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Coupling Through Strengths

I recently was listening to the podcast Hidden Brain. The host, Shankar Vedantam, was interviewing Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, about the shifts in marriage over the years, and what marriage looks like today.

Finkel talks about the change in expectations going into a marriage. What once may have been a partnership based on tending the farm, or raising children to support you, developed into partnerships of love, and then became an all-encompassing unit expected to support each individual in their own self-actualization. It's a lot of pressure and those expectations, when unmet, can lead to disappointment, resentment and, ultimately divorce. One of Finkel's take-aways was the idea that we don't necessarily need to lower our expectations, but we need to really understand what it is that we expect from our partners and be able to identify when we need to broaden our circle to be able to meet those expectations outside of our romantic relationship, where possible.

Listening to this podcast, I was excited by the science behind the findings, because they match up with what I've found in my own work, coaching clients through the CliftonStrengths Assessment. This assessment uses a quick questionnaire to uncover 34 strengths which motivate, guide and affect our behavior. The strengths come up in a different order in each of us and, based on which strengths show up most for us, can be a core piece of understanding both the contributions we make and the expectations that we put on the people in our lives. When working one-on-one with clients using the strengths model, I found that we often moved from discussing workplace expectations to exploring the expectations we put on romantic relationships. I quickly realized how valuable coaching through strengths could be for relationships.

We have a tendency to believe that others see the world the way that we see the world. For example, my top strengths lie in the relationship and executing domains. My motivations come through my connection to others, and my behavior tends to be very action-oriented. I expect to have close, meaningful interactions on a daily basis, and I expect to find fulfillment through doing things, completing tasks, and creating substance. My husband's top strengths fall mostly in the strategic domain. His motivations come through being able to visualize and break down the world around him, exploring how multiple pathways can be narrowed down to one best route. His fulfillment comes through analysis of big questions, and an ability to think through the best options for our family and our lives.

Our different ways of navigating the world

can be complementary,

but they can also be

extremely frustrating to each other.

In 2011 my husband and I were shopping for cars, in anticipation of the birth of our first daughter. We both wanted something safe, affordable, comfortable and roomy enough for our growing family. A few options came to our minds and I was excited to bring home a new car, and start using it to haul baby items and practice car seat installation. I wanted to go to the dealer, grab the color I wanted, and drive it home. My top strength is activator, and activators thrive on turning thoughts into action. For my husband, the short list of possible cars was only the first step in a much longer process of research, analysis, and finding the best price. His top strength is strategic, and strategic thrives on seeing all possibilities and narrowing them down to one. My impatience with the process was as frustrating to him as his lengthly process of decision making was to me. My thought was, why can't he just move forward, so we can move on to the next thing? His thought was, how can she be satisfied with the first thing that comes along, when we can do better?

The way that my husband and I view the world is very different. We share the same political views, the same values, and the same overall life vision. However, the way that we understand and make meaning of the world around us comes from viewing the world through very different lenses.

Once we introduced

the language of strengths into our marriage,

we were able to express our perspectives

and understand the areas where we clashed

in a much more effective way.

The strengths model has also allowed us to understand where we can be most effective in meeting each other's expectations, and where we need to find fulfillment elsewhere. My need to connect with many people on a daily basis can be overwhelming to his need for introspection. What once frustrated me, has now become an opportunity for me to connect with friends, network, and be social outside of our relationship. I find fulfillment in these connections, while he's getting time to recharge.

In coaching, I've had the opportunity to work with couples and the strengths model has been a real gift to them. Not only are they able to see clearly how their expectations, needs and contributions to the marriage may differ, but they are able to view their partner in a new light, seeing them for the strengths that they bring and understanding how they complement each other. Strengths can be a great catalyst for opening up conversations that had not yet been explored. I recently worked with a couple who was trying to collaborate to map out and visualize some areas of their future together. I asked them how the other might approach a problem that came up, and, using the understanding of their partner's strengths, they were able to understand their motivations and perspective in a way they had never considered and it allowed them to come to a place of compromise and agreement much quicker.

Strengths allow us to see ourselves and our partners with new eyes. For me, it's allowed me to see my husband in a more nuanced way, understanding his motivations and knowing when best to turn to him for fulfillment, and when to look elsewhere. It's taken a lot of the pressure off of blindly trying to be everything to each other. Most of all, seeing my husband through the lens of all the strengths he brings to our lives, has made me fall in love with him all over again. And that is the most fulfilling discovery of all.

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