What Matters Most?

Using your strengths to impact well-being

5 Lesser-Known Tips for a Positive Relationship

Learn about relationships from the best positive psychology movie of 2013.

Ever think about what happens after “happily ever after”? Do the characters at the end of movies live in some sort of eternal bliss and glee?

Of course not. But as viewers we don’t get to see what happens next in these formulaic Hollywood films. There are exceptions.

Enter Before Midnight, a new romance-drama starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and directed by auteur filmmaker, Richard Linklater. This is the third installment of films made about 10 years apart and follow two characters, Jesse and Celine, after their original chance encounter on a train heading to Vienna (see Before Sunrise and Before Sunset).

These films are known for engaging dialogue. Conversations that are “real,” poignant, and interesting. Characters share themselves, their ideas, and their opinions openly. They attack, praise, cajole, and surprise one another. We are carried through love and intimacy, thoughts about their relationship origins and life philosophies, the fruits and challenges of long-term commitment, and tense arguments.

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Before Midnight is a quintessential “dialogue film.” This helps it be an outstanding “teacher” of positive relationships. Not only does it capture some of the everyday ups and downs—the joys and struggles—found in normal relationships, but it illustrates new scientific findings on positive relationships.

The topic of positive relationships is not a simple, contrived answer, like you would find in a formulaic Hollywood romance script.  However, science has revealed some interesting findings. Check out these 5 tips:

  1. Turn your strengths “other-oriented”: This finding assumes you know what your signature strengths are. Whatever your highest strengths are, turn them outwardly toward your partner. If you are high in creativity, use your creativity in a way that benefits your partner. If you are high in fairness, apply this moral compass of equity toward your partner expressing concern that they be treated justly. If you are high in self-regulation, practice controlling your impulses or emotions at just the right time so that your partner benefits.

    Jesse directs his creativity—typically an intrapersonal strength—toward Celine after a significant fight. He makes up a story that he has arrived from a time machine from several decades in the future and has been sent to deliver a letter written by her future self to her present day self. He then picks up a random napkin and creates the letter’s content speaking of the importance of how their present moment sitting there was to end up becoming a key turning point in their relationship. In response, Celine directs her judgment strength (using critical thinking to see different angles of the problem) and her forgiveness strength to let go of her hurt and re-connect with him.

  2. Don’t stop being curious: Research has found curiosity contributes to intimacy in relationships. This makes sense. When you are interested in another person, what do you do? You ask them questions. You explore who they are, what they like, what they do for fun, and what their background was like.  As relationships continue, curiosity often wanes. Jesse and Celine maintain their curiosity. Even though they know each other better than anyone else in the world, they ask one another questions, explore the meaning of life with one another, and continue to learn about one another.

  3. Mindful relating: Mindfulness programs—which teach participants to be open, present, curious, and accepting of one another—have been found to benefit relationships. One new program, Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP)—is an example. MBSP participants find that they are able to immediately come up with examples in which they positively impacted one of their relationships after MBSP practice.

  4. Deploy your strengths of judgment and prudence: Research finds that direct, positive strategies lead to desired change in the long-run for romantic couples. Such communication strategies involve using judgment/critical thinking to apply logic and look at the facts of the situation as well as prudence to weigh the pros and cons of a given scenario.

  5. Respond to others actively and constructively: Active-constructive responding means to respond with inquiry, positive interest, and genuineness to someone when they share good news with you. Jesse and Celine often respond in this way to one another and therefore create an environment where sharing of the good or bad events of their day is encouraged.

These strategies are reviewed in my new book, Positive Psychology at the Movies 2, as are 1,500 movie examples of character strengths and positive relationships.

Look for elements of these exercises in Before Midnight.  And note that I’m not saying this couple is picture-perfect in their communication, but they are real and heart-felt. We can find ourselves in their interactions.

I nominate Before Midnight as the best positive psychology movie of 2013…so far. View it and let me know what you think!

References:

Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35 (3), 471–494.

Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228–245.

Kashdan, T. B., McKnight, P. E., Fincham, F. D., & Rose, P. (2011). When curiosity breeds intimacy: Taking advantage of intimacy opportunities and transforming boring conversations. Journal of Personality, 79, 1369–1401.

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths; A practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.

Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2014). Positive psychology at the movies 2: Using films to build character strengths and well-being. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.

Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Sibley, C. G. (2009). Regulating partners in intimate relationships: The costs and benefits of different communication strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 620–639.

Reis, H., Smith, S., Carmichael, C., Caprariello, P., Tsai, F., Rodrigues, A., & Maniaci, M. R. (2010). Are you happy for me? How sharing positive events with others provides personal and interpersonal benefits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 311–329.

Veldorale-Brogan, A., Bradford, K., & Vail, A. (2010). Marital virtues and their relationship to individual functioning, communication, and relationship adjustment. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(4), 281–293.

Resources:

VIA Institute's practical resources: www.viapros.org

Free VIA Survey of strengths: www.viame.org

For free movie articles and other resources: www.ryanniemiec.com

 

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.

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