gottmans find, avoidance of conflict is epidemic in young people, in part a consequence of texting rather than engaging face-to-face.
Voicing complaints is an art that, science reveals, best begins with what the Gottmans call a “soft start-up,” stating how you feel rather than reciting your partner’s sins. Then you discuss a very specific situation that gave rise to the feelings and suggest an action that could resolve the feelings. But what diffuses any tension that builds is some expression of respect and cherishing.
For Blacks and other people of color in the U.S., couple loyalty typically must provide not just emotional support but an extra layer of protection against dehumanizing experiences. “When we walk out the door in the morning, it is with the understanding that the day could include an array of threats, not all of them visible. You want a partner who understands that and helps you sort through it,” says Tawanda Turner-Brown, a family therapist in Washington, D.C. “I’m not against interracial relationships at all, but someone white might think her husband was paranoid if he came home and said he was followed around in a store, treated as suspicious just for existing.”
There are slights and dismissals—being passed over yet again for a promotion despite being more qualified than others—that often make Blacks feel invisible. “That has an impact on the psyche that affects self-esteem, sense of relevance, and even ability to participate in the relationship,” says Turner-Brown. Further, each disappointment carries the added weight of so many historical injustices. Given the frequent assaults on Black personhood, she notes, support includes extra measures of validation.
They literally wrote the book on couple loyalty—and many other aspects of relationships. John developed ways of monitoring partners internally and externally during interactions and told the world much of what is now known about the way each affects the other, what makes marriages thrive, and how they fall apart. Together John and Julie, both psychologists, founded the Gottman Institute, training therapists and helping couples. Trust—having your partner’s back—is one pillar of “the sound relationship house”: Can I trust you to stick around through chemo treatments? Can I trust you to support my goals?
The book on trust arose, however, from their own crisis of loyalty 20 years ago. They had developed a curriculum for couples in poverty at the behest of a think tank, formed a small company, and hired a CEO to run it. Pretty quickly, Julie sensed something was amiss and warned John. Two years in, financial misdeeds surfaced. John, focused on research funding, had listened more to the executive than to his own wife. “We had several deep talks to repair the damage to our relationship,” Julie reports. John spent the next year developing ways to measure trust and betrayal. How to Make Love Last was the result.
Portal to Passion—and Thriving
The security loyalty begets that makes people feel absolutely safe and accepted in a relationship encourages them to blossom. “There are many ways to feel unsafe in a relationship,” say the Gottmans, “but psychological safety even has biological consequences. People function better. They’re healthier. There’s less inflammation. Our whole nervous system is oriented around feeling safe.”
The sense of safety gets carried into the bedroom as well, allowing partners to be vulnerable. “You can talk about sex,” says
Julie Gottman. “You can talk about what you want. You can be totally yourself. You don’t have to hold anything back. With nothing held back, passion is unleashed.”
That experience, John Gottman notes, is at odds with a popular view that safety and familiarity kill passion and that to feel sexually connected, couples need a steady supply of mystery and novelty. What the popular view likely underestimates is the power of feeling safe to generate novelty from within. It allows partners to experiment, to be playful, to explore their erotic nature, to share their erotic fantasies. “And when you’re playful sexually,” he says, “you’re at a whole different level of connection.”
The Allure (and Challenge) Of Invisible Loyalty
Imagine you have a particularly stressful week at work with a lot of demands, emails, and meetings. You feel as if you’re drowning. Your partner notices and says, “I know you’re having a really hard time; let me help you. I’ll handle dinners this week and take care of getting the taxes done for you.”
Super helpful, right? Sort of. Receiving this type of conspicuous support is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, we clearly see that our partner cares about us and wants to help. Not surprisingly, research shows that when partners receive visible support like this, they are more satisfied in the relationship.
That same research shows, however, that such acts can have unintended effects. Knowing our partner is helping us can also lower our mood and make us feel anxious.
Your partner also helps you in ways you don’t realize.
Invisible support occurs when your partner does things for your benefit, often indirectly, but you don’t realize it. There are plenty of things your partner does behind the scenes to help you and the relationship, things that you never see. For example, when talking with your mother, your partner might provide support by taking your side when there is a difference of opinion or by covering for you. (“She hasn’t been able to visit because she is hopelessly overcommitted at work.”) In such cases, your partner silently and loyally works in the background, trying to make your life easier. They don’t mention it and never ask for recognition or benefits in return. They simply do it because it helps you.
Research shows that partners miss half of the sacrifices their partner makes for them. When researchers tracked law students taking the bar exam, they found that despite students having no idea what their partners were doing to help them, test-takers had less depression and anxiety when they received invisible support.
Similarly, when romantic partners receive invisible support, they report higher relationship satisfaction the following day and no decrease in mood. They are also happier with such interactions as the amount of time they spend together, affection toward each other, conversations, and sex life. What we may not notice one day can still benefit us the next. Though a partner may not see their partner’s loyalty, they certainly feel the byproducts and believe that their partner is looking after them. As with love, trust, and respect, partners need not witness tangible proof to have the feelings benefit their relationship.
Why is invisible support so powerful? It preserves people’s sense of self-efficacy. Acknowledging the need for assistance can make us feel inadequate. We may think that if we were a more capable person we could deal with a stressful week and things around the house without needing anyone to step in and save the day.
Such concerns may especially trouble those who need to project unwavering capability (“I don’t need any help”), feel in control, and avoid any sense of perceived weakness. Also, a partner’s help can make us feel guilty or indebted—because they’ve done so much, we now owe them and need to reciprocate. Visible support can come with unintended extra baggage.
On the other hand, invisible support is authentic and generous. The supporter does it purely for their partner’s benefit and does not need acknowledgment or recognition. Invisible support is like an anonymous donation to the relationship partner. They benefit because it makes their life easier. The supporter benefits because they get to identify as someone who is kind, giving, and unselfish. They also get to bask in their partner’s positive reactions. Doing good feels good.
Finally, being able to effectively provide invisible support requires a skilled partner. To do it well, a person needs to do several things behind the scenes to make it work: Notice the partner has a need. Know how to appropriately address the need. And provide support in a subtle or nonobvious way. Of course, they have to be secure enough in themselves to not require acknowledgment or credit. Not every partner will be up to the task, but those who are will experience better relationships.
Glamour professions can put their own brand of strain on relationships, but in the five years they have been together, Michael and Julia—he sells high-end New York City real estate, she is a model—have learned the value of “always framing yourself and your partner in a good light as it pertains to others.” That includes, says Michael, “being mindful of what your partner likes and the situations they’re going to feel comfortable in.” Even within a relationship, Julia adds, “it’s important to be mindful and loyal to your partner when you’re facing challenges, because you do love and respect them.” She admits that she likes to vent to others when in a state of frustration, “but I always have to remind myself to not say anything that I can’t take back.”
5 Types of Invisible Support
Because invisible support is hard to see, examples are in short supply. Nevertheless, new research identifies five main types of invisible support for relationships.
Anonymous Donor: Giving concrete tangible help without any recognition. Doing household chores that aren’t normally your responsibility. Making your partner’s favorite meal or letting them pick the restaurant. Filling your partner’s gas tank, checking their tire pressure, or getting their car washed.
Rallying the Troops: Reaching out to your partner’s friends and others to encourage them to provide help and support. Texting your partner’s friends and suggesting that your partner could use a night out. Encouraging the kids to give your partner thoughtful cards and gifts.
Maintaining the Status Quo: When life is stressful or hectic, making efforts to create a sense of normalcy by sticking to your typical activities, not adding additional stress, and taking the other person’s lead on whether they want to address or discuss any issues. Carrying on with routine activities like hanging out, going out to eat, or grabbing drinks. Not piling on extra problems when your partner had a stressful day. Avoiding overscheduling extra activities during your partner’s busy weeks.
In This Together: Aligning your interests with your partner’s by suggesting solutions that would help you and, in turn, them. Suggesting that you need to sleep more, eat better, take up meditation, or exercise more regularly and that it would be great to work on it together. Saying that you really need a dinner out or a weekend away to decompress when it’s really for your partner’s benefit. Finding an excuse to take the kids out by yourself to give your partner time to relax or get work done.
Being There: Simply showing up for your partner and listening without offering advice or overtly helping. Giving your partner a hug and saying, “I love you,” seemingly for no reason at all. Resisting the temptation to offer unsolicited advice or solutions to your partner’s problems. Stifling the urge to correct your partner about something they did wrong.
Sometimes invisible support is about silly mundane things like not eating the last piece of cheesecake, even though you really want it, or watching a show you don’t particularly care to see, just because your partner likes it.
When looking for ways to provide invisible support, it’s as simple as finding ways to lighten your partner’s load, decrease their stress and obligations, or increase their enjoyment—all without their knowing you played a role.
One important corollary: Both partners need to participate. If only one partner provides invisible support and the other constantly takes advantage, that’s going to undermine relationship quality. Also, providing invisible support doesn’t mean you should be a doormat or a martyr. It just means you’re looking out for each other. Everyone deserves a great relationship.
The best relationships make our life better, and the best partners help make that happen in ways we never see.