Most marriage and relationship advice books focus on solving problems.
But my guests today argue that we shouldn’t wait until problems arise in our relationship to work on strengthening it. Instead, they say, when times are good, we should think about how to keep that good, and act to make it even better.
Their names are James Pawelski and Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, and they’re husband and wife. James has a background in philosophy, and they both have backgrounds in psychology. They combined insights from both fields to write the book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. We begin our conversation discussing how most relationship advice falls short, the biggest myths people have about relationships, and the contrast between Plato’s and Aristotle’s approach to relationships. We then dig into the role emotions play in a relationship, particularly passion, and what we can do to continue to cultivate and experience positive emotions in a marriage even after being together for years. We then dig into how our character influences our relationships and how our relationships influence our character. James and Suzann share insights on how and why to focus on our strengths, help our partners develop their strengths, and even go on a “strengths date” together. We end our conversation talking about the power of appreciation in relationships.
- The relationship myths that pervade our culture
- What Plato & Aristotle had to say about relationships
- What does an Aristotelian relationship look like?
- What a couple of popular movies can teach us about health relationships
- Managing emotions and passion in a relationship
- On maintaining your own interests and hobbies
- The role of novelty in relationships
- The power of secrets
- Fostering positive emotions
- How your character impacts your relationship
- What is a “strengths date”?
- The immense importance of gratitude
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How Do You Know When She’s the One?
- Love Is Overrated
- Treating Your Relationship Like a Bank Account
- How to Fund Your Relationship Bank Account
- A Primer on Plato
- Nicomachean Ethics
- As Good As It Gets vs Jerry Maguire
- 75+ Hobbies for Men
- More Footage: Take the One-Month “Do Something New Every Day” Challenge
- The Power of Secrets in a Transparent World
- The Art of Anticipation
- A Proven System for Building and Breaking Habits
- The Real Virtue of Thankfulness
- The Discipline of Gratitude
- How and Why to Hold a Weekly Marriage Meeting
Connect With James and Suzann
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Now, most marriage and relationship advice books focus on solving problems, but my guests today argue that we shouldn’t wait until problems arise in a relationship to work on strengthening it. Instead, they say when times are good, we should think about how to keep that good, and act to make it even better. Their names are James Pawelski and Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, and they’re husband and wife. James has a background in philosophy, and they both have backgrounds in psychology. They combined insights from both fields to write the book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. We begin our conversation discussing how most relationship advice falls short, the biggest myths people have about relationships, and the contrast between Plato’s and Aristotle’s approach to relationships. We then dig into the role that emotions play in a relationship, particularly passion, and what we can do to continue to cultivate and experience positive emotions in a marriage, even after being together for years. We then dig into how our character influences our relationships, and how our relationships influence our character, and James and Suzann share insights on how and why to focus on our strengths, help our partners develop their strengths, and even go on a strength stay together. We end our conversation talking about the power of appreciation in a relationship.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM dot is slash happy together. James and Suzann, being joined now via Clearcast dot io.
All right, James Pawelski, Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, welcome to the show.
James Pawelski: Thanks, Brett, it’s great to be here.
Suzie Pawelski: Thank you, we’re excited to talk with you today.
Brett McKay: So you two are a married couple who have written a book about relationships, which can be a test of relationships. Like you had to put this stuff into practice. It’s called Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. So know there’s a lot of relationship books out there, how’s this one different from the other ones?
Suzie Pawelski: Well it focuses on what can go right in a relationship, instead of what could go wrong. And it’s based on the science of positive psychology, which studies what makes individuals and communities thrive. There’s so many books out there on relationships, but they tend to focus on fixing problems. We’re focusing what are those nuggets of goodness, and how can we nurture them to improve our relationships?
Brett McKay: Let’s do a contrast first. As you all have looked at the material out there on relationships, what are some of the biggest myths that you’ve encounter that people have when it comes to developing a positive, flourishing, relationship?
Suzie Pawelski: I feel that in our culture we focus so much more on the wedding, rather than the marriage. So much more on getting married or getting together, rather than being together, and how to stay happy together. There’s pressure on men and women, you know, to find that perfect person, which we don’t believe exists. And there’s so much attention on that, you know, through dating apps, and dating, and so forth, but once you get together, and eventually make a commitment or get married, we feel that then there’s no focus, really out there in culture, and what really happens in a marriage after the storybook endS? What if you really had part two, part three, you know, of a fairy tale? And really saw this couple, and their daily, you know, their days together? What is involved? And I feel like nobody talks about that. What are the best practices that can help couple be happier together? We just have this cultural myth of prince and princess Charming, and there’s one magical person that’s going to forever complete you, and we feel that that does a great disservice to relationships. Relationships actually take work, and it’s healthy habits that are important. Happily ever after doesn’t just happen magically.
James Pawelski: Yeah, I agree. I think there are two kind of closely connected myths here. One of them is the myth of the soulmate. Now, if by soulmate, you know, soulmate can mean a lot of different things, and if by soulmate you mean being deeply connected to somebody, we don’t have any problem at all with that word, obviously we would advocate that. But sometimes, the notion of soulmate takes on this kind of of mythical, magical, you know, I’m only half a person until I meet my soulmates, and this meeting is nothing I can really prepare for, it’s just kind of sometimes happens. And then, there I am. I’m in this relationship. So then the first part of the myth is kind of, you know, this is a fated, magical thing. And then the second part of the myth is when it happens, as Suzy said, it’s just happily ever after. You’re good to go, you’re fine, everything is going to work out really beautifully.
And again, we think that that’s problematic, in part because it takes away the emphasis on what we can do to help to prepare for that. So in other aspects of our lives, think about our professional lives, you don’t just imagine that suddenly out of the blue somebody is going to offer you a career without you having prepared for it. And we also don’t imagine that we’re going to be able to keep our jobs if we don’t work hard at learning new skills and continuing to develop ourselves in that regard.
So why do we think about relationships in that way? There’s a lot that we can do to prepare ourselves for finding a good partner, and then once we’ve found that good partner, there’s a lot that we can do and need to do to continue to develop the relationship.
Brett McKay: So this is where that intersection of psychology and philosophy happens, so that idea that there’s some person out there that completes you, that comes from Plato, talks about that in his dialogue Symposium, right? Where there’s like-
James Pawelski: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Right, there’s two halves?
James Pawelski: That’s right.
Suzie Pawelski: I’ll have the philosopher answer here. I can comment on it, but he has a big smile on his face, that your talking philosophy.
James Pawelski: Yeah, so that idea of, you know, that the other half, is a very funny story that Plato tells. It puts in the character of a playwright, and one of his dialogues, and the story goes that back in the day we were all round, actually, human beings had four arms and four legs, and if we were in a hurry, we’d kind of do cartwheels, and really go fast, to get where we needed to go. But, we were so full of ourselves that we rebelled against the gods. And so, Zeus realized he had to do something to stop this rebellion, and so he cut us in half. So each person now is a half a person, and so we now only have two arms and two legs, but then what happened was Zeus’ supposed solution kind of backfired on him, because people became so sad and lonely longing for their other half. And so we would do nothing but go around looking for our other half, and when we found our other half, we would embrace that person, and forget to eat, we wouldn’t offer sacrifices to Zeus, and it just didn’t work out very well.
So that’s part of that myth, that is obviously … and just in our culture, that there’s this other person, that all we have to do is to find that person, and then we’ll automatically live happily ever after. Zeus made some adjustments in his approach, and found a way to get us to be able to eat again, and to offer sacrifices to Zeus but bread. He threatened that if human beings became rebellious again, he would cut us in half again, and then we’d have to go hopping around on one foot, and with just one arm, so we do need to be humble, as we move forward in our lives.
Brett McKay: Right. So, let’s talk about another philosopher that you go to, that positive psychology looks to a lot, it’s a student of Plato, it’s Aristotle. And Aristotle had a different idea about relationships, and he wrote a lot about, not only friendship, but also marriage. So, what does an Aristotelian relationship marriage look like?
James Pawelski: Well so to answer that question, I think we probably ought to tell you about our honeymoon, if that’s okay with you, Brett. Is this the kind of program where we can talk about honeymoons?
Brett McKay: Sure, we can talk about … as long as you don’t bring out the slideshow, I think we’re good.
James Pawelski: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Or Instagram feed.
James Pawelski: Why don’t you start us off?
Suzie Pawelski: So, we were talking about … how far back in the honeymoon should I talk about? Just our conversation on the beach? So, we were sitting on the beach, talking about Aristotle, because I guess that’s what one talks about on one’s honeymoon, right? If you’re married to a philosopher it is.
James Pawelski: Sounds good to me.
Suzie Pawelski: So we were talking about Aristotle, and the Nicomachaen Ethics, which is, you know, one of the most important books on the good life. And we were discussing Aristotelian friendship, and Aristotle talks about how we love things that are good, we love things that are pleasurable, things that are useful, and things that are good. And he says there’s a friendship that corresponds to each level. So we were discussing this, and he says how friendships of pleasure, you know, it might be two people going out on the town, partying together, nothing wrong with that, just friends. There’s relationships of, friendships of usefulness. Maybe they’re two business partners investing money. And then finally, he says there’s friendships of goodness. And he says that’s the highest level of friendship. While there’s nothing wrong with the first two, we can imagine that if you know, there’s no more pleasure left in the friendship, friendship often falls apart. And likewise, if the business opportunity, maybe you lose money, you’re no longer interacting with that person, however, he says on friendships of goodness, unless one of the person’s character goes awry, they’re much more sustainable. Because you really see the goodness in one another.
So we’re sitting on the beach, talking about this, having those little, you know, drinks with umbrellas, and I said to James, “That’s really cool, what Aristotle says, but why does he limit this to friendship? What if we took it up a notch, and we really applied it to our marriage? And hopefully we’ll have some pleasure throughout our marriage, especially on our honeymoon, and definitely, you know, some usefulness, we both bring different skills to the relationship. But, what if we ultimately do our best to focus on one another’s character, and the individual strengths we have, and help each other to work on developing those strengths, so that with can become better individuals and better as a couple?” And he said, “I love that idea.”
So we see, you know, I can let the philosopher hop in if you want. So we talk about this notion of Aristocratically in love, where again, you’re not ignoring, hopefully you have some pleasure and usefulness, that’s important, but if that’s all you have in your marriage, that’s likely not sustainable. So we talk to couples about focusing on really the goodness, the strengths in your partner, and in yourself. And what can you do as individuals to develop those strengths, and help facilitate those strengths in your partner? And that’s where we look to positive psychology, to the robust research, in using science based findings on how to become Aristotelian lovers.
James Pawelski: Yeah, and a couple of points of clarification, as well. So, a lot of people come to relationships looking for what they can get out of them, but this is an approach where we go into relationships looking to what we can put into them, and supporting our partner in this regard. Now, if I came into the relationship with Suzy, and I said, “Now Suzy, I’m all for you becoming a better person, so I have a 13 point plan for you to become a better person, and I’m going to help you through that plan,” that probably would not work out so well. There’s a big difference between coming into the relationship with a plan for the other person, versus coming into the relationship with a plan to support, with a point of supporting that other person in their quest to become a better person.
That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about things, and I can provide feedback, I can ask Suzy for feedback, about how I can become a better person, but it’s not me who is the catalyst for her growth, it’s her, it’s she who is a catalyst for her growth, and it’s my role to help support that as best I can.
Brett McKay: You use an example from film, kind of highlighting this idea of Aristotelian relationships, so there’s the platonic idea of relationship, where there’s a soulmate out there, there’s Jerry Maguire, right? Where he says, “You complete me,” to Renee Zelwegger.
James Pawelski: That’s right.
Brett McKay: And then there’s the other movie As Good As It Gets, with Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson. And there’s that famous scene where Jack Nicholson’s like, “You make me want to be a better man,” awkwardly, because he’s this awkward guy.
It’s awkward, but he captures what you’re going for there, with an Aristotelian relationship.
Suzie Pawelski: Exactly. It’s one of my favorite movies, and we know from watching the movie, he’s not a perfect guy. As we said, we don’t believe in the notion of perfection. You know, he comes to her with all his flaws and so forth, but he sees the goodness in Helen Hunt’s character, and it’s that goodness he sees that really inspires him to want to become better. And we know from positive psychology research, things like inspiration, this is the work of Jonathan Haidt, when you’re inspired or in awe, there’s physiological changes going on in your body. So your heart actually expands, and you’re moved to action, when you witness virtue, you want to do something good in response. It’s contagious.
So in this film, when he says, “You make me want to be a better man,” she’s not making him be it, he’s inspired by her. So, it’s this self directed action. As James mentioned, you don’t come with a plan to change your partner, the research shows it’s interdependence that leads to fulfilling relationships. We don’t want to be completely independent, nor do we want to be dependent, which often, this sense of soulmates can lead to, but rather interdependent. So, it’s not focusing on your partner completing you, but rather complimenting you.
Brett McKay: And you know, I know we’ve been kind of dogging on Plato a bit, but you know, that idea, Plato in the Symposium talks about, that whole point of was that love towards a person can be what inspires you to the good, right? So its like a ladder that takes you. So you fall in love with a person, they inspire you, and that sort of somehow draws you to the good in its platonic form. And the same thing’s going on there. You see someone who inspires you, makes you want to be a better person, and helps you become a more virtuous person in the process.
James Pawelski: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The other thing that comes to my mind is like an elementary school teacher, right? You can be inspired by that person, or even sometimes develop a crush on your teacher, and that motivates you to want to learn. And so there is this kind of of a drawing, not a pushing, but kind of a pulling and inviting kind of thing, and we can get really inspired, as Suzy said, when we see someone, see their character, and we say, “Wow, that’s an example of goodness, instantiated.” And then that can really inspire us, and be a great basis for love.
Brett McKay: And I imagine it helps when two people come together in a relationship, where they have that idea of, that common idea, of living the good life. There’s something higher that they’re both achieving. It’s not just about, okay, you’re married, you know, getting married to you’s going to help me in my career because you’re going to be able to watch the kids, and blah blah blah. It’s something bigger than that, that allows you to experience that Aristotelian relationship.
Suzie Pawelski: Definitely. I think making it like a marital mission statement, that’s what we did on our honeymoon. And so think, really, what do we want our marriage to be about? And I think, especially during you know, tough times, trying times, going back to that, and saying, “What’s the ultimate goal?” So if you’re both working towards something, you know, becoming better, and becoming a stronger team, and doing good out there in the world, then I think it helps keep your focus on that, instead of getting stuck on the day to day, sort of, you know, annoyances and so forth.
Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking very high level, let’s start getting nitty gritty here. So the first half of your book seems to focus on managing the emotions in a relationship. Because Aristotle talks a lot about that. For him, emotions aren’t bad, he’s not like a stoic, where you have to eliminate all bad emotions, but he says you need to manage them so they’re useful, and can help you lead to that flourishing life. And the first part of the book you talk about passion. And when we typically think of a romantic relationship, we think of passion, but you guys argue that there’s good passion and there’s bad passion, or unhealthy passion. Talk about those two.
Suzie Pawelski: Sure. So again, getting back to pop culture, since we like to talk about pop culture, we feel that so much of the focus out there, that people grow up with, of passion, is an unhealthy passion. It’s that feeling swept away, I can’t live without you, you know, whether it’s greeting cards, or movies, or music, it’s this, you know, you’re my one and only, you complete me, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you, and while it may feel good in the moment, the research shows that this all consuming urge or desire, where you can’t stand on your own two feet is actually a form of obsession, what they call obsessive passion.
And again, let me just say that in the beginning of a relationship, of course you’re likely to feel this way, and it’s, you know, romantic love. But, if months, years, into the relationship, you still can’t focus on what’s going on at work, or you’re no longer seeing your friends, your personality’s completely changed, you might not be so much in love, but rather more obsessed with the other person.
The good news is that there’s also a healthy form of passion, and this is with Bob Vallerand’s research, it’s called a harmonious passion. And this is the passion where you love your partner, you may do things together often, but also, on your own, you’re still maintaining your interests, the activities that you did before your relationship. You’re still seeing your friends, your personality’s the same, and I think a lot of people kind of confuse the two, because if they feel, you know, years into the relationship, I’m not longer feeling that all consuming sense, maybe it’s the wrong person, maybe I should leave this relationship or marriage and find somebody else. And we’ve interviewed a lot of people, you know, when we were putting together this book, who were, sort of, I’d say obsessed with obsession. That from one relationship to the next, as soon as those high arousal emotions sort of calmed down into more companion feelings of love, they thought that there was something wrong. And I think a lot of this is because we often have these myths, as we discussed in the beginning, what a healthy relationship is.
Brett McKay: So infatuation at the beginning of a relationship, it’s healthy, it draws a couple close together, but then it has to shift to something else. It doesn’t mean that there’s no passion, no erotic passion, I think a lot of people like the being in a relationship. And I think, to your point about the idea of … a healthy passion is, you do things together that you both enjoy, and you enjoy being together, but also maintaining a distinct part of your life. That can actually help that sort of erotic passion, right? Because it’s all about desiring, and desiring requires an otherness, right? Like you don’t completely know the person. So by having separate lives, that you have your own thing, can actually encourage that sort of passion that we like at the beginning of a relationship.
Suzie Pawelski: Yeah, definitely. Oh, sorry James, go ahead.
James Pawelski: No, go ahead.
Suzie Pawelski: I was just going to say, yeah, you talk about new and novel activities. I mean, we know in general from research, doing the same thing, whether it’s in a relationship at work or elsewhere, yeah, if there’s not any boredom, you fall into a rut. So it’s important to always be proactive. Novel activities, how can you do things differently, in keeping the spark alive? And to your point, Brett, keeping those activities and interests, it’s likely what attracted your partner to you, and likewise. All too often, we get together with our partner, and we feel that we have to be at his or her beck and call, and we may give up some of those activities and interests. And the research shows, and experience shows, that that’s not healthy. You should continue being who we are, and maintaining those hobbies outside of our relationship as well, as long as they’re healthy ones, of course.
James Pawelski: Yeah, that’s extremely important. Maybe a metaphor here can be helpful, too. If you think about what it takes to light a campfire, you know, you want to have kindling, you want to have some dry leaves, maybe some small sticks, and light that on fire, and man, does it go up quickly. But if that’s all you have, then it’s going to go out pretty quickly, and I think that’s what a lot of people experience in their relationships, it’s like this immediate spark, and excitement, enthusiasm, and then it kind of peters out.
So what you need to do in a campfire, is you need to have some bigger sticks and some logs there, to catch on fire. And so that when that initial energy is there with the kindling, starting up, it’s then also heating up the logs, and catching them on fire. Now when a log is caught on fire, it doesn’t immediately go up in these flames, and all that passion in that sense, but it’s a longer burn, and part of what then can happen, first of all, it’s more sustainable. But then with that longer burn, that then allows for an opportunity for those flare ups to happen from time to time, right?
And so maybe some more leaves get piled on, and then suddenly there’s that spark again. So as Suzy was saying, those new experiences can be a kind of rekindling from time to time. Not that we’re expecting to live in that moment of conflagration all the time, that fiery passion all the time. That’s not healthy for human beings. But to have those on occasion, within the context of this longer, sustainable relationship is what we’re looking for.
Brett McKay: All right, so one way to encourage, or promote, that healthy passion, do novel things together, don’t just get in a rut. Any other things that people can do to develop that healthy passion?
Suzie Pawelski: Sharing something, like a secret, with your partner, that you never told him or her, we think, unforunately, when we get in a relationship, and may be together for a number of years, that we know everything about our partner, and I think that does a lot of harm to the relationship. Being curious and sharing, I mean, we don’t know everything there is about ourselves. This is actually something my philosopher husband would say, right James? We never know ourselves completely, how can we know the other person? And maybe it’s a childhood memory, or a fantasy you had, or a line of work that you’ve always wanted to do, but I think having these conversations about ideas and sharing parts of yourself with your partner regularly, so that you’re continuing to grow together, and learn more about one another, on a deeper level, can keep the relationship from just being on the surface, and getting into routines.
Brett McKay: So we talked about passion. Another aspect you talk about with emotions is fostering positive emotions in a relationship. And as you said earlier, most relationship books are about mitigating the negative emotions, right? So it’s like if your couple’s fighting, here’s some things not to fight about, if a couple’s not doing this, where’s what you do. So, what can we do to foster positive emotions within a relationship?
Suzie Pawelski: In the beginning of a relationship, it seems like we have so many positive emotions, right? And a lot of people, I think, just fall back, thinking about how joyous they felt, or excited, or you know, how much passion. And which, you know, it’s great you have a lot of those emotions, but I think first of all, is realizing that just like happily ever after doesn’t just happen, positive emotions don’t just happen. In the beginning of a relationship, you’re going to have a higher frequency, it’s just you know, it’s just what happens. And the intensity, the newness of the relationship. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. The research shows we have to practice positive emotions, and prioritize them in our lives, which basically means people, individuals, and couples, who plan their day by organizing activities for themselves, as well as, you know, with their partner, will experience more positive emotions than those who just wait around for them to happen.
So for example, take time to reflect. What is it for you and for your partner together, because it might be different to the individual than to the couple, what are those activities that really bring you joy? That make you feel good, or make you feel peaceful? And then schedule them into your day. Like for me, I have to get outside everyday. I like to do a long, outdoor run. So if that’s something individually I do for myself, I’m going to feel better, I’m going to have more positive emotions, and then it’s going to be, we know positivity’s contagious. I’m going to be in a good mood, it’s going to help James be in a good mood. But what are those activities to together we can do? That both people enjoy? And how could we schedule them into our day? And I think it’s also important to note that there are many, many positive emotions.
Barbera Fredrickson research shows that there’s at least 10 that we frequent on, pretty much in our lives, but unfortunately, people just focus on the, I think, especially in America, the high arousal positive emotions, like those you have in the beginning of a relationship. But it’s important to note that there’s a whole range of emotions, and as the relationship develops, it’s actually the calmer emotions that are associated with longterm love. So in the beginning, it might be, you know, the high arousal emotion of you know, a sense of ebullience, curiosity, which is great, and interest, and then as the relationship matures, gratitude. I’m so thankful this person’s in my life, and I’m in awe of him, and I feel a sense of serenity. You know, the bonding, the cuddle hormone, they talk about oxytocin, when that’s released. It actually brings the relationship to a more peaceful level, and a more mature level.
So look at all of these positive emotions, and figure out activities in your life that you can do together to bring more positive emotions into your relationship.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it was, you talk about research from John Gottman, where he says it’s like … couples that fight or argue, that’s not what predicts whether a marriage breaks up, that’s part of a healthy marriage. What predicts it, if there’s no positive interactions they have after that, or during the day. So that there’s something that counterbalances that. I think he has like a ratio, its like five to one. So you need to have five positive encounters with a person in your relationship, for every one negative one.
James Pawelski: Yeah, and so we heard, we invited John and Julie Gottman to come and speak at our master of applied psychology program a few years ago, and they were talking about that, and they clarified, that’s actually for healthy couples when they’re fighting.
Brett McKay: Okay.
James Pawelski: So, imagine having a fight, and during that fight, there’s a five to one ratio of positive to negative. They said that in regular experiences with those couples, it’s more like 20 to one. So, I think we all have some work to do to make sure that those ratios are maintained.
Suzie Pawelski: And also, with their work, and with other, Shelly Gable’s work, there was always so much focus in the past, before these researchers, showing the fix in problems, as we mentioned, which of course is important, but the research shows it’s more important to celebrate the good times, and focus on what’s going well, and we think a lot of couples, you know, miss those opportunities. You know, good things happen to us at a much greater frequency, but unforunately, it’s you know, that toothache, or you know, that cut on your leg that you’re noticing, you’re not noticing those days that you’re enjoying great health, or the sun’s shining, or your partner’s extra nice. And unforunately, we often take those things for granted, and sadly, a lot more couples fall apart, and you know, break up or get divorced, it seems, because of feeling not being appreciated, and not being acknowledged.
Brett McKay: So yeah, we have a tendency to focus on the negative, and ignore the good, and so because of that, you can be in a relationship where you think everything’s actually, it might be better than you think, but because you’re focusing on the negative, you think, “Oh, my marriage is terrible.” But one way to counteract that is savoring, which is … I mean, when we think of savoring, eating food, but what does that savoring look like in a relationship?
James Pawelski: Yeah, so Suzy mentioned that early on in a relationship, it seems like all these positive emotions are just kind of there, and we think, “Ah, the rest of life is going to be exactly this way,” and you know, you kind of have to get back to work, and things happen, and the relationship matures, and it’s not quite that initial kindling, conflict ration that we had at the beginning, and so that’s one reason why it’s important to cultivate positive emotions by doing things, for example, that can evoke them. It’s also important to focus on remembering the things that have gone well, and so reliving old times can be a great way of reconnecting and savoring.
We all have these amazing memories that we’re carrying around with us all the time, we just typically don’t access them. And so we may be having a bad day, we’re like, “Oh, this is terrible, life is miserable,” but man, there’s a lot just waiting to be discovered, or rediscovered in those memories.
Also, savoring can be about the present, just being present in the moment, and soaking up what’s there. Again, we tend to, in our relational lives, in our work lives, just in our lives in general, we tend to say, “Oh, well, you know, I can go into work and talk with my colleagues about what a miserable weekend I had, or how awful the traffic was getting into work,” and make these stories long, and so forth. But what about spending some time, talking with them about things that are really going well in one’s life, and the work life, and so forth.
So having that, again, having that kind of a balance, being open when things are, you know, when there’s a moment of connection. Don’t hurry through it, be there, and allow it to unfold, and be open to it. And then, about the future, it’s possible to have anticipatory savoring. So, my wife Suzy and I are, right now, we’re planning, preparing for a trip to Australia in a few weeks. And so, thinking about want we’re likely to encounter there, what people we’ll meet, what experiences we might have. That can be a source of joy, as we anticipate what might happen.
Now, it’s important to distinguish between expectation and anticipatory savoring. So, if I say, “Okay, Suzy, here is what our first day in Australia’s going to look like. We’re going to go to a place where we can see the kangaroos, we’re going to take our son to a soccer match,” and have it all planned out, and it’s exactly how it has to happen. We all know how life goes, it doesn’t necessarily happen as we … as we expect. And so if I’m really committed to it having to happen that way for me to be happy, that can be a problem. But, if I anticipate, we plan, and then whatever happens that day, if it turns out to be such a rainy day that the kangaroos are under cover, well, there are other things that we can do to enjoy the day, and that allows it to be flexible, even while anticipating good things in the future.
Brett McKay: All right, so we’ve talked about emotions, developing healthy passion, and encouraging more positive emotions in our relationship. Let’s talk about the other part of an Aristotelian relationship, which is character. So positive psychology, talks a lot about character. In the world of positive psychology, how do they define character?
Suzie Pawelski: Sure. So in brief, positive psychology, I’m going to give you a very brief summary of the research. So in brief, positive psychologists looked across cultures and time, and they found that there are 24 strengths that are ubiquitous. So things that everybody has in different dimensions, things like love, leadership, gratitude, zest, so there’s 24 of these strengths, and we all have them, is the good news. We have them in different configurations. And these strengths, along with our backgrounds, our personalities, our upbringing, makes us unique from one another. And people can find out what their strengths are, their top five strengths are called your signature strengths.
So Brett, this is something that is just naturally makes you you. Like maybe you’re just naturally creative and a leader. So it’s not about skill, it’s not about intellect, but it’s those inherent qualities that we all have. And most people, when they takes the strengths test, you know, they agree with it, they’re like, “Yeah, that’s just who I am, right?”
So, listeners can actually find out their top strengths, if they go to our website, at build happy together dot com, and it’s a free test, the VIA test, it takes about 10 minutes.
So okay, you know what your top strengths are, now what? So the research shows that by practicing your strengths on a daily basis, you know, in your relationship, in your leisure activities, at work, is associated with greater individual wellbeing. And when it comes to a relationship, using your strengths together as a team, and help facilitating strength use in your partner, leads to a greater relational satisfaction, and better sexual satisfaction. So why not help your partner facilitate his or her strengths?
The problem is, it seems in the beginning in a relationship, often it’s those strengths of our partner that attracted us, maybe, to him. So James, can I just give a personal example?
James Pawelski: Sure.
Suzie Pawelski: Okay. So anybody who knows my husband, or anybody who really knows him, he really really loves to learn. Like Brett, I love to learn, but nowhere near to the level that James does. So when I met him, I was intrigued, he was one person who had a lot more books than I did in my apartment. I was like, “Well,” and I was blown away, and I used to finger through the books, and look at them. Years later into our relationship, I’m like, “Really, you’re buying another book? How many more books do we need in our house? We have no room for anything but books.”
And then I would start getting annoyed, thinking he was trying to irritate me by coming home with, you know, 20 more books. And I think it’s interesting, because what initially intrigued us, often sometimes annoys us, because we’re not looking at the relationship through a lens of strengths. We’re thinking maybe our partner is intentionally trying to annoy us, instead remembering, “Wait a minute, I feel in love with this guy, partially because of who he is, and how much he loved to learn.”
So how can we look back and say, “Oh, you know, my partner, it’s his love of learning that is having him behave in this way. That’s who he is, and accept him, rather than change him.”
James Pawelski: And if I could piggyback on that, that’s great, Suzy, going back to Aristotle.
Suzie Pawelski: Of course.
James Pawelski: Of course, have to bring Aristotle in here, it’s been a while wince we’ve said much about him. So, what he said is that character comes from habits. And so what we want to do in our lives is not just make the right choice in a particular situation, but be the kind of person who habitually makes the right choice. So it’s not just, “Oh, I found a wallet with 100 dollars in it, and what should I do? Hm, should I keep it? Okay, I’ll return it.”
But, the kind of person who you find a wallet with 100 dollars in it, it’s not even a question. You’re immediately looking for who this person, who the money belongs to, so you can return the wallet.
So, thinking about character, thinking about these character strengths as habits in our lives, and how can we be aware of what habits we have that are helpful, that are conducive, to good relationships, and what habits that have snuck into our lives that really aren’t, and what can we do to disrupt those unhelpful habits, and to cultivate and support the good habits? And so these character strengths are … it’s a great list, a great classification of a lot of really good kinds of habits, that we can develop and have in our lives and in our relationships.
Now, as Suzy said, there … when we’re in the context of a relationship, sometimes we can overuse these strengths, or under use these strengths, and so it’s a matter of, you know, as Aristotle says, it’s easy to become angry, but it’s hard to become angry in the right occasion, to the right degree, with the right person, and so on.
So we need to be careful about as we get more experienced about knowing, recognizing what our signature strengths are, how we can use them in the context of the relationship in a way that will be optimally effective and helpful.
Brett McKay: And what does that look like, right? I can see how understanding your strengths and your partner’s strengths, I mean intuitively, would be useful in a relationship. But like what is that? Can you kind of give us an example of that playing out in a relationship?
Suzie Pawelski: Sure. So what we first suggest, a couple takes a strengths test, or if they don’t, they could just, you know, intuitively either know, or well, I shouldn’t intuitively know, ask their partner, you know, what their strengths … so even if James didn’t take the test, he’d say, “Well I really love to learn,” and I might say, “I love being adventurous, I’m very zestful.”
And then having … the first part is having strengths conversations. I think, again, in the beginning of a relationship, we’re so curious about one another, you know, we have marathon conversations, we’re talking all the time. Shortly afterwards, it seems like we fall into rut. We think we know all there is about our partner, but we don’t.
So having something called a strengths conversation is where you specifically discuss each other’s strengths, and you go deeper than just saying, “Oh, I love to learn.” I might ask James, “Well, how did your love of learning really lead you to become a philosopher, and minor in,” I think he had, what? Six minors? “What is it about this strength of yours that not only led you down a certain career path, but maybe turned down opportunities?” Maybe he doesn’t want to do certain things, because he feels like he’s not learning. And going really deeper with that.
And he would ask me similar conversations. You know, “How can you use your zest better? Where do you get a sense of joy using that strength? Might we go on a hiking trip? And we can explore and be in nature more. How could you use your sense of creativity more?”
So it’s having those conversations, and having them all the time, because our strengths aren’t set like it is like a blood type. At certain points of your life, I mean, there’s nothing magical about the first five, they call them your signature strengths, but maybe a strength that’s a little lower might move higher up, you know, later on in your life. So there might be a certain time where you’re going through an experience, and maybe you never really considered yourself a really brave person, but maybe you didn’t really have an opportunity to use your sense of bravery, so I might be going through a challenge, and you know, suddenly it’s something like bravery you’re practicing. I think it’s important to have these discussions, because we’re multifaceted about the complexities of our nature, to really understand each other.
And then I was going to say also, so the strengths conversations is one thing, sitting down with your partner regularly. It’s not like, “Okay, I had my strengths conversation,” I’m talking about these things, instead of just talking about, you know, the superficial. And then next, we would suggest that all couples go on a strengths stay. And a strengths stay is where you choose one of your strengths, and one of your partners’, and together you create a date or an outing, where you both have the opportunity to use that strength.
So one fun example of ours, for instance, since I’m talking about James’ love of learning and my zest. We got together, and we were like, “Okay, what can we do with love of learning and zest?” So we decided to rent Segways, and we did a historical tour of Philadelphia, where we live. And it was really, really fun. We have pictures we can send to you. We were zipping around the neighborhood, I had more fun on the zipping around part. I was listening to the historical part, because I like to learn too, but not to the degree that James does. But Brett, I’ve got to tell you, we had such a fun time, and I think it was one of our best dates, James is smiling, but I don’t want to speak for you.
James Pawelski: No, it was a lot of fun.
Suzie Pawelski: You know, at the end of the day, we talked about it, my sense of adventure was fulfilled, and his love of learning was peaked. But we can’t just stop there, there’s thousands of, I forget how many combinations he said, of strengths, right? Thousands, James?
James Pawelski: A whole lot.
Suzie Pawelski: Or maybe more than thousands. But maybe we could take … we both have a top strength of creativity. What’s something we can do creative together? Or imagine if we talked to couples, one who had kindness, and one had humor. What’s something funny you can do and kind? And they went and they did something with a homeless shelter in the neighborhood.
So there’s just many different things, and the research shows, as I mentioned previously, when you use your strengths, you have greater individual well being, and when couples do it together, they have a greater connection, physical, as well as sexual, and emotional connection. Because it’s really showing that you get this other person, and you’re helping him or her bring their best self to the table, and you know, the authentic self. Not what you want them to be, but who they are, rather than dragging your partner on a date to something that, you know, he or she’s really not interested in.
James Pawelski: Let me just add one … it’s great, Suzy, let me just piggyback one thing. Let’s say that my love of learning, I was overusing that love of learning, and spending all of my time with my nose in books, and Suzy and myself Liam felt neglected because I wasn’t even noticing them because I was so eager to learn. One way in which strengths can work, it’s not … we’re not just advocating, “Well sorry, that’s my strength, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Suzie Pawelski: Good point.
James Pawelski: But I can actually use my strengths in a way to shore up my weaknesses, as Marty Seligman suggests. Or I can use my strengths in a way to help the relationship by, for example, learning more about Suzy. Or learning more about relationships. And so the strength itself can become a vehicle for me developing other parts of myself that are important in the context of a-
Suzie Pawelski: That’s a really great point. So it’s not bringing abrupt to our son Liam’s soccer championship, but maybe James delving deeper into soccer history, our son’s a real lover of soccer, and learning about this sport.
James Pawelski: Right.
Brett McKay: So it’s not … okay, so that’s a good point about weaknesses. So we all have these strengths in various forms, but some of them are stronger than others. I think a typical approach when people say, “I’ve got this weak spot, I’ve got to devote all of my time building that up,” so if you’re not a thoughtful person, I think it’s one of the … social intelligence, right? Kindness is one of those strengths, kind of goes-
Suzie Pawelski: Sure.
Brett McKay: You don’t make it a habit, like, “Okay, I’m going to be … I’m going to do one thoughtful thing a day,” because that can be counterproductive, right?
James Pawelski: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Instead, you find a strength that you have that you can focus on, lean into more, that’ll allow you to be thoughtful naturally. Would that be a good way to say it?
James Pawelski: Yeah, so think of it in terms of you know, baseball. We were just talking about sports analogy. Think about baseball, and think about a pitcher. Now, at least in the major leagues, perhaps the greatest weakness that a pitcher has tends to be batting. And so if a pitcher said, “Boy, I really got this weakness of batting, I need to practice batting,” and they stopped practicing their pitching so that they could practice their batting, what would happen? I mean, maybe they would become a marginally batter, they probably are not going to become a champion batter. But in the meantime, they’re going to lose the skill for which they’re valued, and for which they have a spot on the roster, right?
So that would be an example of, you know, in that context, you rely on, yeah, you want to be as good of a hitter as you reasonably can, but you rely on your teammates to help pick up the hitting, and you’re focusing on the pitching.
Now, if it turns out that you say, “Well, you know, I’m just not a kind person, that’s my weakness, so I’m not going to work on kindness,” well, no. We all need to be at least somewhat kind. So again, this isn’t an excuse for being you know, a terrible person, and saying, “That’s not my strength.” But, if a pitcher is so good at pitching, than that can overcome, from a team perspective, that can overcome the deficit that might arise when their batting average isn’t that high.
So that’s one way of thinking about it, but then, as I mention with love or learning, there are times when the strength itself can also help you in your … so let’s say kindness, right? So let’s say I’m just, I’ve been getting some feedback that I’m not as kind as I need to be. Well then, how can I use my love of learning, or a strength of love, or a strength of gratitude, whatever strengths that I have, how can I use that to find out more about this lesser strength, or this area of weakness that I have, and work on that? Because it’s a lot more fun to use our strengths, than it is to be like, “Okay great, now I’ve got to work on my weakness again.”
Brett McKay: Right. And another way you can use your strengths to shore up your weaknesses, say that love of learning, kindness, as an example. Say you’re not typically kind or thoughtful, but you can lean into your love of learning, so if you see your wife having a problem, you can do some research, “Hey, I’m going to research this probably for you, here’s some possible things.” So you’re using your love of learning to-
James Pawelski: Excellent!
Brett McKay: Be thoughtful.
James Pawelski: Excellent, love it!
Suzie Pawelski: Yup.
Brett McKay: All right.
Suzie Pawelski: He does that all the time.
Brett McKay: But yeah, you have to use like-
Suzie Pawelski: He’s also very kind!
Brett McKay: But again, as James said, you’ve got to use that Aristotelian phronesis, right? That practical wisdom?
James Pawelski: That’s right.
Brett McKay: Like, you could probably do that all the time, but sometimes, it might not be what you really want, Suzy, it’s like, that’s kind of annoying at this time, I didn’t want a portfolio, like a presentation of my problem. I just wanted you to listen. So you’ve got to use some practical wisdom.
Suzie Pawelski: I mean, I was taught the golden rule is all you need to be happy together. Treat others as you want to be treated. And then after we got married, I realized that wasn’t the case. So then we talk about the notion of, you know, while the golden rule, it’s good intentions, it’s good to start with, it’s limited. And so then we think well what about the platinum rule? That’s when you treat others the way they want to be treated. Well, that’s good to a point, but if I just want to eat chocolate all day and drink wine, it’s probably not the best for my health.
So we like to talk about the notion of the Aristotelian role, and that’s where you treat others as they’re best self would want us to treat them. And it can help give us important guidance. So James knows I like to be athletic, I like to take care of my health, so while I love chocolate and I love wine, and he definitely gives me them regularly, but I think if he saw I was eating boxes of chocolates and drinking bottle of wine, you know, he might dissuade that. So how can couples really know one another? Learn to know one another by discussing their strengths, having those strengths conversations, and then work on a regular basis the Aristotelian role of treating those, treating one another as their best self would want them to be treated. So that’s helping create opportunities where they can use their strengths, and note their strengths, not me telling James what to do based on my strengths, but noticing his strengths, creating opportunities for him as an individual, and together as a couple.
And I think it’s important to focus on the individual part, too. So one of the best things James did to me, for me, was give me the space to spend time by myself. So I used to live in New York City for years, before we got married, and I had a business meeting there. And he said, “Why don’t you stay a night?” And he goes, “Why don’t you stay two nights?” Then he goes up to three, then I thought he was up to something, and I got to tell you, having quality time in my old stomping ground with my friends who I spent years with, and being away from him and my son, having some down time was really nice. And it actually made me really appreciate them even more, and I think I ended up coming back sooner, because I wanted to be with them.
So this notion that you mentioned earlier, you know, time apart, or you know, creating that spark in a relationship by doing your own thing, and you know, your partner helping you facilitate doing things you love, I think can bring you closer together. I think people often think they just need to physically always be together all the time.
Brett McKay: Another way you can foster those strengths in your partner, your wife, or your husband, is expressing gratitude for those things. Which you have a whole chapter about gratitude?
Suzie Pawelski: Yeah. Gratitude, it’s so important. Research shows that not only is it important for individual well being, but it’s extremely important for relational well being, and in fact, it may be the most important. It’s an emotion, and it’s also a strength. And when it comes to relationships, we can understand why, because if our partners not feeling grateful to us, then you know, that doesn’t bode well for the relationship. And in fact, research shows it’s not enough just to feel grateful, we have to express our gratitude. Our partner aren’t mind readers. How can we express gratitude to our partner in a way that is good for the relationship?
Well, there’s a few thing we can do. We can, to start with, telling our partner thank you, and focusing on his or her strengths. So, if James were to do something for me, or let’s just say to make it simple, he gave me, I don’t know, a hat, because my head was cold, just to really simplify it. And he gave me an orange hat, because orange is my favorite color, and I just said, “Oh, thank you so much for the hat, I love orange, and I love the hat,” I mean, that’s fine. It’s better thanking him than not thanking him at all. But, how much better is it if I were to say, “James, thank you so much for your kindness, and really noticing I’m always cold when I run outside. You’ve listened to me, how the heat escapes my head, and your thoughtfulness, I really appreciate that. And it’s the same thoughtfulness I see in you, that you express towards our son, or towards your students.”
So it’s focusing on James’ strengths, and his actions, rather than just the benefit to me. And it’s also important to be authentic. I mean, you don’t want to overdo it, of course, but I think lots of times, A, we don’t express gratitude, we just assume our partner knows, and then when we do, we just, you know, bring it back to ourself, and then our partner feels like … they end up feeling like it’s a relationship, as we discussed, of utility. One of Aristotle’s friendships that he talked about. That, wow, James is just doing things for me all the time, and he may just feel like a commodity in the relationship, rather than being appreciated for who he is. D
Did you want to say something James, about gratitude?
James Pawelski: No, I think that’s … I think you said it really well. And those elements of gratitude can … you know, gratitude’s also a way of focusing the attention. So talking earlier about Aristotle’s connection between habit and character, one of the ways of establishing habit is by focusing our attention in certain ways. And so having a practice of gratitude, can really help us remember and remind ourselves and each other about the good things that are happening in the relationship.
Brett McKay: So as I was reading this whole book, there’s a practice that my wife and I started, couple years ago, that basically knocks all these things out, that we’ve been talking about during this whole entire podcast. It came from a marriage counselor, Marcia Berger, who has this idea of a marriage meeting. Where you get together with your spouse, once a week, for 30 minutes, and she breaks it up, we do this … we try to do it once a week, sometimes we don’t because things are busy. But like the first half, the first part, you do appreciation. So you express gratitude to your spouse for things that happened during that week. And you do it in that way that you guys talked about, it’s like, “Well you were so thoughtful, because of this, this, thank you, that.”
Then you talk about dues, which is like the utility part of any relationship. Then you plan for good times, as a family, as a couple, individually, so it’s all about fostering that healthy passion. And then you talk about problems and challenges. And it literally takes 20 minutes, but it’s been a game changer. It really does … it’s improved our marriage.
James Pawelski: Yeah, no, that sounds wonderful. And having a kind of habit, a kind of practice of doing that is really great.
Let me point out one other thing about gratitude that I think is really important. And Suzy mentioned expressing gratitude, and expressing it in that other kind of focused way. It’s also important how we receive gratitude from the other person. So we like to talk about it in terms of the gratitude dance. So, if you invite your partner to dance, and the partner says, “Eh, no thanks,” there’s not going to be much of a dance, right? Or if the partner says, “No!” Or if the partner just doesn’t reply, there’s not going to be much of a dance.
So it’s really important in a relationship for us to consider how we can respond well to the gratitude that’s expressed. So if you’re having your marriage meeting with your wife, and she’s expressing how much she appreciates what you’ve been doing that week, and you don’t respond, you don’t acknowledge, it’s almost as though you’re not even there, that’s not going to work very well, right?
And so, my guess it that in that context, what really works in your relationship, is to take it in, right? She’s telling you these things because she believes them, and she wants you to receive them. Sometimes with think about gratitude as, you know, well I can’t really acknowledge when someone gives me a compliment, or somebody says something, it’s really not good form to take it in, almost as though it’s the last cookie on the plate, and I really can’t take it, because then other people won’t have the cookies.
No! In relationships, if I’m complimenting Suzy for something, I don’t want her to say, “Well, I really can’t accept that compliment, because that would just be unseemly,” no, I want her to accept the compliment, I want her to enjoy it, I want her to luxuriate in the compliment.
Brett McKay: Well this has been a great conversation, guys. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
James Pawelski: So yeah, they can go, Suzy mentioned earlier, the website.
Suzie Pawelski: Build happy together dot com. We put the word build in it, because we feel like love is an action verb, you got to work on it, and build it. So we have a lot of resources, we have a link to the strengths test we mentioned, articles and so forth. And some videos. And the book’s available there, bookstores nationwide, Amazon.
James Pawelski: There’s also more information on the website. One of the things that’s important, we think, in terms of relationships, is working at these skills. As we said, we like to talk about the relationship gym, and the importance of going and working out. And you know, if there’s one thing that’s better than going to the gym and working out, it’s going to the gym and working out with others, and so we hope that this work that we’ve been doing on relationships, you know, one of the key reasons why we wanted to do it was to work on our relationship. And we also are excited about connecting with others who are interested in working on their relationships in similar ways, and really creating a community of Aristotelian lovers, who are wanting to support each other in this endeavor, to become better people, and to have better relationships.
Suzie Pawelski: So we have a pledge on there that people can take to work on practicing becoming an Aristotelian lover. We also have a Facebook, Happy Together book page, if people are interested in following us there.
Brett McKay: Well fantastic. Well, Suzy, James, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Suzie Pawelski: Thank you so much, Brett, we’ve really enjoyed talking with you today.
James Pawelski: Brett, it’s really been fun, thanks for your great questions. I’m guessing you might have a signature strength of love of learning, too. It has been really fun to talk to you about these things, thank you.
Brett McKay: Yes, yes I do.
My guests today were James Pawelski and Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, they’re the authors of the book Happy Together, it’s available on Amazon dot com, and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about their work at their website, build happy together dot com.
Also check out our show notes at AOM dot is slash happy together, where you can find links to resources, or you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at art of manliness dot com, where you can find our podcast archives, there’s over 500 episodes there, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. Got a lot of articles on relationships, so check out our relationship archives while you’re there.
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