In fairy tales, lasting love just happens. But in the real world, as I explore in my book Happy Together: Using The Science Of Positive Psychology To Build Love That Lasts the key to happiness resides in building healthy long-term habits. More specifically, consider this: When we actively seek out strengths in one another rather than focusing on weaknesses, we continue growing both individually and together.
In the beginning of a relationship, this idea seems easy. Naturally curious to find out what makes our partner tick, we ask many questions as evidenced by marathon conversations that last into the wee hours of the night. We are intrigued by our partner and find his or her stark differences fascinating. We want to know everything about them.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever. All too often, it’s only a matter of time before we fall into a rut: We stop asking questions, assuming we know all there is to know about our partner. This habit is detrimental to a relationship, causing it to stagnate. Soon enough, we start perceiving the differences that initially intrigued us as deficits.
For example, say you initially loved your partner’s deliberate, analytical way of thinking because it helped you organize your own unwieldy thoughts and helped you make logical decisions. But now, you see her as defiantly dragging her feet with every decision to intentionally exasperate you. Or perhaps you found his high energy refreshing, as it motivated you to try new activities and get your ideas out the door. But now it seems like he’s purposely trying to irritate you by speeding up the pace on every important project you tackle together.
At this point in a relationship, we are at an important crossroads. If we continue to go down this path, our relationship will likely not survive. However, if we shift our thinking and see our partner through a lens of strengths, we increase the chances of our relationship not only surviving but thriving.
An exercise in focusing on strengths.
Think back to the beginning of your relationship and reflect on the positive aspects of your partner that initially attracted you. Are those qualities no longer there, or did we just stop noticing them? How might we better understand our partner and shift from criticizing to celebrating his or her strengths?
Of course, this isn’t automatic—it takes practice. With time and effort, however, it becomes easier to develop this healthy habit. Fortunately, positive psychology, the science of what makes individuals and communities thrive, can help us out. Positive psychology researchers discovered 24 strengths that have been valued across time and cultures. Qualities like kindness, creativity, love of learning, and leadership are the things that naturally make us who we are. These are things that we are just naturally good at and make us. We all have strengths and in various configurations.
Using your strengths every day is associated with increased individual and relational well-being. You and your partner can each find out your top five strengths, commonly referred to as your “signature strengths” by taking this survey.
It’s time to go on “strength dates.”
Once you have both discovered your top five strengths, you’re ready to put them into practice in your daily life. Seek out opportunities to leverage your unique strengths as individuals and as a couple. One way to apply them to your romantic relationships is by going on “strengths dates,” a concept that entails selecting one of your top strengths and one of your partner’s and organizing an outing that enables each of you to put that strength into practice.
For example, if you have a top strength of kindness and your partner’s strength is humor, do something together that helps people and simultaneously makes them laugh. Plenty of volunteer opportunities provide this point! Or if you have a strength of creativity and your partner has an appreciation of beauty and excellence, spend an afternoon outdoors marveling at nature’s wonders and capturing what you see in words or drawings.
An example from my own life was leveraging my strength of zest and my husband’s love of learning by renting Segways for a historical tour of our city. At the end of the date, my sense of adventure was satisfied and my husband’s intellectual appetite was sated. It was a mutually satisfying date for both of us and a spike in well-being to boot.
It’s much better than taking your partner on a date to a foreign movie that makes him feel about as happy as getting his teeth drilled or going to a heavy metal concert when Mozart is more your musical taste. A strength date is intrinsically motivated in that it involves and celebrates natural aspects at the core of each person. After the date, debrief to discuss what worked well for each of you. Ask each other what you learned from this activity as a way to help you plan your next strength date. What can you do differently to enhance your experience?
Take turns arranging the dates, or if you prefer, plan them together. Look at your list of strengths and come up with a variety of ideas for future dates—the possibilities are endless, and your relationship will be a happier, healthier one as a result.