Intimate relationships are a crucial part of many people’s lives. Healthy romantic relationships influence emotional and general wellbeing. Higher relationship satisfaction is linked to individuals’ greater overall life satisfaction, greater positive affect, lower negative affect and lower levels of depression (Braithwaite & Holt-Lunstad, 2017; Roberson et al., 2018), as well as their partners’ life satisfaction and wellbeing (Gustavson et al., 2016; Londero-Santos et al., 2021). Seligman (2018) presented a broad model of well-being (the PERMA model), which encompasses the dimensions of positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment. In regard to the dimension of positive relationships, which consists of considering relationships as important and pursuing relationships, (Wagner et al., 2020) found that participants who scored higher on the character strengths of love and kindness were rated by others as being higher on the PERMA dimension of positive relationships.

1 Character Strengths

Peterson and Seligman (2004) introduced a classification system of 24 strengths. These strengths are morally valued across cultures, contribute to happiness and satisfaction, are stable, and do not diminish others (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Peterson and Seligman (2004) suggested that signature strengths, or an individual’s top five strengths, are the strongest predictors of meaningful lives, happiness, and flourishing. The 24 character strengths fall into six categories, wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

Correlational research indicates that character and signature strengths have a strong association with subjective wellbeing. For example, in three studies, Park et al. (2004) found strong associations for the strengths of hope and zest with life satisfaction and moderate association for the strengths of gratitude, curiosity, and love with life satisfaction. Littman-Ovadia and Lavy (2012) found that higher levels of all character strengths were significantly associated with life satisfaction. The character strengths with the strongest correlations with life satisfaction were the same five as in the study by Park et al. (2004). Harzer and Ruch (2015) found that higher levels of character strengths were associated with greater job satisfaction and better coping with adversity at work. Thus, there is evidence that character strengths, individually and collectively, are associated with positive outcomes.

Previous intervention research has found that encouraging individuals to recognize and build on their own character strengths results in positive outcomes such as increased well-being and higher self-efficacy (Schutte & Malouff, 2019; Seligman et al., 2005). A meta-analysis of 14 studies reporting 29 effect sizes found that across randomized control trial studies, character strength interventions lead to positive outcomes including positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction as well as lowered depression (Schutte & Malouff, 2019). Effect sizes ranged from a weighted Hedges’ g of 0.21 for less depression, to 0.32 for greater happiness, and to 0.42 for greater life satisfaction.

Most studies of the relationship between character strengths and well-being have focused on individuals’ perceptions of their own strengths. How others perceive an individual’s strengths is also important. In a study of 2875 participants, Blanchard et al. (2019) found that the extent to which an individual’s strengths were perceived and valued by others was strongly associated with the individual’s wellbeing. Thus, recognition of others’ strengths may be an important application of the character strengths model.

2 Recognizing Strengths in Others

Recognizing character strengths in romantic partners may benefit both partners. An early study by Murray et al. (2000) found evidence for this proposition. The researchers asked 105 couples to note which virtues they could see in their spouses and how satisfied they were in their relationship. The researchers also asked friends of the participants to comment on the virtues they perceived in the participants. Results indicated that more satisfied spouses perceived more virtues in their partners than their friends did, and more satisfied individuals had spouses who perceived more virtues in them than their friends perceived. These finding suggest that a mindset of perceiving virtues in a partner has positive implications for relationship satisfaction.

A study of students and community participants investigated how appreciation of partner character strengths is associated with relationship quality (Kashdan et al., 2017). Greater appreciation of partners’ strengths was significantly associated with more relationship satisfaction. Using an actor-partner analysis approach, which examined both the influence of the character strengths of caring, self-control, and inquisitiveness on the target individual (the actor) as well as the individual’s partner, Boiman-Meshita and Littman-Ovadia (2022) found that higher levels of these character strengths contributed both to the individual’s marital satisfaction and the partner’s marital satisfaction. Brauer et al. (2022) found that partners in romantic relationships showed similar levels of character strengths; however, the degree of association of partners’ strengths was not associated with level of relationship satisfaction. Thus, previous correlational research (Boiman-Meshita & Littman-Ovadia, 2022; Kashdan et al., 2017; Murray et al., 2000) suggests that recognizing character strengths in partners may have beneficial effects on relationship satisfaction. The association may be bi-directional in that those who are more generally satisfied with their relationships may be more likely to recognize a partner’s strengths.

3 Mystery and Curiosity

While the effect of an intervention aimed at assisting individual recognize a partner’s strengths on relationship satisfaction could be tested on its own, novel types of interventions have sought to incorporate strategies to improve engagement. One such way is to increase curiosity regarding partners’ strengths. Mystery conditions have been found to increase curiosity and engagement (Schutte & Malouff, 2022). Curiosity is an essential component of intrinsic motivation for learning and can improve how information is absorbed and retained (Gruber et al., 2014). For example, in one experiment, asking participants to guess at results before presenting results led to better learning than ordinary result presentation (Potts et al., 2019). Priming curiosity through drawing participants’ attention to the unknown can increase engagement retention of material (Potts et al., 2019; Ruan et al., 2018). Thus, greater curiosity regarding a partner’s strengths might be associated with more impact on relationship satisfaction stemming from an intervention encouraging recognizing a partner’s strengths.

3.1 The Present Study

Previous findings show that character strength interventions focused on an individual’s own strengths have an impact on positive outcomes such as life satisfaction (Schutte & Malouff, 2019; Seligman et al., 2005). They may have similar effects on relationship satisfaction when an intervention focuses on recognizing strengths in a partner. Previous studies suggested that recognizing virtues or strengths in romantic partners is correlated with greater relationship satisfaction (Kashdan et al., 2017; Murray et al., 2000).

Experimental studies investigating the effect of prompting character strength recognition in partners on relationship satisfaction relationship satisfaction are needed. The results of such studies would clarify the causal relationship between recognizing strengths in a partner and relationship satisfaction. Mystery intended to peak participants’ curiosity regarding partner strengths may lead to greater engagement (Schutte & Malouff, 2022), thus adding mystery to a character strength recognition in partners intervention reflects an innovative approach that might make such an intervention more effective and the more curiosity experienced regarding character strengths, greater the impact of an intervention aimed at increasing awareness of partner strengths might be.

3.2 Aim of the Study

The study investigated whether character strength interventions targeted at recognizing strengths in romantic partners would increase relationship satisfaction. Additionally, this study aimed to explore whether curiosity would mediate the effect of interventions on relationship satisfaction.

3.2.1 Hypotheses

  1. 1.

    Character strength interventions prompting participants to think about their romantic partner’s character strengths will lead to significantly greater reported relationship satisfaction compared to a control condition.

  2. 2.

    Participants receiving a mystery prompt before the recognition of strengths in the partner will be significantly more curious about the intervention than those in the control condition and those in the recognition of partner strengths without the mystery prompt condition.

  3. 3.

    Curiosity will mediate the relationship between conditions and relationship satisfaction.

3.2.2 Exploratory Analysis

An exploratory linear regression investigated which character strengths are most associated with relationship satisfaction.

4 Methods

The methods section includes information addressing the methodological reporting criteria set out by Simmons et al. (2012). These criteria are as follows: determination of sample size, any data exclusions, all manipulations, and the measures used in the study. In this study only participants who had incomplete data needed for an analysis were excluded from that analysis. No measures other than those described were used.

4.1 Participants

Assuming a medium effect size of 0.42 as reported in a meta-analysis of character strength interventions focused on individuals recognizing their own strengths (Schutte & Malouff, 2019), a critical α of 0.05, three groups, and a target power of 0.80, according to a G*Power analysis (Faul et al., 2007), an ANOVA comparing the means of the three groups required a minimum of 142 participants. Participants were recruited via social media announcements, such as on Facebook Participants then followed a link to the Qualtrics™ software platform, which presented the study materials.

To be included in the study participants had to be over the age of 18 and currently in an exclusive romantic relationship. In total, there were 311 participants who entered the study and were randomly assigned to one of three conditions; of those, 243 completed the study, including the post measures. Out of the 68 incomplete responses, 2 answered demographic and character strengths questions, 51 filled out some or all demographic questions, and the other 15 exited the survey without completing post measures. Participants with all completed data needed for an analysis was used in the respective analyses. No participants were excluded Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, with 103–104 participants per condition. Of those who completed the survey, 84 were in the mystery and partner character strengths recognition condition, 71 were in the partner character strengths recognition only condition, and 88 were in the control condition.

Of the 243 participants who completed the study, 185 (76.1%) were women, 53 (21.8%) were men, 4 (1.6%) identified as “Other”, and 1 (0.4%) preferred not to say. Participants ranged from 18 to 73 years of age (M = 37.3, SD = 12.1). Two hundred and nineteen participants indicated they were in an opposite-sex relationship (90.7%), 18 were in a same-sex relationship (7.4%), and 6 selected “other” as their relationship type (2.5%). Relationship length varied from less than 1–48 years (M = 11.3, SD = 10.4).

4.2 Materials

4.2.1 Demographic Information

Participants provided demographic information, including age, gender, type of relationship (including same-sex, opposite-sex, or other), and length of relationship in years.

4.2.2 Partner Character Strengths Rating Condition

In the recognizing partner strengths condition, participants rated their partner on the Character Strengths Rating Form (CSRF; Ruch et al., 2014) was used. The CSRF is a short-form of the original 240-item Values-in-Action questionnaire (VIA-IS; Peterson & Seligman, 2004) and contains 24 items that assess the 24 character strengths as first described by Peterson and Seligman (2004). A sample item is “Bravery (valor): Brave and courageous people do not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain. They speak up for their opinions and convictions even if there is opposition.” Participants indicated how much each item described their romantic partner. Responses were recorded on a 9-point rating scale ranging from 1 = “very much unlike my partner” to 9 = “very much like my partner”. Scores range from 1 to 9 with higher scores reflecting higher endorsement of the character strength. The CSRF was shown to have significant correlations with the VIA-IS, ranging from 0.41 to 0.77 with a median of 0.59 (Ruch et al., 2014), indicating convergent validity. Moreover, the measure was shown to have adequate mean-level and rank-order stability over 2 years, with coefficients ranging from 0.37 for fairness to 0.69 for spirituality (Gander et al., 2013). After completing the partner ratings, participants each received a composite profile of how they rated their partner’s strengths.

4.2.3 Mystery Prompt and Character Strengths Condition

The mystery prompt consisted of a brief quote from the VIA-IS website to present the notion of character strengths and two questions to evoke curiosity, including “Do you think you know your partner’s character strengths?” and “Are you curious to find out what they are?”. This was followed by participants rating their partner on the CSRF items. After completing the partner ratings, participants received a composite profile of how they rated their partner’s strengths.

4.2.4 Control Condition

A control group completed a partner habit questionnaire instead of the CSRF. This control questionnaire included 24 questions such as “My partner likes to read magazines” and responses options ranged from 1 = “very much unlike my partner” to 9 = “very much like my partner”. The control condition was intended to match the two experimental conditions in regard to partner focus and time taken to complete the ratings.

4.2.5 Relationship Satisfaction

The Relationship Adjustment Scale (RAS; Renshaw et al., 2011) was used to measure general relationship satisfaction. It was originally designed as a measure of marital quality but later adapted to romantic relationships. The scale consists of seven items including “In general, how satisfied are you with your relationship?” with responses ranging from 1 = “Not satisfied” to 5 = “Very satisfied”. Higher scores indicate greater relationship satisfaction. In previous research (Renshaw et al., 2011) the scale showed good internal consistency (αs between 0.86 and 0.92), test–retest reliability (αs between 0.74 and 0.89), and convergent validity with other relationship satisfaction measures such as the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. In the present study, all participants after completing their condition were asked to rate the items according to how they felt at that moment. In the present study the internal consistency was α = 0.90.

4.2.6 Mystery Manipulation Check

To check if the mystery prime had an impact on curiosity and to allow testing of curiosity as a mediating factor, at the end of the survey, all participants were asked to indicate their level of curiosity regarding the outcome of their partner ratings before completing the partner questions on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 = “Not Curious At All” to 5 = “Extremely Curious” with higher scores indicating greater curiosity.

4.3 Procedure

This study was approved by the university Human Research Ethics Committee. The study was conducted using the Qualtrics research platform (version April 2021, Provo, UT). Participants were recruited through social media between May of 2021 and October 2021. All participants provided informed consent.

Upon entering the study, participants provided the demographic information. Then participants were randomly assigned to one of three partner rating conditions through the Qualtrics research platform. For the two conditions including the CSRF, after completing the partner ratings, participants were presented with the composite values they recognized in their partners for average values of eight or above on the character strengths relating to the values of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. This format of presentation was intended to highlight the strong perceived strengths. In all conditions, participants then reported their relationship satisfaction at that moment on the RAS items and indicated how curious they were.

The data is available on the OSF registration platform at under the title Recognising Partner Character Strengths.

4.4 Data Analysis

All statistical analyses were conducted using Jamovi v. 1.6.15. An analysis of variance first compared the post-intervention scores of the three groups. Pair-wise comparisons with a Bonferroni alpha adjustment for multiple group comparisons examined differences between each pair of conditions. Regression-base mediation analysis investigated the mediating role of curiosity. Finally, linear regression examined the relationship of the total of strengths perceived in partners as well as individual strengths perceived in partners, with relationship satisfaction.

5 Results

5.1 Between Group Comparisons

Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations for relationship satisfaction and curiosity for the participants in the three groups.

Table 1 Means and standard deviations for relationship satisfaction and curiosity

5.1.1 Curiosity

To check whether the curiosity manipulation was successful, the three conditions were compared using a one-way ANOVA. Conditions did not differ significantly; F(239) = 0.01, p = 0.99). The effect size was Cohen’s d = 0.01.

5.1.2 Relationship Satisfaction

A one-way ANOVA examined overall differences in relationship satisfaction between conditions. The one-way ANOVA was significant, F(2, 239) = 4.60, p = 0.01, The effect size was Cohen’s d = 0.48. With a Bonferroni adjustment for multiple group comparisons, there was a significant difference in relationship satisfaction between the recognizing partner strengths condition and the control condition. See Table 2, for more details.

Table 2 Pairwise comparisons of conditions for relationship satisfaction

5.1.3 Curiosity as a Mediator between Condition and Relationship Satisfaction

Even though the independent variable of condition was not associated with the proposed mediator of curiosity, there is statistical justification for performing a mediation analysis (Hayes, 2009; MacKinnon et al. (2002). A mediation analysis using bootstrapping of 1000 samples examined the mediating role of curiosity. Because there was no difference in curiosity between conditions, the intervention conditions were combined to examine the mediation effect of curiosity. Partner strength recognition conditions combined were not associated with curiosity and curiosity did not mediate the relationship between character strengths recognition and relationship satisfaction for the total sample (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Mediation model for mediating effect of curiosity in the impact of the f intervention conditions combined versus control on relationship satisfaction. Note. Confidence intervals computed with method: Parametric bootstrap. aBetas are completely standardized effect sizes. b*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001

5.2 Correlations between Recognition of Partner Strengths and Relationship Satisfaction

In the two partner strength recognition conditions combined in order to increase power for this correlation, overall stronger recognition of strengths in partners was associated with more relationship satisfaction r(153) = 0.60. p = 0.001. To examine whether any specific partner character strengths were correlated with participant relationship satisfaction, a linear regression was conducted for the CSRF partner ratings in the combined intervention groups and relationship satisfaction. Love, zest and honesty were significant predictors of relationship satisfaction. After using a Bonferroni correction for the multiple associations examined, resulting in adjusting α to 0.002, only love remained a significant predictor at p = 0.001. See Table 3.

Table 3 The Association of Strengths with Relationship Satisfaction

Because condition was not related significantly related to the proposed mediator of curiosity, curiosity did not mediate between condition and relationship satisfaction.

6 Discussion

An intervention focused on prompting recognition of character strengths in a romantic partner resulted in participants reporting greater relationship satisfaction compared to participants in a control condition. Participating in a variation of this intervention in which an attempt was made to prime curiosity regarding partner strengths did not result in greater curiosity or relationship satisfaction compared to a control condition or the recognition of character strengths only condition.

The present findings build and extend on previous research on character strengths. A number of previous studies have shown that prompting recognition and use of character strengths in the self leads to beneficial outcomes (Schutte & Malouff, 2019; Seligman et al., 2005). The effect size of d = 0.48 found in the present study for the impact of recognizing character strengths in a partner on relationship satisfaction is comparable to the weighted g of 0.42 for the impact of recognizing character strengths in the self on life satisfaction across studies reported by Schutte and Malouff (2019). Thus, the utility of character strength recognition interventions may apply both to recognition of strengths in the self and recognition of strengths in others.

The present findings also extend results of previous correlation-based research, such as that by Boiman-Meshita and Littman-Ovadia, (2022), Harzer and Ruch, (2015), Kashdan et al., (2017), Littman-Ovadia and Lavy (2012), Murray et al. (2000), Park et al., (2004) and Park and Peterson (2006) showing associations between recognition of partners’ strengths and relationship satisfaction. The results of correlation-based research leave open the possibility of bi-directional influences between relationship satisfaction and recognition of character strengths or that third variables influence the association between relationship satisfaction and recognition of character strengths. The results of the present research support the proposition that recognition of partners’ strengths prompts relationship satisfaction. The associations of the characteristics of love and zest with relationship satisfaction somewhat correspond to the association of love and zest with life satisfaction found by Littman-Ovadia and Lavy (2012) and Park et al. (2004).

There was no significant difference between the recognition of character strengths only and the mystery plus character strengths condition or the mystery plus character strengths condition and the control condition in curiosity and in relationship satisfaction. Thus, the mystery prompt was unsuccessful in impacting curiosity, which decreases the distinction between the two intervention conditions. The mystery prompt may have had undesirable effects such as inducing annoyance or distraction, thus increasing frustration, or simply extending the survey length, making participants impatient or bored or may have resulted in participants question how well they know their partner and feel more insecure about their relationship, leading to a less effective impact of the recognizing strengths portion of the intervention. As there was no difference in curiosity between participants in the different conditions, the mediating effect of curiosity could not be effectively examined and was not significant.

Interventions such as the recognition of partner strengths intervention examined in this study lend themselves to being applied to a variety of practical settings. In psychotherapy, for example, clinicians have explored adopted strengths-based approaches to improve therapy outcomes (Flückinger et al., 2008). Strength recognition also can have benefits in education settings. Quinlan et al. (2019) trained teachers to identify their students’ strengths which, in turn, increased students’ perceived relatedness to others, classroom engagement, and affect. Patston and Waters (2015) proposed strengths spotting in teaching music as this might support students’ learning through creating a strong connection between teacher and student.

6.1 Limitations and Future Directions

This study was conducted using an online survey and recruited a convenience sample via social media. Online studies often suffer from high attrition rates, as did this one. The sample was also largely homogeneous, the majority being women and in opposite-gender relationships, limiting the generalizability of results drawn. While previous character strength studies found only small gender differences (Heintz et al., 2019; Park et al., 2004), more heterogeneous samples could improve reliability and generalizability. To date, there has been very little information generated on strengths in relation to same gender or non-monogamous relationships, which should be investigated further.

Active control groups may act as a placebo and have effects despite lacking the intervention component (Mongrain & Anselmo-Matthews, 2012; Seligman et al., 2005). The habit recognition control condition used in the present study may have had such an effect. Using a waitlist control could be an alternative to the active placebo control group used in the present study. The study used a post-test only design, thus despite random assignment to conditions, there might have been differences in pre-existing relationship satisfaction and curiosity levels between conditions. Additionally, the partner strength rating intervention may not have been optimal in drawing participants’ attention to their partners’ major strengths, even though the highly rated strengths were presented in the post-rating feedback. Some individuals may have rated their partners low on particular strengths, possibly diminishing the impact of the intervention on relationship satisfaction. The study did not include a pre-measure of relationship satisfaction, thus change in satisfaction for experimental group participants from before to after the intervention is not known. In regard to the correlation analysis between strengths and relationship satisfaction, this was based on the ratings of the combined experimental groups and this combining may have introduced some error variance in the analysis.

This study consisted of a single and short intervention. More complex interventions such as “identify and use” interventions (Biswas-Diener et al., 2011; Seligman et al., 2005), and repeated post measures over a longer period of time could investigate more extensive interventions building on the present study and explore the longer-term impact of such interventions. Adding pre-test measures to such designs could strengthen study designs. Drawing participants’ attention to partners’ top strengths and asking them to recollect situations in which the partner used these strengths might make the intervention more effective. A couples’ therapy approach could investigate the benefits of mutual strength recognition between partners. Such an approach could affect partners’ relationship satisfaction through recognition of the other partner’s strengths as well as feelings of being understood and appreciated through mutual recognition of strengths.

7 Conclusion

The results of this intervention study suggest that recognizing character strengths in a romantic partner may be associated with relationship satisfaction. This finding expands the realm of application of strength recognition and has implications for better understanding of relationship processes. The finding has possible applications in couples’ therapy. Recognition of character strengths in others in a variety of relationships and settings also may have value.