How Character Strengths Help (and Harm) Romance

Character strengths, everyone knows, are important. But what may be even more important is how your partner thinks about those strengths.

The source code of human potential is available whenever we observe someone using their strengths. In his 1992 book, Soar With Your Strengths, Donald Clifton proposed a radical idea: each person's greatest room for growth is not in ameliorating weaknesses but in using strengths. Even today, this premise seems outlandish.

Scientific research on strengths did not catch up until 2004 when Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman published an edited volume detailing a taxonomy of 24 character strengths. A book cited over 5000 times, spawning an industry of researchers trying to understand the causes and consequences of strengths and practitioners training people to assess, spot, use, and build strengths of character. With this backdrop, it is worth conducting a brief audit. Much of what is taught about character strengths is assumed (perhaps hoped for) rather than known.

A Not-So-Hidden Secret About Strength Research

You will be hard pressed to find a positive psychology course or coach that does not specialize in strengths. And yet nearly every scientific study on strengths has been narrowly limited to a single question: What are the effects of a person having or endorsing strengths? Nearly every scientific study on strengths assumes that they are unmitigated positive goods—more is better. But this is not a fact, it is an empirical question that deserves to be tested.

Why has this notion of boundary conditions for strength use evaded scientific scrutiny? A few renegade scientists have shown that in specific situations a strength can become a weakness. Following the loss of a job, people with greater conscientiousness experience a larger decline in life satisfaction. When in a romantic relationship with a physically abusive partner, tendencies to express forgiveness predict a greater likelihood that the partner will hurt you once again. Despite the presence of a handful of studies on the contexts when strengths are weaknesses or overused, I am unaware of any published studies that directly examined the recognition of the costs or downsides of another person’s strengths. A manager noticing that a subordinate is too kind and unable to say no to the petty requests by co-workers at the expense of completing the deep investigative work their job requires. A parent recognizing that their kid is incredibly humorous and zestful but unable to calibrate it to the energy of their companions. A friend wary of their companion's incessant gossip and inattentiveness during conversations, as their curiosity wanders toward what other people nearby are saying, wearing, or doing. Where is the science on the question of whether, when, and how a person's strength use can be problematic?

But let me expose an even greater gap between what is assumed about strengths and what has actually been explored. To date, there are no published studies on how someone directly feels and thinks about the presence and use of personality strengths by another person in their social network. We simply know next to nothing about how character/personality strengths operate in relationships.

If personality strengths are a major contributor to human excellence, then “to fail to consider interpersonal factors, arguably the focal feature of the context from the individual’s perspective, is to underestimate, perhaps substantially, situational influences on behavior.” 

If you want to know why these gaps matter, conduct a Google search for "strengths coaching." You will get over 40 million hits. Thousands of strength practitioners are in the field working to improve relationships, teams, and organizations. The imbalance between practice and science in this area is terrifying.

To begin addressing this gap, my colleagues and I conducted three studies to explore the importance of people’s perceptions of the benefits and costs of a romantic partner’s strengths.

New Discoveries on the Interpersonal Consequences of Strengths

We found evidence for a wide range of psychological and relational gains when someone shows appreciation for a romantic partner’s personality strengths. We also found that recognizing that a partner's strength use is costly was linked to a wide range of psychological and relational problems; a construct that has never been subject to empirical investigation until now. 

But let's get specific.

Our results offer a comprehensive picture of the person who appreciates their partner’s strengths—endorsing greater relationship satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, and investment, viewing their relationship as a powerful source of personal growth, feeling supported in pursuing their dreams and aspirations, and relishing a killer sex life! When we dissect a week of their life, we found that people who are appreciative of partner strengths also report that their basic psychological needs for belonging and autonomy are fulfilled in day-to-day interactions with their partner. Not bad. Not bad at all.

And what are the consequences of recognizing that a partner’s strengths have costs in terms of the energy drain following their use, the conflicts that flare up, and the emotional and attentional demands? When someone believes that their romantic partner's strengths are costly, they endorse less relationship satisfaction, intimacy, support for their goal pursuits, and satisfaction of their needs for belonging, autonomy, and competence. These findings speak to the wide-ranging detriments of viewing the downsides of strengths. 

A nice start but what would be really interesting is finding that perceptions about strengths influence the quality of life of the person being perceived. And this is exactly what we found: If someone endorsed greater appreciation of their partner’s strengths, their partner, in turn, felt greater intimacy, supported in pursuing their dreams and aspirations, a strong sense of self-expansion from being in the relationship, and a higher frequency of positive romantic relationship behaviors and lower frequency of negative romantic relationship behaviors. Moreover, the expectation that partner strengths are costly appears to lead to exactly that—psychological costs in terms of deficient relationship and personal well-being. Taken together, the downstream consequences of perceiving strength costs and benefits are not simply "in the eye of the beholder".

You might be surprised to know that perceptions held about a romantic partner's strengths mattered more to predicting relationship quality and well-being than the partner's actual strengths, the partner's Big Five personality traits, and even other positive relationship qualities such as  being interested and supportive following a partner's sharing of a positive event that occurred (otherwise known as capitalization support—being there for someone when things go right). So this is a story about a neglected feature of strengths in social relationships that goes above and beyond the limited attention to what strengths a person has.

With 25 years of research on psychological/character/personality strengths, it is time to move beyond the mere exploration of whether endorsement matters. We need to approximate the complexity of the real world.

Some strengths have costs.

Other people possess opinions about our strengths and their use.

Strengths are intrapersonal but also interpersonal—if they are as potent as suggested by theorists and practitioners, they should alter the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of other people.

This program of research suggests that it is time to seriously consider the dynamic influence of one person's strengths and their use on their environment—the most salient of environments being other people.

Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment.

This article was originally published by Psychology Today and is reprinted by permission.

Todd Kashdan, PhD, is a world-recognized authority on well-being, strengths, social relationships, stress, and anxiety.

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