By Kira M. Newman
Our beliefs about our romantic partners matter ― whether or not they are true to reality. Research has found that we’re more satisfied with our partners when we idealize them, and they will often work to meet that ideal.
A new study extends these findings by focusing on how we see our partner’s strengths. Personality strengths are part of people’s identity ― and we often look out for these traits during the dating process: I want to meet a guy who’s funny, honest, and kind.
This research is some of the only work to explore how we perceive our long-term romantic partner’s strengths. It found that the more positive these perceptions, the more we feel satisfied, supported, and challenged by our partners ― and the more they do, too.
Does seeing strengths make couples stronger?
The researchers asked a total of 159 heterosexual couples ― one group of university students, and one group of adults ― to identify their partner’s top three strengths and how much they appreciated each one and recognized its drawbacks. For example, you might admire a creative partner’s fascinating ideas, but be less enthusiastic about their organizational skills. The participants also filled out questionnaires measuring their well-being in the relationship, ranging from their level of emotional intimacy to their sexual satisfaction.
Overall, the researchers found that participants with a greater appreciation for their partners’ strengths reported more satisfying relationships and sex lives. They were more likely to feel that their partners supported their goals and helped them grow as a person. There was also some evidence that participants who appreciated their partner’s strengths were more committed and invested in the relationship, appreciated their own strengths more, experienced greater intimacy, and were more fulfilled in their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
While appreciating our partner’s strengths seems to coincide with a healthy and enriching relationship, the researchers also wanted to explore what happens when we recognize the downsides of those strengths ― like how our creative girlfriend can’t seem to keep the living room clean, or how our husband’s kind and giving nature leaves him drained.
Overall, the researchers found that participants who saw their partner’s strengths as more problematic felt less supported in pursuing their goals. Student participants who recognized drawbacks were less satisfied with their relationship and their partner’s behavior (e.g., how often their partner did things like show affection or express criticism), while adult participants experienced less intimacy, were less satisfied with their sex life, and had lower fulfillment of their psychological needs.
“Greater appreciation of partner strengths is an asset,” write George Mason University professor Todd Kashdan and his colleagues. “Too much recognition of costs associated with partner strengths is a problem in close relationships.”
How you see your partner helps shape them
So far, you may not find the results surprising: How we view our partners may be related to our own well-being. But could the beliefs in our own heads affect our partners, as well? That’s exactly what the researchers found.
When one partner saw more value or fewer drawbacks to the other’s strengths, the other partner had higher well-being in the relationship, including a greater sense of personal growth.
“Beliefs about each other define the shared reality of a relationship,” the authors write. Partners calibrate their behavior based on what is valued and recognized and what isn’t, Kashdan says. “Two people in a romantic relationship create scripts of how to behave, how not to behave, and what is ideal.”
Most of the findings from this study held up even after accounting for other factors that might explain them—like how grateful participants felt toward their partners, how positively partners responded to good news, and even how partners rated their own strengths. In other words, appreciating our partners’ strengths really seems to make a unique difference. (Men’s beliefs seemed to have a greater impact on women’s well-being than the other way around, though the researchers couldn’t say why.)
And there’s reason to believe that appreciation drives healthy relationships, rather than vice versa—a possibility that this correlational study can’t rule out. Seeing the good in our partners could give us hope for the future, by building confidence that we can handle stress, adversity, and life transitions together. For example, “a partner who is extremely fair, ensuring that everyone is treated equally at a family gathering, might be viewed as an ideal future parent, increasing the perceiver’s optimism about the future of the relationship.”
Admiring strengths may be one way that partners bring out the best in each other and grow together, the researchers write. “When somebody is aware and appreciative of another person’s strengths, communicates this, and provides opportunities for strengths to be used, this is when potential becomes realized.”