Your Own Therapist: Improve Your Romantic Relationship Through Positive Psychology

Photo credit: Deborah Lynne

Positive psychology has become quite popular in the past decade and its methods and interventions have been largely studied by scientists, researchers, and mental health practitioners (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). It is a scientific approach to counseling that focuses on people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses (Peterson, 2008). Positive psychology has its roots in humanistic psychology and is largely influenced by the ideas of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Jahoda, Frankl, and Erich Fromm who believed that humans are “active, creative beings concerned with growth and self-actualization” (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Positive psychology studies positive emotions and positive personality traits and aims at supplementing other psychological perspectives that focus on psychopathology, in an attempt to form a more balanced scientific view of the human experience (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). Positive psychotherapy (PPT) is not considered to be a new type of psychotherapy, but a “therapeutic reorientation to a build-what’s-strong model that supplements the traditional fix-what’s-wrong approach” (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005).

Frustrated with the narrow focus of psychotherapy and the amount of attention paid to trauma, pain, suffering, and mental illness, the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, started reviving the ideas of humanistic psychology by bringing forward the idea of flourishing, well-being, and happiness. Like most humanistic psychologists, Rashid & Seligman (2014) argue that childhood experiences are “relatively insignificant” and while major childhood trauma (e.g. sexual abuse) might have some negative impact on one’s personality, “these experiences don’t necessarily condemn their victim to a life of unhappiness”. PPT is based on three major assumptions:

  1. The first assumption is that psychopathology and happiness both occur as a result of the interaction between the individual and their environment. If one gets negatively affected by that interaction, a therapist trained in PPT could help them restore their growth tendencies.
  2. The second assumption is that strengths and positive emotions are as authentic and real as symptoms and disorders. If a counselor works with a client on restoring and nurturing their strengths and positive traits, the client’s life becomes more fulfilling, however, if the therapist mainly focuses on the alleviation of symptoms, the client’s life becomes less miserable but not fulfilling.
  3. The third and final assumption is that “effective therapeutic relationships can be built on exploration and analysis of positive personal characteristics and experiences e.g., positive emotions, strengths, and virtues” (Rashid & Seligman, 2014). This is quite the opposite of most traditional approaches where the client is analyzed by the therapist and attributed a certain disorder or dysfunction. In order for the client to get better, they have to work with the therapist and explore difficult feelings, traumatic experiences, and their own flaws.

Research shows that the main benefits of PPT and positive psychology interventions (PPI) are the cultivation of positive emotions, behaviors, and cognitions, and enhanced well-being. Results from a meta-analysis of 51 PPI with 4,266 individuals showed that PPI significantly enhanced well-being and decreased depressive symptoms in participants (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). Another study reveals that certain PPIs could have long-term benefits and could contribute to long-lasting happiness (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005).

With global divorce rates continuing to rise and more and more people reporting acute emotional distress due to separation and other marital strains (Swindle et al. 2000), the need for effective psychological interventions that foster positive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors is stronger than ever. Research shows that individuals with marital and relationship problems are overrepresented among those seeking mental health services (Snyder & Halford, 2012). According to Kauffman & Silberman (2009), the expansion of research on positive psychology interventions (PPI) has given rise to a growing body of literature that might be applicable to couples psychotherapy. They propose a three-step PPT model for applying specific PPI to couples therapy, which consists of balancing the focus, enhancing positive emotions, and building on strengths. Kauffman & Silberman (2009) suggest that “PP methods are a supplement — but by no means a replacement — to essential pathology-focused intervention”. The authors argue that there is a misconception about positive psychology since many people think it focuses too much on the positive and therefore lacks balance. However, positive psychologists believe that the role of the therapist is to help clients process not only the positive but also the negative experiences. The difference is that instead of focusing on the problem and fixing it, positive psychologists focus on the ability of the individual to overcome difficulties and to bring out the best in themselves in order to live a happier and more fulfilling life (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009).

Many people who are married or involved in long-term relationships tend to focus on the negative aspects of their partners once the romantic spell is gone. They start seeing the other person as a project for improvement and openly encourage them to change in a way they believe would be beneficial for them and the relationship. Often, couples would engage in a comparison game where each individual thinks that what they do is right, and what their partner does is wrong. This tendency is quite common and creates a lot of tension and negative emotions in both parties. As time passes, the hurt and disappointment start causing relationship turmoils that lead to the couple growing apart. Research shows that in a marriage, a 0.8:1 or lower ratio of positive to negative comments predicts divorce, while a ratio of 5:1 predicts relationship stability (Gottman, 2004). According to Kauffman & Silberman (2009) achieving healthier ratios of positive and negative comments could lead to long-term benefits. A recent meta-analysis of over 200 studies reveals that “frequent positive affect precedes — and is likely to promote — outcomes including greater sociability, more and better friendships, improved skill in conflict resolution, and enhanced marital satisfaction” (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).

The three-step organizational framework for applying PPI to couples therapy proposed by Kauffman & Silberman (2009) suggests using different PPIs for each step. For balancing the focus they recommend the “gratitude visit”, the “introductory forgiveness”, and the “letting go of grudges” exercises. For enhancing positive emotions they offer the “three good things”, “the best possible future self”, and the “savoring life’s pleasures” exercises. A very helpful tool for building on strengths is the “fanning the embers of fondness” exercise.

The “gratitude visit” is one of the most researched interventions in PPТ. According to Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson (2005), it is a simple exercise that enhances well-being and decreases depression. The way it could be applied to couples therapy is by having each partner think of something they are grateful for that the other person did for them in the past and write a letter, explaining how that made their life better. A modification of this exercise could be a post-it note on the partner’s pillow with a short gratitude message e.g. “Thank you for doing the dishes last night!”.

The “introductory forgiveness” is a great tool for encouraging forgiveness in couples, which according to Lyubomirsky (2008) is crucial for the stability of a long-term relationship. In this exercise, partners revisit forgiveness situations in which the roles were reversed e.g the one giving forgiveness played the role of the one asking forgiveness. According to Kauffman & Silberman (2009), “revisiting such experiences may help people empathize with the shame and turmoil of being a transgressor, and open people to the possibility of forgiveness”.

The “letting go of grudges” is another helpful exercise for cultivating an ability to forgive one’s significant other. Each partner thinks of a grudge they hold against the other one and writes it down on a blank sheet of paper. They then draw 15 additional circles around the grudge and write a word or a phrase in each one of them that says something positive about their partner that they appreciate. The idea here is not to ignore the negative sides of the relationship, or the partners’ personalities but to simply expand and shift the focus to the more positive aspects (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009). The same applies to the way people react to positive news shared by their partners. Gabe et al. (2006) argue that the manner in which people respond to positive news in relationships is a “better predictor of relationship well-being and break-up than partners’ responses to negative events”. When one describes something positive that happened to them to their partner, the other could respond in a few different ways, which Kauffman & Silberman, (2009) describe as active-constructive, active-destructive, passive-constructive, and passive-destructive. Here are a few examples of each response:

  1. Active-constructive:

Partner 1: “ I bought new shoes today!”

Partner 2: That’s great. Can I see them?

2. Active-destructive:

Partner 1: “ I bought new shoes today!”

Partner 2: “Another pair? I thought you had enough shoes?”

3. Passive-constructive:

Partner 1: “ I bought new shoes today!”

Partner 2: “Good for you.” (stated without eye contact or enthusiasm)

4. Passive-destructive:

Partner 1: “ I bought new shoes today!”

Partner 2: “More money in the garbage” (stated without eye contact or enthusiasm)

Research shows that in relationships where an active-constructive manner of response to positive news is present, partners feel more satisfied with their relationship since they feel more validated, cared for, and understood (Gable et al., 2006).

The “three good things” exercise is a well-studied PPI for enhancing positive emotion in people. Before they go to bed every night, partners are encouraged to write down or say three things that went well during the day and involved their significant other. A good practice for each individual is to also answer the question “What did I do to help this good thing happen?” in order to appreciate their own role in positive events. Since there is a tendency for people to focus on their partner’s negative contribution to the relationship dynamic, this is a great opportunity for bringing equal attention to the positive side of one’s input (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009).

The “best possible future self” technique is also used to enhance positive emotions. Couples are asked to describe their relationship five years from the present moment by assuming things have gone the best possible way. In addition to fostering positive expectations, partners could also get a better idea of what their relationship goals are and what each person’s responsibility is to bring that positive future to fruition (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009).

The “savoring life’s pleasures” exercise is another path to positive emotion enhancement. Couples are encouraged to spend at least 30 minutes every week and mindfully engage in pleasurable activities. The idea is to take things slowly and focus on the present moment (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009).

The “fanning the embers of fondness” is a strengths-based exercise where each partner is invited to name the three main strengths of their partner, which could also be their best qualities. Couples then write down descriptions of situations in which they have seen their partners’ strengths and trade what they have written down with their significant other. This approach is believed to help each individual feel validated by their partner recognition and also serve as a motivation for exhibiting these strengths more often (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009). Research shows that “the tendency to see strengths in a partner is one of the most powerful predictors of relationship longevity” and “those who are highly aware of positive qualities in their partners — even qualities that others fail to notice — are far more likely to be happy in their relationships and far less likely to break up or divorce” (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009). Applying one’s strengths in a new way in the context of the relationship could help couples improve their connection and bring about positive change (Kauffman & Silberman, 2009).

While PPIs are not meant to replace other psychopathology-focused interventions that are based on years of research, they could serve as a supplement to balance the heavily oriented towards ‘what is wrong with people’ focus of psychotherapy. Applying the findings of positive psychology could help couples foster positive emotion and focus on their partner’s strengths in order to live a happier and more fulfilling life with less conflict.

References:

Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive Psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1(1), 629–651. DOI:10.1146/annurev. Clinpsy.1.102803.144154.

Gable, S.L., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904–917

Gottman, J.M. (2004). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803–855.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness. A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.

Kauffman, C., & Silberman, J. (2009). Finding and fostering the positive in relationships: Positive interventions in couples therapy. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 520–531.

Peterson, C. (2008). What is positive psychology, and what is it not? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well‐being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice‐friendly meta‐analysis. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 467–487.

Schultz, D.P., Schultz, S.E. (2017). Theories of Personality (11th edition). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Rashid, T., & Seligman, M. (2014). Positive Psychology. In D. Wedding & R. J. Corsini (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (10th ed., pp. 461–498). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage.

Snyder, D. K., & Halford, W. K. (2012). Evidence‐based couple therapy: Current status and future directions. Journal of Family Therapy, 34(3), 229–249.

Swindle R, Heller K, Pescosolido B, Kikuzawa S. 2000. Responses to nervous breakdowns in America over a 40-year period: mental health policy implications.Am. Psychol. 55:740–49

Counselor, Mental Health Advocate, Psychology Nerd

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