Whenever I have asked athletes if they have any interest in learning about mental toughness for their relationship, I usually get some comment about how “they know all about mental toughness” or they “can’t see how that would help them.”


This makes sense to me – I also used to think I knew all there was to know about mental toughness, too. However, what I found out was that it is easy to overlook important factors. Many people, when defining mental toughness, think of it as another term for “resilience” or “grit.” While those terms are a part of it, they are missing some key components.

To illustrate the importance of having an agreed-upon definition for a word,  the AQR (the world’s leader in the mental toughness research and development) and 3 career organizations were tasked with finding what employers most valued in an employee.

The number one answer to the question of the most important characteristic of an employee was “a good attitude.” In fact, this was listed above qualifications or experience. The study, attempting to define what the definition was , asked 1500 employers for their description of “good attitude” and got 1500 different answers. The consequence for not having an agreed-upon definition means that there is no way to identify who has a good attitude, nor what can they do to develop the quality.

More than just grit, resilience, or hardiness, the concept of “mental toughness” does have an agreed-upon definition since early 2000. In the 21st century, Keith Earle and Professor Peter Clough developed the 4 C’s concepts of mental toughness. Their research, supported by over 100 independent studies, has become the gold standard for measurement. Clough has gone on to develop the MTQ48, a vetted assessment which can measure mental toughness.

There are two mainly agreed upon definitions of mental toughness which mean roughly the same thing, with the only difference being who they are geared for. They are as follows:

“The capacity for an individual to deal effectively with stressors, pressures and challenge and perform to the best of their abilities, irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves” (Clough & Earle, 2002).


 “Mental Toughness is a personality trait which determines, in large part, how people respond to challenge, stress and pressure, irrespective of their circumstances” (Clough & Strycharczyk, 2012).


Professor Clough has also described mental toughness as “being comfortable in your own skin” and having that inner strength to deal with whatever life throws at you.

There are several misconceptions about the term. However, it is also worth noting what mental toughness is not.

  1.  Mental toughness is not a male-dominated concept, or nor does it refer to machismo.
  2. Mentally-tough people are not uncaring and self-centered. Actually, studies show a close relationship between mental toughness and emotional intelligence.
  3. Mental toughness is not all about winning.
  4. Finally, not everyone should be mentally tough. The mentally-sensitive bring a lot of benefits to the well-being of everyone.

The qualities of mental toughness can be measured with the MTQ, a psychometric test which measures behaviors (how a person thinks and acts) and attributes (how they feel). There are four key components of MT,  known as the 4 C’s: Control, Commitment, Confidence, and Challenge. Each construct is further broken down into subcomponents. This article only addresses the Big Categories.

The following section will first, define each of the four components and offer a brief example of how mental toughness can be applied to relationships.

  1. This characteristic points to the amount of belief that someone has about controlling their life. This characteristic can be measured to determine whether or not a person has the belief they have the ability to shape their life and experiences.

Here, Henry Ford’s adage of “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re probably right” is applicable. To improve one’s relationship, they will be required to adopt the positive mindset of “can-do.” 

An individual needs to improve controlling their emotions while also understanding their partner’s emotions/feelings and how to manage them.


  1. This refers to the notion that one will need to work hard. In order to be successful, mentally tough (MT) individuals put in the effort consistently. If someone wants their relationship to improve, much effort will be necessary. There are no free lunches. They need to take daily actions to see improvements. Here, goal setting and making promises requires persistence.

Mentally tough individuals do not become distracted or divert their attention from goals. For example, an athlete who wakes up early to get their first training session in when they have a two-a-day scheduled is a dedicated athlete driven towards continued advancement. Much like on the field, people dedicated to improving their relationships are committed taking daily actions for improvements. It is setting up milestones to achieve bigger goals (See the relationship mindset guide pdf for additional help).

For example, in relationships, this includes making time available and attending to some of the partner’s desires. Think of a chore or task that it is important to your mate. What if a spouse decided to dedicate time weekly to folding that laundry, or running that vacuum for them?

An individual who scores high in commitment will be more likely to do what it takes. They will prioritize and plan so that they can attend to the goals they set.


  1. Challenge. This component addresses how people respond to challenges. What is a person’s attitude toward challenge? How do they handle outcomes to those challenges? Mentally tough individuals are likely to think “that may not have worked, but I have learned something from doing it.”

More sensitive people, on the other hand, will have an aversion to trying again. They might think “that didn’t work and that was unpleasant.”  They are less likely to try again and see challenges as a threat. This characteristic of mental toughness is especially important with relationship challenges. Many partners are afraid to bring things up again after a conversation doesn’t go well and are reluctant to try again. To make improvements in a relationship, players have to improve their response to challenges and learn from mistakes.

As Seal Team leaders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explain in the book “Extreme Ownership,” a successful individual must own everything in his or her world. Part of winning the war is acknowledging mistakes and admitting failures by taking ownership of them. When someone takes extreme ownership, they are accountable for whatever went wrong.

In a relationship, being accountable means focusing on the individual’s mistakes and trying to improve as a person — in short, putting in the effort, managing fears, trying new things, and seeing the lesson in trials.


  1. Confidence. This category measures how much self-belief an individual has to complete a difficult task, especially one that will involve setbacks. Again, this characteristic is important in improving a relationship. There is going to be testing and trying new strategies. Some things might work while others won’t. There is inevitably going to be a learning phase.

Remember the learning curve to training? Learning how to use clipless pedals or ride a triathlon bike? Athletes trust in those who have gone before them. They know there is a lot to learn. This is also true in relationships.

To increase this aspect of mental toughness, an individual must increase their personal belief about process, knowing that setbacks are part and parcel of making improvements in a relationship.


Do you struggle communicating with your spouse? Do you wish you could just talk about what is important without fighting or shutting down?
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