What Your Personality Says About Your Romantic Life
Although everyone tries to cook up a unique recipe for love, the formation, course, and quality of every intimate relationship is a reflection of the personality and experiences each person brings to the relationship. In addition to being mostly water, we’re all made of characteristics and memories that shape us. Our personality is often what mostly draws our romantic partner to us and combined with their personality is what causes a concoction of love’s special chemistry. Instead of relying on horoscopes from astrology or other forms of pseudoscience to predict a relationships’ success or failure, personality traits can be studied through a scientific lens and serve as a reliable, valid tool to improve the relationship we have with ourselves and a significant other. Prior to pondering what makes our relationships what they are, we should self-reflect about what makes us who we are and how our personalities and histories influence our approach to interpersonal relationships.
Relationship Tendencies of Personality Traits
Imagine your ideal partner, what about them do you most love? It’s common for people to hope they will be in a romantic relationship with someone who’s above average in crucial areas. Physical appearance, sure, but more importantly someone who genuinely admires and appreciates our personality. Someone who’s trustworthy, expressive, and has a good sense of humor. We want the universe to unite us with our soulmate. When actually choosing a partner for a long-term relationship, people often prefer an average-looking person with an amazing personality over an extremely attractive person with an average personality. The relatively stable, distinctive qualities which characterize an individual over time and across various scenarios and influence how they’ll behave and adapt to the world are known as their personality. Are there personality traits that seem linked to the success of failure of a relationship? The first attempts at exploring the relationship between a personality and intimacy focused on possible problems a personality might cause and temperament.
Psychologist Lewis Terman became famous by identifying the factors that distinguish a happily married couple from an unhappy couple. He proposed that most married partners that sooner or later feel they’re incompatible feel that way not because of new information or events but because of predispositions to unhappiness. That because of nature or nurture they lacked qualities that make people compatible and that they were incapable of finding happiness in any marriage. That theory did not prioritize interpersonal communication or scratch the surface of its importance and impact on a relationship! Terman was a trait theorist and believed that in order to understand a relationship, people must inspect the personality of each partner. The Big Five traits which are pretty general and encompassing yet address specific aspects of personality include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and negative affectivity or neuroticism. Openness measures how receptive someone is to new ideas, approaches, and experiences. Conscientiousness measures how disciplined and organized someone is. Extraversion measures someone’s preference for social interaction and lively activity. Agreeableness measures someone’s selfless concern for others, their generosity, and how trusting they are.
Personality, Emotion, and Relationships
Most people’s Big Five are consistent throughout their lives. Even measures of personality from someone’s childhood can predict their adult relationships. Children who throw numerous temper tantrums before they turn ten are twice as likely to divorce and women with a history of tantrums tend to marry men of lower occupational status. When an adult’s personality assessment is conducted, it also leads to links between personality traits and experiences in relationships. Virtually every study on personality traits and relationships have found that people with high negative affectivity tend to ruminate on negative qualities they have, others have, and in the world in general. They seem to be vulnerable to poor relationships and have low self-esteem. In a 50-year study of marriage, engaged people that were negative were more likely to become unhappy and divorce. Of those couples, husbands tended to be more outgoing and impulsive than unhappy husbands who remained married. Thus, unhappy spouses are more likely to divorce if husbands have personality traits that make them prone to engage in deconstructive behaviors like infidelity, financial irresponsibility, and excessive drinking. Behaviors reflecting negative affectivity cause distress which when combined with personality traits will either result in divorce or passive suffering in a stable but unsatisfactory marriage.
The other personality traits have not been studied as much but one can easily expect that couples who are more agreeable or more conscientious are usually happier. People with disagreeable partners report being treated with condescension and disrespected. People with neurotic partners report their relationships suffering because of self-centeredness, jealousy, dependence, and a lot of criticism. You can imagine why being in a relationship with someone who constantly highlights your flaws, rarely gives you the benefit of the doubt when you make a mistake and is often hostile. Last but certainly not least, sex lives tend to be less satisfying for couples where one or both partners suffers from high tension and distress associated with negative affectivity. Keep in mind, similarities in a soul’s age, general intelligence, political views, and religious beliefs predict happiness better than similar personality traits. You don’t need to try to date your clone, your best bet is to connect with someone who is generally more agreeable and positive than someone who is just like you in regard to the Big Five. Personality traits set the boundaries within a relationship and affect how partners communicate, perceive each other’s behavior, and respond during difficult times. The traits that have been found to matter the most are negative affectivity, agreeableness, and conscientiousness because they set the day-to-day emotional tone of our relationships.
Negative Affectivity and Low Self-esteem Affect Relationships
Recent research on the dependence regulation mode demonstrates that people with low-self-esteem underestimate how favorably their partners view them. This underestimation sets off a domino effect of unintentional sabotage. For example, being excessively defensive, overreacting to criticism, dismissing genuine praise, and feeling and expressing strong negative emotions like anger. The cycle starts with personal experience of self-esteem, then someone underestimates positive feelings towards them and the relationship, they then devalue their partner and feel hurt and neglected which leads to expressing their discontent, and then they and their partner are pessimistic and dissatisfied with the relationship which reinforces this deadly cycle. The point is, when someone has chronic low self-esteem, the relationship really suffers. They assume their partners don’t think highly of them and that others share the pessimistic perception they have of themselves. Studies show they are wrong! Insecure people struggle with the difficult decision of whether to express concerns and risk becoming even more vulnerable or to be overly cautious and self-protective in the relationship. In an effort to protect a fragile personal identity, people with low self-esteem try to reduce the risk of rejection but as a result build a wall between themselves and their partners which increases their insecure feelings of the relationship.
Unjustified doubts sew deadly seeds that can weaken a relationship. They lead to a form of self-sabotage where insecure people perceive their partner is unfavorable and they express discontent when all their heart wishes is to be closer and receive for confirmation, they are special and loved. When someone with a personality trait of low self-esteem believes their partner doesn’t truly love them, they look for evidence they do, yet detect rejection even when it doesn’t exist and devalue their partner. Perhaps they devalue their partner as a defensive strategy to believe they’ll have less to lose if the relationship ends. Contrastingly, confident people with high self-esteem are less sensitive to threats to the relationship and don’t exaggerate problems or place a relationship under scrutiny like someone with insecure feelings would. The personality trait of low self-esteem leaves people prone to feeling hurt and ignored and more likely to express anger and sadness, especially after disagreements. This adds more fuel to the fire by worsening arguments, promotes emotional distancing, and prevents partners from apologizing, reconnecting, and healing the relationship. Interestingly, there are people with low self-esteems that have satisfying relationships and confident people that don’t. Nevertheless, the dependence regulation model specifies key psychological processes which lead to relationship dissatisfaction.
Childhood Experiences Affect Adult Relationships
Personality traits provide valid information about the intimate relationships people will have and whether they’ll last or end. Keep in mind, not even the best personality tests can fully capture the complexity of anyone’s character or how they’ll behave in a relationship. Most of us can recognize intergenerational transmission effects; that who we are as individuals and as romantic partners was shaped by how we were raised, and relationship scientists have learned that each new generation in a family partially resembles previous generations. Experiences are transmitted from one generation of parents on to the next generation, their children, and the cycle repeats. Some of the most significant effects arise when families dissolve in say, a divorce, and then reappear in another form. We learn a lot about our partners by meeting the families they were raised in, their families of origin. For example, your partner may get their goofy sense of humor from a parent or love public displays of affection because they have parents that can’t keep their hands off of each other.
The divorce rate has slightly declined since the 1980s but about half of all first marriages and an even higher amount of second marriages end in permanent separation or divorce. Not all divorces involve children, but more than one million children experience the divorce of their parents every year in the United States. About 40 percent of all children experience their parents divorcing before they become young adults. Experiences vary dramatically for different families and children in the same family can vary in their response to their parent’s separation or divorce. Five key conclusions have emerged from research on how parental conflict and relationship dissolutions affect individuals as they develop from children to adolescents, to adults.
1. Parental separation or divorce often negatively affects a child’s academic achievement, conduct and behavior, psychological adjustment, self-esteem, and social relationships.
2. Parental divorce approximately doubles the risk of negative consequences for children but children with parents who have an intact marriage can also experience them.
3. Divorce jeopardizes a family’s economic circumstances, compromises the parents’ mental health, reduces the quantity and quality of parent-child contact, and leaves everyone involved vulnerable to new types of distress.
Despite the best intentions, the quality of parenting often suffers because of a divorce, and family instability decreases the chances a child will receive the emotional support and guidance they need. Fortunately, the use of active coping skills can offset adverse effects.
4. Raising children in emotionally distressed homes, even with biological parents together can negatively affect children, especially when parental conflicts aren’t properly resolved. Children exposed to higher levels of parental conflict have lower self-esteem, happiness, and life satisfaction in early adulthood compared to children exposed to lower levels of parental conflict.
5. The psychological health of adult children depends on a complex combination of whether their parents divorced and the marriage’s health prior to the divorce. A study of 27-year-olds found children’s well-being is the lowest when marriages with little conflict end and when marriages with a lot of conflict do not end. Unexpected divorces decrease a child’s capacity to develop long-term trusting relationships.
A complete understanding of an intimate relationships doesn’t begin when two people meet. It begins when parents meet and create a new family. Children with rocky family foundations are more cautious toward relationships and more accepting of divorce. Children of divorce may marry earlier than children not exposed to parental divorce, perhaps reflecting a desire to leave difficult family situations. They are also more likely to cohabit without marrying and delay getting married. They’re just as motivated to form intimate relationships as children from intact families but tend to be more pessimistic about marriage as the way to accomplish that goal. Children from unstable and troubled families tend to have less money and fewer friends as they complete adolescence and begin adulthood. Children of divorced parents are less likely to graduate from high school or start college. They’re also at a greater risk of unplanned pregnancies and dissatisfying relationships with their parents even later in life. Father-child relationships are particularly fragile following family breakups. Children from unstable families experience more relationship distress and dissolution themselves. Experiences they have can be linked to what happened in their parents’ relationship. Regardless of the parents’ education, income, religious views, and whether or not they divorced children whose parents were unhappy in marriage are likely to form relatively unhappy marriages.
The Social Learning Theory
Children learn about relationships from watching how family members relate to one another, their relationships with their parents, siblings, other family members, and internalize emotional and behavioral models to generalize relationships outside the family. The interpersonal styles they learn influence their adolescent and adult intimate relationships. Children exposed to various forms of abuse and neglect in childhood carry those experiences with them and based on those experiences, the quality of newlywed marriages can be predicted, including increased psychological aggression and relationship problems, and decreased trust and sexual activity. Even couples in the dating stage of a relationship with a partner from a harsh and conflicted family will have less positive behavior in communication because the person from the troubled family will have less self-control over emotions and a greater tendency to have hostile and cynical attitudes toward other people in general. Married couples discussing relationship problems, one partner being from a troubled home, will suffer because that person with a history of parental divorce will likely disagree, express disrespect and disdain for their partner, and withdraw in unproductive ways. The presence of a supportive spouse does not offset this effect, their marriages are predicted to be less fulfilling. Fortunately, children who grow up in warm, nurturing families feel more closely connected to their intimate partner 60 years later. They are able to do this by being less defensive, more realistic about life challenges, and by being more emotionally engaged with those challenges while managing them. Without a doubt, we are shaped by the ways our parents managed their emotions and conversations while we were kids but the effects of family upbringing on adult relationships vary. Many people who grow up with conflicted or divorced parents are able to create and maintain satisfying intimate relationships.
The Attachment Theory
Our attachment behavior system, an innate set of behaviors and reactions shaped by evolution, helps ensure our safety and survival and governs our capacity to form emotional bonds. For example, when your partner doesn’t respond to your cues when you want to cuddle or doesn’t say supportive things when you need a pep talk, how do you take it? Just like politicians, people in intimate relationships can spin events in constructive or deconstructive ways. Maybe they didn’t cuddle you or give you a pep talk because they knew you were strong enough to handle it yourself and had faith you could handle a situation independently. Maybe they didn’t cuddle you or give you a pep talk because the other day you didn’t wash the plates and take out the trash even though it was your turn and they’re trying to get back at you. Our internal working models affect how we interpret interpersonal events like these. People with a secure attachment style tend to minimize the impact of negative events while people with insecure attachments tend to magnify the impact of the same events. People with the most negative working models of themselves and others, fearful individuals, typically have the most pessimistic interpretations of relationship events. People who try to repress their emotions express less emotion in response to relationship events and report being less aware of physical manifestations of anger like tension and a faster heart rate. People with an anxious attachment will compensate for low self-esteem by overusing available support and might not even be satisfied by it. People prone to avoidance will adopt a defensive position and deny their need for support, they’ll use distancing strategies to cope with their distress.
People with a secure attachment style approach relationship problems with more warmth, more compassion, and less hostility. They are also inclined to have open conversations with their partner when they are upset and less likely to think about breaking up. Secure partners are likely to clearly communicate needs, expect their partner will help address their needs, and gratefully accept their partners’ efforts to help. Fearful individuals do the opposite by stonewalling and closing off contact and are inclined to jump to conclusions about ending the relationship. Attachment theory provides essential clues about kinds of communication that nourish or harm relationships. The attachment behavior system isn’t always operating though, it’s activated when a person is challenged or access to their caregiver is threatened. For example, at the airport security checkpoint where only passengers can go through security, many people can be seen trying to hug and kiss goodbye until the very last minute and promising to reconnect as soon as possible.
How to Overcome Insecurity
Identify values that are important to you (e.g. honestly, community service, spirituality, working hard) and write about why they’re important to you, how they shape your life and play a key role in your self-image
2. Adopt Your Partner’s Perspective
Imagine what a day in your partner’s shoes is like. Describe in detail what their five senses pick up on during a typical day. What do they see, smell, taste, touch, and hear?
3. Elaborate on a Compliment
Think about a time your partner said how much they liked something about you such as a personal quality or ability, or something you did that really impressed them. Explain in detail why they admire you, what that means to you and its significance for your relationship.
4. Increase Psychological and Physical Closeness
Work with your partner through a series of increasingly personal questions and discuss your responses together (e.g. if you were to die tonight with no opportunity to text or call anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?) After answering deep questions and connecting over them, engage in 30 minutes of gentle stretching and yoga together (or another similar activity that fits your physical abilities and preferences such as a walk in nature).
Remember that simple activities can weaken the influence of insecure attachments on relationships and implement tools regularly in your daily life. Remember that regardless of how secure or insecure we feel, we all have room to improve our relationships and there are a plethora of resources at your fingertips. Be willing to research and practice them, an investment in a relationship will never be a waste!
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