If you want your partner to know you’re really there for them, it’s pretty easy. Take out a few billboards celebrating her as the greatest woman of all time. Document her life in video form to highlight her biggest moments and depict her as heroic and lovely. Then whisk her away to a romantic locale like, say, Venice, Italy. And if you’re feeling extra romantic, film it aerially with a drone that zooms out from the penthouse skylight to show how luxe life is from above.
Easy, now! Just joshin’. Unless you’re pretty loaded and have a lot of free time, that’s probably not how most of us show our partners we’re all in. Still, all that and more are just a few of the amazing feats pulled off by Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder and husband to tennis superstar Serena Williams, to demonstrate his deep affection and support for her (and make all the rest of us feel really really bad).
But in spite of how gilded his love is, there’s a lot more to his approach than that. At its foundation, he says the secret to their marriage is: “You have to show up.” Trouble is, what does that really mean for the rest of us regulars, who could maybe pull off a semi-decent vacation at some point and are certainly down to snap some pics of it, but can’t exactly roll out the red carpet?
Luckily, what it means to show up in a relationship isn’t all about romance. It involves qualities that are, by and large, outside of money. Though we can’t argue with the fact that money and leisure makes it easier to be great if you’re inclined toward greatness, love shouldn’t require a résumé full of venture capital success.
Here’s how to show up for someone you care about.
Literally Be Around
While it’s obvious, some part of showing up does involve being physically around. Research that looked at 47,000 couples over seven years found that spouses are generally found to be twice as happy when together versus apart, and not only do they consider that time to be more meaningful, they also rate it as less stressful. Ohanian says he and Williams make sure to never spend more than a week apart, or FaceTime heavily when in between when they have to so as to stay connected.
But Be Present in Whatever You’re Doing
But that doesn’t mean you can always just phone in the time. One bit of research found that couples only spend, on average, about 2.5 hours together a day, and that time is mostly spent watching television, eating or cleaning up. Such activities can be utterly mundane autopilot, or meaningful bonding. Ohanian says the family recreates what his father did for his family growing up: Sharing a big pancake breakfast on Sundays where they eat, hang out and talk without phones, then lounge around, or play hide-and-seek. It’s a simple tradition, but it’s what keeps them together.
But it’s important to note the time together can be less “fun” activities, too. This reminds me of the second episode of the show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo on Netflix. In it, a Japanese couple who’ve been married for decades confess that they actually enjoy the tedious slog of sorting through all their crap together (as opposed to sitting around a lot, doing their own things, not talking). Showing up is sometimes committing to a necessary dull thing and realizing that’s worthwhile.
Be Emotionally Supportive
Most people think they are emotionally supportive because they care about the person they are with, but that is like saying you’re an environmental activist just because you care about global warming.
Many people think they’re emotionally supportive because the stuff they do for their partner is, to them, meant to be received as supportive. I took out the garbage because I’m emotionally supportive! But that’s not really what it is, either.
Therapist Joni Johnston explains at Psychology Today that there are actually four kinds of emotional support:
- Physical comfort and emotional support (listening and empathizing, taking your spouse’s hand, giving your spouse a hug)
- Esteem support (expressing confidence in your partner, providing encouragement)
- Informational support (giving advice, gathering information)
- Tangible support (taking on responsibilities so your spouse can deal with a problem, helping to brainstorm solutions to a problem)
More important, though, is giving the right kind. Meaning, the kind they want. Not the kind you want to give. In other words, if she needs you to do X to support her, but you insist on doing Y to support her, because that’s just how you show support, then you are doing it wrong.
And worse than no kind at all is giving the wrong kind. In one study Johnston cites, some 75 percent of men and 80 percent of women said they desperately needed more support from their spouse. But the people who were the unhappiest overall got way too much of the wrong kind: the advice-giving or informational kind.
No one likes being constantly lectured about what to do, particularly when it’s framed as helpful.
Instead, find out what kind of support they want, and then do that one. This is somewhat like that “five love languages” stuff— the idea that if you like doing things for people to show love (acts of service), but they like talking (words of affirmation), that doesn’t mean you can’t still take out the garbage. It just means you also have to be affirming it up like a maniac.
In Ohanian’s case, he describes emotional support that goes both ways with a mutual understanding of what they actually want from each other. He writes:
But at the end of the day, sometimes her career really does have to come first. I try to be the most supportive partner I can be and to have conversations with her about her career goals and what she can do to reach them. Most of my talks with Serena about her career have come from a place of “What do you want to be doing?” or “Where do you want to be?” and that’s not only in sport but in life. She does the same with me. I’m far from perfect, but I try to get behind her and let her know I’m there for her and our daughter, no matter what.
He also picks up the slack when she can’t. Yes, he had 16 weeks of paternity leave at Reddit, which he concedes is a huge luxury since he co-founded the company. And yes, it’s easier to take your baby to work whenever you want from wherever you are if you’re the boss. But the takeaway is that whatever that looks like in your life, it should be happening and going both ways.
Keep Your Word
Showing up means showing up a lot. You need to do it pretty much all the time, or at least most of the time, without fail. You don’t need a study to tell you that if you say you’ll do something, and you don’t do it, and that’s a recurring thing, you are not emotionally supportive. Showing up means doing what you’ll say you’ll do, and not flaking. Coming up with a bunch of excuses every time you fail to do what you say you’ll do is also a form of flaking.
The reason? People need to feel your consistent, reliable presence, and the simplest, most effective way to do this is to just do what you say.
Don’t Panic in a Crisis
Showing up means hanging around when things start to suck big ones. It’s incredibly easy to hang around for all the good times, but not so hot when the person loses their job, is fighting with a sibling, dealing with mental illness or is even just having a bad day. And when they’re mad at you? Hoo boy, better park it for the duration.
Because fair-weather people are among the worst fun people on earth, and in love, we all need a ride-or-die situation. That means not losing your cool when things go south, and seeing the bad stuff through to the end. Your partner should be able to offer you the same support back, by the way, because nobody can be the rock all the time, even Dwayne Johnson.
Build Love Maps
“Build love maps” is so fundamentally cheesy and cringe-inducing to me, but I admit that, of all the stuff I’ve consumed over the years about communication and presence in good relationships and experienced directly, that is the one that sticks out to me as the biggest feature of showing up in love. Building love maps is what therapist John Gottman describes as knowing another person’s world. It’s giving enough of a shit about them to remember all the little things: What they like and don’t, the anecdotes and experiences they share, their goals and dreams.
That may not sound like showing up, but it is, because it’s all the little stuff that, taken together, means you know someone cares enough to have witnessed you and internalized it, and is drawing from that to be supportive.
It’s not that there aren’t tons of other little things you could do to show emotional support or “show up” for a partner, from listening to sharing housework to making time for dates. The list of what people do to keep love going, which is in effect, showing up 24/7, is endless, and fairly universal.
But the real definition of showing up is just being so invested in a relationship’s success, whatever that takes, based on whatever the two of you negotiate, that you’re always listening, tailoring and adjusting to meet each other’s needs. Or as one old jazz player told me once about why his 50-year marriage had lasted so long: “I’m hellbent on making her happy, and she’s hellbent on making me happy.”
Most people are really good at saying they want that. Fewer are able to do the actual work of being it. So try to be hellbent on making someone happy. But if you can’t do that, at least whip up a nice pancake breakfast this weekend.