- Studies on individual happiness and satisfaction reveal that certain character strengths can have beneficial effects.
- A new approach to couples intervention shows the value of adopting a strength-based approach in your own.
- Focusing on strengths rather than deficits can help pave the way to greater fulfillment as individuals and as a couple.
The idea of “character strength” may seem old-fashioned, but in positive psychology, it’s a central personal quality that can promote happiness and satisfaction in your life. Taking stock of your own character strengths, according to a new study by University of New England (Australia) psychologists Sonja Habanicht and Nicola Schutte (2023), is a worthwhile exercise indeed.
Perhaps just as worthwhile, though, is the assessment you arrive at about your partner’s personal strengths. Did you ever stop and think about your partner in terms of their bravery, wisdom, and courage?
Character Strengths and Their Role in Relationship Satisfaction
Perhaps you and your partner are out for an afternoon stroll through a local park. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a woman in distress who has just stumbled and dropped her purse. Rushing to her aid, your partner helps her brush herself off, regain her composure, and be reunited with her bag.
This is a relatively minor incident, but it speaks to your partner’s kindness and, to a certain extent, bravery. You feel a rush of love and appreciation as your partner returns to your side.
The Australian researchers propose that it’s recognition of these inner strengths of one’s partner that can contribute to greater feelings of satisfaction. Citing previous studies pointing to the role of character strengths in promoting an individual’s own well-being, Habanich and Schutte noted also that relationships appear also to be happier when couples appreciate each other’s virtues.
However, correlational studies can only go so far. The purpose of their study was to test, through experimental methods, whether recognition of partners’ character strengths could actually improve relationship satisfaction.
The 6 Character Strengths and Which Matter the Most
There are potentially many ways to think about a person’s character strengths, even a person you know very well. The framework used by the U. New England research team organizes these qualities into six basic categories. See how you would rate your partner on each:
- Wisdom and knowledge: Creativity, curiosity, ability to make sound decisions, love of learning, being able to advise others.
- Courage: Bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest for life.
- Humanity: Valuing close relationships (love), kindness, awareness of motives and feelings of others.
- Justice: Cooperativeness, fairness, leadership.
- Temperance: Forgiveness, modesty, prudence, self-regulation.
- Transcendence: Appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, religiousness/spirituality.
Where were your partner’s greatest strengths? How did thinking about your partner in these terms change your overall view of them?
To test the proposed value of character strength rating on relationship satisfaction, Habenight and Schutte divided their sample of 243 participants (76 percent women; average age 37 years) into three groups, with two of them exposed to the character strength rating condition and the third serving as a control. One of the character strength groups received what was called a “mystery” prompt intended to increase their interest in the task by asking them if they would like to find out about their partner’s strengths, but this manipulation appeared not to have any particular impact on the findings.
A comparison of relationship satisfaction scores between the two interventions and the control groups revealed that the partner character rating condition was effective. Several character strengths in particular proved to predict the greatest relationship satisfaction boost; these included honesty, zest, and love. Overall, as the authors concluded: “The results of the present research support the proposition that recognition of partners’ strengths prompts relationship satisfaction” (p. 10).
How to Focus on Strengths
The U. New England findings overall correspond to the movement within psychological interventions as a whole to use a strength-based, rather than a deficit-based, approach. In other words, focusing on what your partner has rather than on what your partner lacks could provide you with a route toward relationship growth.
Looking back over the list of six strengths, can you identify which stand out as most prominent in your partner? Furthermore, are there strengths you didn’t even think of as strengths?
Certainly, the kindness your partner showed in the hypothetical example of the stroll through the park would seem easy to identify, especially if it is generally typical of the way your partner behaves. But what about the strengths of curiosity, modesty, and sense of humor? As aggravated as you may get with your partner from time to time, leading you to think about what you’d like to change, a pause to reflect on these favorable personal strengths could help restore happier thoughts.
The strength-based approach might also be one you work on with your partner. Obviously, relationship satisfaction is a two-way street. What do you think are your greatest strengths, and is it possible your partner may temporarily have forgotten what they are? Or might your partner identify strengths in you that you find surprising to learn about? Both of you could therefore benefit from a character strength inventory in which each of you total up your greatest assets.
To sum up, a strength-based way to conceptualize relationship satisfaction might provide a novel way to think about enhancing the way that couples think about themselves and each other. Fulfillment in your relationship may come from many sources, and this latest approach can help you find those you may not have realized you have.
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Habenicht, S., & Schutte, N. S. (2023). The impact of recognizing a romantic partner’s character strengths on relationship satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. doi: 10.1007/s10902-023-00641-7