Overcome Stress in Relationships

    What is the secret to happiness? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but if I had to bet based on my understanding of the latest psychological science and the wisdom of the ages, I’d say the secret has something to do with cultivating healthy relationships with others. To connect with others in positive ways that contribute to both your well-being and the well-being of the other is a win-win in which each side of the relationship benefits and supports the other. Researchers have repeatedly found that social relationships play an essential, necessary role in happiness (Caunt et al. 2013; Diener and Oishi 2005). Moreover, not only do good relationships lead to greater happiness, but happiness leads to better relationships (Diener and Seligman 2004). It’s a two-way street. This sounds simple and straightforward, but we are quick to take relationships for granted. The reality is, they are often the source of both our greatest joys and our greatest struggles. Consider these snapshots of stories of a few people: • Jacob is married to a very supportive and loving woman, which is the source of his greatest gratitude in life. At the same time, his boss is the source of his greatest suffering; he perceives her to be authoritarian, abrupt, and demeaning to him in their interactions. He thinks about this day and night and spends most of the time he has with his wife not cherishing their relationship, but complaining about his boss. • Throughout Morgan’s life, she has been enriched by many close friendships. She has sustained them for decades and spends many weeks per year traveling with her friends and sharing her life with them. Now that she is moving into older age, some of her closest friends are dying. She has lost three in the past year. This has caused her substantial grief and has led to a large decline in her previously abundant social life. • Laurie is a single mother to a precocious six-year-old son named J.J. This is her closest and most cherished relationship, and her life revolves around him. Laurie finds that her deepest laughter, her highest excitement, and her brightest smiles come when she’s with him. J.J. brings out the best in her. She’d also be the first to admit that he brings out other parts of her that she doesn’t especially like, such as anger, embarrassment, and anxiety as she tries to parent her sometimes challenging, oppositional, and rambunctious son. You can view your close relationships like a wave. For much of the time, a wave is not very noticeable, hidden within the vast ocean. Eventually, the wave rises and falls, is predictable and unpredictable, can become serene and turbulent, and can flow steadily and crash chaotically. Each of our most important relationships is like that wave. You can step back and observe the rise and fall of joy, of frustration, and of intensity during interactions, activities, and routines. You can savor and appreciate the steady flow and tranquility, and you can keep a mindful, bigger-picture perspective during the fluctuations and turbulence. Knowing this reality of our close relationships can give you the extra insight and comfort you need during stressful (yet always changing) moments. The focus of this chapter will be on your close relationships. This most clearly refers to your relationship partner, but you’ll find you can also apply this work to your children, other family members, close friends, and coworkers. A Model for Close Relationships and Character Strengths Several years ago, my colleague Donna Mayerson and I developed a conceptual model and an online course on character strengths and relationships for the VIA Institute on Character. In this model, we offer a full view on how to think about and use character strengths to develop and sustain close, positive relationships. There are five main elements of the model into which character strengths can be integrated, feeding and uplifting each component to form the foundation for strong and lasting relationships: 1. Knowing and being known to each other 2. Appreciating and accepting the other 3. Nurturing the other 4. Repairing and resolving conflicts 5. Growing together This model was created based on extensive experience counseling others, on previous and current research on relationships and character strengths, and on external expert opinion. Although the emphasis is placed on others (knowing them, nurturing them, and so on), this does not mean neglecting oneself, one’s own self-care or strengths. Caring for oneself along the entire journey of cultivating positive relationships is crucial. As discussed in chapter 4, much of this work is about “knowing thyself” and appreciating and accepting your own character strengths. The figure below shows the connections between character strengths and each of the five elements in this model. A Model for Positive Relationships and Character Strengths You’ll recall from chapter 2 one of my favorite phrases: “All 24 character strengths matter.” This is especially true when it comes to the importance of using all the strengths in our closest relationships. I have organized the 24 into four “S” categories to offer a new way of thinking about character strengths in relationships. Though any of the 24 can be argued to fit most of the categories, some seem to lend themselves, generally speaking, into one more than the others.
    Staples: For several character strengths, no explanation is needed—the importance of love, kindness, fairness, honesty, and forgiveness to close relationships is obvious. These traditionally “other-oriented” strengths within you are crucial to assisting you in “tending and befriending” others and expressing your “heart.” How can you create a good relationship without these central strengths? • Sustainers: Equally straightforward is the need for perseverance, perspective, selfregulation, and social intelligence in sustaining any long-term relationship. The energy embedded in zest and the positivity in hope make these strengths sustainers as well. And what about viewing your intimate relationship as a “team”? You and your partner can see yourselves as players on the same team—both on an equal level, jointly working together toward a common goal such as relationship happiness. The strength of teamwork can therefore also be a sustaining quality. • Supporting Cast: But the main ingredients aren’t the only ones that matter! Isn’t it also helpful to sometimes add the spice of creativity, the curiosity to pose open-ended questions, leadership to take charge of a new activity, humor to offer levity, and a healthy dose of gratitude? How about sticking up for yourself sometimes (with bravery), but not too often (thus using prudence)? • Surprises: Then there are less direct, less obvious ways to add an unexpected positive jolt to your relationship. What new pursuit might you and your partner engage in together to express your love of learning? In what ways can you describe your partner or their behaviors using your appreciation of beauty or excellence? How might you use your judgment/critical thinking in a debate with your partner to see things completely from their side? How can you talk to your partner about your spirituality as a way of expressing meaning and purpose in your life? Can you apply your humility to bring your attention and energy to your partner for an extended period of time? As you can see, all 24 strengths are important for building, repairing, and maintaining a healthy relationship. A study of married people ranging in age and years of marriage found that all 24 strengths, as well as groupings of those strengths (strengths of the heart, strengths of the mind, intrapersonal and interpersonal strengths), were positively related to marital satisfaction (Guo, Wang, and Liu 2015). Other research reveals a number of benefits reflected in this model. For example, naming and deploying character strengths in one’s partner is associated with greater relationship satisfaction (Lavy, Littman-Ovadia, and Bareli 2014), and strengths have been shown to be a central process among same-sex couples (Rostosky and Riggle 2017). In another study, researchers examined hundreds of couples and found that some of the best ways to improve a relationship were to engage in other-focused behavior, to display generosity and kindness to improve and deepen a mutual awareness of each other, and to direct one’s own strengths and virtues toward the relationship partner (Veldorale-Brogan, Bradford, and Vail 2010). Knowing and Being Known In Zulu, the most common home language in South Africa, the single word sawubona (pronounced sow-bone-ah) is a greeting that means “I see you.” When an indigenous person in South Africa meets another, they look closely in each other’s eyes for ten or fifteen seconds and utter this word. It means more than “hi” or “hello”; it goes much deeper to something akin to “I see who you are, your core qualities, I see your humanity. I respect you.” This is precisely what relational character strengths-spotting and sharing is all about. It’s about truly recognizing the other person. It’s about telling them that you “see” them. Ngikhona (pronounced gee-ko-nah) is the typical response to sawubona in Zulu, meaning “I am here.” The speaker is acknowledging the feeling of being recognized and understood. These two words capture the first element of the positive relationships model—knowing the other person’s character strengths and being known by your strengths. Imagine this: you turn to your loved one, look them in the eyes, and say, “I see you.” After a few seconds, they respond with, “I am here.” At first, there might be some anxiety or awkwardness, but what else would you feel? What would that be like? What if, by this, you were mutually implying that you see each other’s best qualities? Research shows the importance of this. Studies of couples who feel understood during times of conflict experience stronger relationships because this perceived understanding signals that the partners are invested in each other (Gordon and Chen 2016). It might be that feeling understood and known by each other’s character strengths helps to manage stress and conflicts by dampening the negative energy or tense emotions. Strengths act like glue in our relationships, connecting us in countless ways. In numerous workshops I’ve conducted over the years, I’ve had couples pair up and rekindle the process of being seen in a very simple way. I invite them to interview each other. I ask them to interview each other about their strengths and how they use them and to share stories about when they felt they were at their best. It is not uncommon for me to hear—both from couples who have been together for decades and from longtime colleagues or close friends—“Wow, after all these years, I didn’t know that about you” or “I’ve always wondered about that quirk you have, and now I see it’s based in strength!” The positivity and engagement are palpable. To focus on strengths is to offer a freshness to the relationship. It brings new insight so that each person can begin to “see” the other and to “know” them from a different perspective.
    Wadifa Club
    writer and blogger, founder of Dog food planet .

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