Thanksgiving = gratitude
Christmas (and related holidays) = kindness.
Easter = hope.
Valentine’s Day = love.
C’mon, is it really that simple? I don’t think so. Not only is it trite and meaningless to limit our gratitude or love to one day out of 365 but in reality we are not ever expressing only one strength.
In addition to the giving and receiving of love on this day, what other strengths are important?
“All of them,” you say.
Yes, that is certainly possible. Here’s a challenge for you: Take a look at the VIA Classification list here and identify any character strength that is not relevant to building a good, lasting relationship.
I suspect you won’t find any. These are universal, cross-cultural characteristics in all of us…traits that hold potential goodness waiting to be expressed.
Turn Your Strengths into Relational Virtues
Research on married couples has found that marital virtues improve the communication of couples and have a positive impact on the relationship. And philosophers believe that it is marital virtues that provide a base for what needs to be communicated among healthy couples.
Relationships need critical thinking AND curiosity to be expressed, they need sparks of creativity and zest, they need social intelligence where each individual is aware of one another’s feelings and responds appropriately, and so on.
How might you turn a character strength into a marital virtue?
- Choose any of your character strengths.
- Reflect on how you can make it “other-oriented” to benefit your partner.
- Take action by deploying the strength for the purpose of the other.
For example, you might be high in the strength of prudence and are great at organizing your work-day, being conscientious and timely with meetings, and planful of your long-term goals. These are mostly examples of how you use your strength of prudence to benefit yourself. Think of how you might turn that strength to benefit your partner. Might you plan a special event for them? Might you use your skills of short-term and long-term planning to create specific goals dedicated to helping your partner in some way?
Go with the Good That Already Exists
It is important to recognize the wide range of strengths that you already do – or could – express.
Our relationships become positive and become healthy by the use of many character strengths – a constellation of strengths. The best relationships are those in which we express many strengths. For example, in any one conversation with someone, you might express:
- Curiosity by asking the person questions about themselves. No matter how well you think you know someone, there is always more to learn. Explore an earlier period of life with them, try to understand their interest in a particular hobby, question them about their opinions on the meaning of life.
- Teamwork by viewing your relationship as a “team.” Typically we think of teams as groups of people working together on a project or playing a sport together. But marriages are a “team.” Relationships are teams – people working together toward a common goal.
- Humility by placing emphasis on the other person’s needs. Rather than trying to get your needs met – the need to be admired, the need for pleasure, the need to be heard – prioritize the other person. What are their needs? How might you support them?
- Forgiveness by letting go of things that irritate you that the other person does. Perhaps your relationship partner fidgets a lot, puts their feet on the coffee table, or makes loud slurping sounds when they drink their milk. Consider the practice of letting go of the irritant, consider the wider perspective of what really matters.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that with each example there are other character strengths that are present? In the forgiveness example there is also the strength of perspective; the humility example also involves kindness, the teamwork noted also involves the strength of hope which involve creating and moving toward a goal, and the curiosity example involves the judgment/critical thinking of evaluating things from different angles.
We express a constellation of many strengths and most of the time, these core attributes emerge from us outside of our awareness. What might be possible if you brought forth your strengths more mindfully to your loved one?
Fowers, B.J. (2001). The limits of a technical concept of a good marriage: Exploring the role of virtue in communication skills. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 27, 327-340.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
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.
VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)
VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)
VIA Survey (the research-validated test)
VIA resources for practitioners