It’s not always easy to communicate your feelings when in a romantic partnership. As a result, many people can sometimes resort to passive behaviors in their attempts to feel seen and heard by their partner—things like sulking, whining, or just generally behaving in a sad way to indicate they need support. However, new research findings suggest this indirect way of seeking support is not just ineffective—it might actually draw the opposite response from their partner.
In a recently released study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers surveyed 176 couples to measure their levels of self-esteem, feelings of insecurity related to their relationship, and their sense of closeness and intimacy with their partners. Participants were then asked to note one thing about themselves they’d like to improve, and one member of each couple was instructed to share their self-improvement goal with their partner while being videotaped. Researchers went through these taped discussions, analyzing to what extent the person sharing their goal used indirect support-seeking behaviors and what kind of response these behaviors got from their partner.
As it turns out, people who used more indirect support-seeking strategies tended to elicit much more negative responses from their partners—things like criticism, disapproval, or blame. So basically the exact opposite behavior you want when you’re asking for help.
Additionally, the researchers found that people who have low self-esteem were found to be more likely to use this indirect support-seeking style than others. The ways in which a person perceives negativity from their partner also seemed to differ based on levels of self-esteem. People with low self-esteem read their partner’s negative responses as, in fact, low responsiveness—in other words, they felt like their partner didn’t really care about their needs.
“People with low self-esteem tend to seek support in ways that actually hinder their partner’s ability to provide support, which in turn has detrimental consequences for how support seekers feel about the relationship,” Brian P. Don, one of the study’s authors, told PsyPost.
Rarely does being indirect get a person the kind of support they deserve in a relationship. These findings showed that indirect behavior often resulted in feelings of rejection, which is the very thing that indirect support seekers are often trying to avoid by being indirect. People who are more direct, on the other hand, are more likely to receive a more attentive, caring response from their partners and thus feel more affirmed in their relationship.
“Simply stating how you feel directly allows your partner to be informed, as well as respond from a place of personal responsibility, too,” sex therapist and relationship counselor Gia Ravazotti tells mbg.
Additionally, if you know your partner struggles with self-esteem, these findings suggest it might be a good idea to try to be more observant of when your partner is shutting down, sulking, or being indirect. It’s easy to react negatively when your partner is behaving in a strange or moody way, but be sensitive to the fact that they may be doing it because they need help. Make a conscious effort to directly ask them about how they’re feeling and how you can support them through whatever they’re going through.