How To Strengthen Your Relationship With Positive Psychology

Two psychologists and authors tell you how it's done

Updated 01/10/18
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If there’s one thing every married couple will tell you, it’s that marriage is work. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun and exciting, but life is full of ups and downs, and maintaining your relationship requires effort to get through those trying times. So how can you and your partner make sure the marriage you’re starting is going to be a happy one? While there’s no single secret to what makes a marriage happy and successful, there are a few practices you can employ that will help get you there, both little and big things that you can incorporate into your everyday lives to improve your relationship and keep the two of you on the right path—and they come from a pair of psychologists.

Psychology is most often associated with negatives (think mental illness or other dysfunction), but that’s not its only application. Positive psychology instead focuses on happiness, figuring out how people can become happier and more fulfilled. Psychologists and authors Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski are experts in positive psychology, and have applied that science to love and marriage. Unlike the instant “happily ever after” you read about in fairy tales, this married couple knows that happiness doesn’t just happen—it requires hard work and healthy habits. Their book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, delves into the principles they’ve put into practice, combining their real-life experience with scientific research to help you and your partner succeed. We asked them to give us an introduction to what they discovered—you’re going to want to take notes on this one!

What do couples need to know about building a healthy, happy relationship with one another?

Couples should realize that "happily ever after" doesn't just happen. Instead, it's healthy habits that build healthy relationships over the long haul. In our book Happy Together, we invite our readers to join us at "the relationship gym" to practice a variety of relationship exercises. We think this metaphor clearly illustrates the importance of regular relationship workouts. You don't go to the gym once and expect to have better health. You have to go regularly throughout your lifetime. So, too, is it with cultivating better relationships. Becoming happy together takes committed effort and is a lifelong process. The good news is that with time and practice, it gets easier because you’re building your relational “muscles,” which get stronger and more flexible over time. By recognizing the importance of effort and habits couples can learn new and better ways to relate to one another rather than falling into old unhelpful patterns and routines. As a result, couples will build stronger and more satisfying relationships and experience enhanced well-being, and greater physical health as well.

How can couples alter the way they relate to one another to strengthen their bond?

Focus on finding and feeding the good in your relationship. In other words, focus on what’s going right with the relationship rather than what’s going wrong. Research shows that couples who work on growing the good in their relationships tend to have stronger and more satisfying unions than those who predominantly focus on fixing problems.

By choosing to highlight what you and your partner like about each other, rather than dwelling on small annoyances or weaknesses, you can help build long-term love. One way to focus on the good is to identify your unique strengths and those of your partner. Positive Psychology researchers looked across time and cultures to identify 24 strengths that are common to people and that we all have to varying degrees—things like creativity, curiosity, love of learning, and leadership. We each have a unique profile of strengths. You and your partner can discover your top five character strengths (your “signature strengths”) using the free VIA survey on www.buildhappytogether.com.

What are some practices or exercises that you recommend all couples employ?

Once you’ve taken the VIA Survey to find out your signature strengths, you’re now ready to put them to practice! Two great exercises we recommend all couples employ are having regular "strengths conversations” and going on weekly "strengths dates."

Strengths Conversations:

These are ongoing conversations we recommend all couples have to connect with one another on a deeper level and help understand what makes each partner tick. Having a language of strengths to express yourself and see the unique qualities of your partner is crucial: It helps you realize, for example, that rather than there being a right or a wrong way to go about things, there are many different ways of living and being in the world. For example, your top strengths of creativity and zest may naturally cause you to approach an opportunity very differently than your partner who leads with, say, his or her strengths of analytical thinking and self-regulation. You may leap at an opportunity while your partner may closely review the pros and cons before proceeding. Your initial reaction may be to feel that your partner is being persnickety and trying to annoy you. However, by reminding yourself to see your partner through a lens of strengths, you come to understand that it’s not the case and that, in fact, your partner is leading with his or her strengths just as you are. It is important to have regular strengths conversations: Our relationships, like our bodies, continue to evolve and change over time. Like regular workouts in the gym to help keep our bodies fit, we recommend regular strengths conversations throughout our relationship to keep our marriages healthy and thriving and to be aware of how your strengths are growing and evolving.

Strengths Dates:

A strengths date entails selecting one top strength from each partner and arranging a date where you both have an opportunity to exercise that strength. For example, if you have a strength of zest and your partner has a strength of love of learning, perhaps you rent Segways or scooters and do a historical tour of your city or town. After the date, your sense of adventure will be sated and your partner’s intellectual curiosity will be fulfilled as well. Remember to take turns planning the dates!

If a couple is struggling or experiencing a rough patch, how do you recommend they employ positive psychology to help them through it (and possibly avoid some of those rough patches in the future)?

First, it’s important to realize that all couples encounter challenges at some point in their relationship. It’s normal. However, it’s not necessarily the challenge but how you handle the challenge that determines whether your love will last. Challenges can be a good learning opportunity to get to know your partner better and strengthen your relationship if you are open and curious about each other’s viewpoints, rather than being close-minded and defensive. Many couples get into the habit of thinking they know everything they need to about their partner, and don’t take the time to ask questions like they did at the beginning of the relationship. It’s important to always remain curious about your partner and show a desire to really understand one another as your relationship grows and evolves. That’s why it’s so important to have ongoing strengths conversations, as previously mentioned.

In our fast-paced culture, we often fall into autopilot and end up not noticing and appreciating our partner and the daily joyful moments in life. It’s key to look for and savor the small, daily moments, rather than waiting around for the momentous occasions if we want to have a successful and satisfying relationship or marriage. Slow down and take the time to savor good things that have happened to your partner, rather than just letting an opportunity slip by. If your spouse returns home from work and shares some good news, rather than a simple polite smile and a canned response like "that's nice, honey,” take the time to stop, actively listen, and ask questions. Show your enthusiasm and genuine interest by giving your partner your full attention. Positive psychology research shows that simple habits like regularly savoring and responding well to our partner, practiced over and over, really add up and over time lead to increased relationship satisfaction for both partners.

Additionally, many of us have heard a lot about the importance of gratitude over the years. It seems to be a popular buzzword. What you may not have heard, however, is that for flourishing relationships, it’s not enough to just feel grateful towards our partner. You need to express it. And you need to express it well by focusing on the other person rather than on yourself. For example, if you’ve received a gift from your partner, focus on his or her strengths and actions that led to the gift, rather than the benefit to you. If your partner bought you a gift certificate for a massage, you may naturally respond by saying how much you can’t wait to visit your favorite spa to unwind. Instead, try something like: “Thank you so much for noticing what I really needed right now. The sensitivity, kindness, and thoughtfulness that you demonstrate every day toward me and others is what makes you such a special person.” Research shows that expressing gratitude to our partner in an “other-focused” way helps your partner feel really cared for and appreciated, and is associated with increased well-being for both partners and greater relationship satisfaction.

Finally, it’s normal to experience peaks and valleys in your relationship. The key is to try not to focus on being happy all the time. In fact, positive psychology research shows that forcing ourselves to be happy often backfires and makes us feel worse. Instead of obsessing about happiness, try to seek positivity by making daily choices and arranging your day around activities that will help cultivate a variety of positive emotions like joy, curiosity, and kindness. Research shows that those who “prioritize positivity,” or make decisions about how to structure their day to cultivate positivity, tend to be happier than those who fixate on happiness. Look back to the beginning of your relationship or a time when things were going well. What are some of the things you did together that brought you joy and fulfillment? How might you reintroduce those activities, experiences, and feelings into your relationship now? And how might you introduce new and novel experiences to reignite the sparks? Research shows that couples who engage in mutually enjoyable activities together are happier and experience more satisfying relationships.

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