The science of strengths can help us focus on nurturing our own relationship.
In a recent interview with cultural icon Larry King and his vivacious wife Shawn about our upcoming book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts (TarcherPerigee, January 16, 2018) we pondered the important question of “Why does it often seem that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?”
In our discussion, the topic of monogamy and commitment came up as it frequently does when discussing the challenges of marriage or other long-term relationships. Like any new endeavor, be it the gym membership that we invested in to kick start our fitness routine for the New Year or perhaps a highly coveted job we finally landed, after time the excitement naturally wanes. And when it does, boredom may set in. We may tire of our workout and work routine and may seek some novelty to reignite our initial interest.
As we mentioned in our inaugural post, Why Happily Ever After Doesn’t Just Happen, when the going gets tough, we don’t simply throw in the towel or switch up gyms or jobs and expect to build robust health or a thriving work life. If indeed we do, we will likely fail at our achieved goal of vitality or a successful career. Sometimes, though, it seems we are looking for a cure-all. Perhaps one simple, sweat-free workout class will rid us of those stubborn last five pounds and help us slip into our skinny jeans. Or, a perfect job devoid of tedious paperwork and tiresome co-workers will come along and catapult us up the corporate ladder to the corner office.
However, we don’t often realize that what is holding us back is our own lack of effort or misdirected attention. We may overwhelmingly focus on what is wrong in our situation and forget about what is going right. Despite plenty of positive things in our environment, our attention naturally fixates on problems.
So, too in our relationships. We tend to habituate to things, like the good we have in our relationship. And the good might have initially buffered against those pesky small things about our partner or relationship that always bothered us. So when we take the good for granted and stop noticing and nurturing it, those annoyances or flaws now take center stage.
Consider the famous figure-ground drawing by Dutch psychologist Edgar Rubin, what emerges is either a vase or two faces. It all depends on where we focus our attention. Similarly, in another popular perceptional illusion, our brain can interpret the reversible figure as either a beautiful young woman or a witch. Our brain can play similar tricks on us when looking at our loved ones! Many of us may focus on the flaws and no longer see the beauty, even though it’s still there.
As we discussed with Larry and Shawn and mentioned in a former post, it’s easy to mindlessly dwell on our partner’s shortcomings and what we find lacking in our lives together. This unhealthy habit can lead us to spiral downward into feeling hopeless and helpless in love.
Desperation may cause us to daydream about what it’s like elsewhere and we may start comparing our relationship and our partner with others.
Perhaps we are so consumed with peering at our neighbor’s lawn from a distance that we have neglected the beautiful one right in front of our eyes. And we may have even climbed the fence for a closer look and finally realize it’s not as green as we thought. In fact, there are weeds everywhere. We just never noticed them before. Just as we never noticed the lushness of our lawn. Not only is it important to prevent our own grass from withering, we must water it daily to keep it thriving.
One way to do that is to shift our perspective and attention to what is going right.
What are those initial qualities that attracted us to our partner? Did those traits suddenly disappear or are we so busy fixating on small annoyances that our perception is distorted and it’s all we notice?
Let’s heed some advice from the wise American philosopher and psychologist William James who emphasized the importance of voluntarily directing and focusing our attention in order to influence our perceptions. Rather than looking at what’s going wrong in our relationship or eyeing our neighbor’s grass comparing and contrasting it with our own, what if, instead, we focused on nurturing what we have?
Positive psychology can help us do that by focusing our attention on our strengths and those of our partner. Researchers have identified 24 character strengths that have existed across time and cultures. Are you creative? A natural born leader? Is social intelligence something you’re particularly good at? Or perhaps you’re especially kind? We all have a range of various strengths in a particular configuration. It’s what makes us unique.
Exercising your strengths and those of your partner’s
Once you’ve discovered your top five strengths, commonly referred to as “signature strengths,” you’re ready to put them to action in your daily life. One way to apply them in your romantic relationship is by going on regular “strengths dates.” A strengths date entails picking one of your top strengths (e.g., zest) and one of your partner’s (e.g., love of learning) and planning an outing where you both have an opportunity to exercise that strength.
For example, we planned an afternoon date where we rented Segways to tour the historical part of our city together. By the end of the date Suzie’s sense of adventure was fulfilled and James’s intellectual thirst was quenched!
Remember to take turns planning the dates—or plan them together. The main point of the activity is to have fun together, authentically connecting, not competing with one another.
We tasked Larry and Shawn King to go on a strengths date during their upcoming vacation. Stay tuned in an upcoming post for an update on how it went and what they learned about each other!
In the meantime, remember to shift your perspective to what is going right in your relationship. By finding and feeding the good in your partner and your relationship, the grass will be greener on your side of the fence.