I believe that the perceptions and behaviors defined for athletes as “mental toughness” are also appropriate for couples and married people. I believe that because, in the construct of mental toughness, “mental” refers to motivating attitudes, beliefs, and values; and “tough” means strong and durable; neither brittle nor tender. And, although the words “action” or “behavior” are not specified, mental toughness means taking those actions and performing those practiced behaviors intended to achieve goals derived from a mentally tough mindset. In other words, mental toughness is a determined mindset and planned action designed to achieve a concrete goal. It is results-driven. It is doing whatever is necessary to accomplish selected goals – whether in sports, work or personal life.
I realize that “tough” is an unusual word to use when talking about the intimate relationship explored in marriage and couple counseling. But in this discussion, tough does not mean aggressive physicality toward one’s partner or bullying. It means exhibiting control over one’s own emotions and behavior while promoting one’s own needs. It means not caving in or withdrawing during conflicts that normally occur in intimate partnerships. It means having a goal (and probably sub-goals) that includes maintaining the relationship while choosing behaviors that also promote your particular concerns. This kind of toughness co-exists comfortably with the positive characteristics typically associated with good relationships – affection, consideration, respect and empathy – if, the goal is persuasion and relationship maintenance. However, if the goal is simply self- expression or winning (whatever that means), mental toughness is not being exhibited.
In fact, mental toughness in couples depends on affection, consideration, respect and empathy – for oneself, as well as for one’s partner! Two mentally tough partners would “stay on the game board, in the ring, or at the table” with mutual respect and civility, while they negotiate agreements that meet at least some of each other’s needs.
Specific mental toughness components, defined and refined by mental toughness researchers and specialists since the 1980’s are:
“… self-confidence, attention control, minimizing negative energy, increasing positive energy, maintaining motivation levels, attitude control and visualization.”
– Dr. Jim Loehr, Sport Psychologist & father of the mental toughness construct
“… remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.”
– Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, 2002, p. 209, What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness: An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers: Journal of Applied Sport Psychology
“ …the ability to resist, manage and overcome doubts, worries, concerns and circumstances that prevent you from succeeding, or excelling at a task or towards an objective or a performance outcome that you set out to achieve.”
– Mental Toughness, Inc., mental toughness coaches
To actually measure mental toughness, in 2002, Professor Peter Clough of Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr. Keith Earle, Senior Lecturer at the University of Hull and Doug Strycharczyk developed the MTQ48, a 48-item questionnaire that considers four dimensions:
Life control = I really believe I can do it. Emotional control = I can manage my emotions and the emotions of others.
Goal setting – I promise to do it. I like working to goals. Achieving – I’ll do what it takes to keep my promises and achieve my goals.
Risk taking – I will push myself. I am driven to succeed. Learning from experience – even setbacks are opportunities for learning.
In abilities – I believe I have the ability to do it, or I can acquire the ability. Interpersonal confidence – I can influence others. I can stand my ground if needed.
So, there you have it (or maybe you don’t). But if you want it, I’d like to be the one to help you “get it”. Mental toughness basics are excellent targets in individual as well as couple and marriage counseling! In the end, it’s about knowing what you really want, staying focused on that goal, and being flexible in what you actually do to achieve it.