Understanding personality traits and how they affect your marriage

Personality is just one of those words that we use on a daily basis when we talk to or about our significant others, kids, family members, co-workers, friends, celebrities, or politicians. We generally talk about others’ personalities as if we were experts on the subject, especially when it comes to describing another human that we generally disagree with or dislike for some reason.The concept of personality is actually very complex. Many experts have struggled to understand it, define it, measure it, and of course, change it! At some point, one psychologist, Gordon Allport actually identified more than 4,000 words in the English language that could be used to describe personality traits. That’s a lot! Personality, by definition, is an accumulation of patterns of inner experiences and overt behaviors. It’s what you see on the outside of a person as well as what you don’t see, such as their thoughts and feelings. It has genetic components, but the interactions with our environment and our parents have a significant impact on how our genetic predispositions will be expressed and how they shape up the person we become. You can see the temperamental predispositions in babies and toddlers, but with the influence of a parent, teacher, or coach, these predispositions change and solidify in adolescence or early adulthood, and become stable over time and inflexible. Most of these patterns are enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to others, and thinking about the environment and oneself. They can usually be observed not only in one setting, but in a wide range of social and personal contexts.By now, psychologists have agreed that there is a continuum of personality traits rather than just a simple category. In other words, we ALL have ALL of these traits to a certain degree, but we might be high in some traits and low in others. Generally speaking, when a trait is in the middle of the continuum, that means the individual is pretty flexible, adjustable, and displays that trait in certain situations, but not in all, He or she has more control over that particular trait and, of course, that means, it is easier to change in the case that it causes problems. However, certain personality traits can be more powerful. As we move further away from the mid-point, either higher or lower, the associated behaviors or traits tend to become stronger, more forcefully expressed, and generally will cause some distress or functional impairment at work or at home. This can be manifested in one or more of the following areas: cognition (how we think), affectivity (how and what we feel), interpersonal (how we relate to others), or impulse control (ability to slow down and think before we act). Let’s take a look at this graph. I picked three traits that usually create problems in a relationship: dominance, emotional stability, and tension. Take an honest look at the continuum display of these traits, and try to place yourself and your spouse. What did you notice? Are you in the “very low” category or in the “very high” category? If the answer is yes to either question, most likely that these particular traits cause some problems in your day-to-day interactions at home or at work. It is important to discuss that research shows that when it comes to failed marriages, the intensity of the personality traits is more important than the trait itself or the compatibility of each partner’s traits. Personality factors are cited by approximately 10% of divorced individuals as the cause of their marital problems. For example, think of dominance as one of these important traits. Are you both forceful and aggressive? Is one more submissive than the other one? If you were to place the intensity of this trait on a continuum, would you place yourself more in the middle of the continuum (average) or at one of the extremes (very submissive or very aggressive)? If you are both in the middle of the continuum, most likely you’ll be able to negotiate and compromise through most disagreements. If you are both very aggressive, every fight turns into “the last one standing”. If one is very aggressive and the other one is very submissive, the dominant one will usually win the fight, and cause a lot of unresolved frustrations in the other person, which may lead to some passive-aggressive behavior, which in turn will undermine the relationship in the long run.Here are some other personality traits that become very important in the context of a relationship. Think about what these traits look like for you and your spouse. Try to place each one of these traits on a continuum for you and your spouse. Think about:

  • the level of warmth (distant & detached vs. involved & attentive to others) 
  • flow of thinking (logical, linear & factual vs. disorganized, intuitive & emotional)
  • liveliness (serious & restrained vs. spontaneous & cheerful)
  • rule-awareness (non-conforming & rule-breaker vs. conforming & rule-follower)
  • social boldness (shy & timid vs. venturesome & uninhibited)
  • sensitivity (unsentimental & rough vs. sentimental & tender-minded)
  • apprehension (self-assured & confident vs. self-doubting & insecure)
  • openness to change (traditional & conservative vs. liberal & free-thinking)
  • perfectionism (flexible, undisciplined, impulsive vs. organized, compulsive, precise)

So, what do you think so far? Any particular traits jumping at you as a big difference between you and your spouse? Would you say that those categories are creating some problems for your relationship? If you answered yes, stick around for the rest of the series and in the meantime, head over to my FREE Marriage and Relationship Resource Center, where you will find specific support to help you navigate and understand your unique relationship.ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a private practice psychologist in Litchfield Park, Arizona with experience in family therapy, ADHD, stress and anxiety management, and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier MarriageClick HERE to check out her free resources on effective communication, emotional unavailability, intimacy, and anxiety management or join her at www.ruxandralemay.com for monthly blog posts.