Know Thy Partner: Temperament as a Key

By the time adults find themselves in a romantic relationship, they have had a great deal of experience reacting to their world and others who populate it as well as managing relationships with those who are important to them.  I recently explored one way to think about our own reactions – that is, through the lens of temperament. The nine innate, biologically based dimensions that are visible at birth and more or less strong throughout childhood do indeed form the template for the personality that we shape as we move through our lives. These same dimensions can also provide clues to understanding someone we love and how they react within a love relationship.  Here are some ways in which temperament can manifest in a partner.

  • Activity level. How much energy does your loved one have? Is it easily depleted by physical activity or does movement seem to smooth out the rough spots, soothe and calm an energetic nervous system? Does a long bike ride or run through the park neutralize strong negative emotions or does your partner deal better with them through quiet meditation? Would your loved one gravitate more easily to a Bikram high-intensity yoga class or one that emphasizes attention to breathing? Remember that Mood (see below) can be stabilized by activity or quiet, depending on the person.
  • Rhythmicity. Is your loved one more predisposed to regular habits of sleeping, eating, moving, and does he or she become a bit out of sorts when the patterns are broken or require adaptation? Or are they mystified when you seem to have predictable needs for such basic processes? When you and your partner differ, appreciating that the other person’s body simply does not react the way yours does and that those needs are more or less important to their sense of well-being can be the key to a respectful style of being together. The one with a high level of rhythmicity is responsible for letting the one who does not share that level know that the need is becoming insistent. And the less rhythmic person must be able to trust that the partner will take care of those needs — eat when necessary, get the sleep that is restorative, move when the body craves activity. Alternately, a couple can agree to share schedules, accommodating the one who needs a reliable timetable the most.
  • Approach/Avoidance. When both people are Approachers, ever intrigued by what is novel, eager to explore and discover, the relationship question shifts to Adaptation — are they both quick or slow to adapt or does one need to allow time for the other to catch up? Similarly, if two people naturally gravitate away from novelty, how do they keep enough surprise in their relationship to support growth, appreciation and understanding of each other? When one is an Approacher and the other an Avoider, negotiation and accommodation become far more important. The third force in the relationship, the “we”, can provide  guidelines:  what choice in a particular situation best nurtures the relationship itself and how can working with individual temperaments to accommodate that choice help sustain the commitment and appreciation for each other? Perhaps the Approacher can find novelty at work and embrace the familiar at home; perhaps the Avoider can get out of his or her comfort zone periodically to explore a new experience with the loved one, taking comfort in the knowledge that retreat to what is known is available in some form.

  • Adaptation. As described in my previous post, Approach/Avoidance and Adaptation interact in powerful and important ways. Understanding that the partner whose first reaction is always “no!” and who adapts well and quickly once the change is accepted can help both lovers move beyond resentment and into the fun of exploration. Similarly, knowing that the impulsive one who will embrace any idea can be slow to adapt can help them both slow down the bandwagon and take a careful look at a proposition for a new activity.
  • Threshold of Response. Someone’s awareness of shifts in the stimuli that surround us and of their impact can be conscious or unconscious. When it is conscious, a person can alert his or her partner of the effects that a sound, smell, sight, taste or touch is having on him or her and, hopefully, whether that effect is positive or negative, mild or intense. Because two people inevitably have different thresholds, each is responsible for recognizing an impact and its effects. When the influence is there but not recognized — perhaps the honking of horns or lack of light in a noisy city has just become part of the background yet influences someone with a sensitive threshold of response — it can be harder to identify and, as Tamar Gendler of Yale University has shown, we may search for explanations for our experience and reactions that have nothing to do with their actual source. Partners who are sensitive to each other can take responsibility for their own reactions and alert the loved one without judging the other negatively for having different thresholds. We simply live in slightly different worlds. I do not hear or smell or even taste as acutely as my husband, yet I appreciate that he discriminates better than I and thus that sounds and smells and tastes have a greater impact on him. I want him to feel happy so I try to respect those levels that bring him joy and not aggravation.
  • Intensity. A partner who is intense can be energizing or exhausting, inspiring or depleting.  Similarly, one who is less easily aroused can be wonderful to be around when the need is to let go and move on, to observe what is happening and delay reaction until there has been time for reflection. The key to using intensity wisely is to recognize each other’s go-to initial reaction and find ways to work with it. Can you accept a lack of explicit “enthusiasm” or “excitement” as a positive response from someone who reacts quietly, sometimes becoming silent in awe or contemplation rather than expressive? Can an intense person accept that the partner can bring perspective to a problem and that a reflected intensity could only escalate a situation, especially a negative one?  “Emotional contagion” — the tendency to pick up and reflect the emotions of someone close to you — can become more prevalent when baseline reactions are intense. To defuse the escalation of anger, fear or hostility, it is best to step back from intense reactions, retreating to agreed-upon strategies for diffusing the emotion before dealing with the situation.
  • Mood.  John Gottman’s research is usually the first to come to mind when one looks at the data on interactions associated with a happy and lasting marriage. Perhaps his most well-known finding is the 5:1 ratio:  It takes five positive interactions to overcome one that provokes negative feelings.  With that awareness, a partner’s temperament becomes critical. Those who are born cheerful are far more likely to see the sunny side of any situation, to find ways to lighten a dark day, to create positive energy in a difficult situation. Those who are more serious (less naturally cheerful) need to work harder at allowing the joy in life and between people to predominate. Recognizing your partner’s baseline temperament can help you appreciate your own role in keeping that 5:1 ratio the standard for your interactions. 
  • Distractibility. Observe the extent to which your partner retains a focus or that his or her attention span is disrupted. Yoga teachers are fond of saying, “where your attention goes, there goes your energy”. A more easily distracted person shifts energy away from the relationship, perhaps even becoming more vulnerable to cheating and thus requires a stronger effort to set boundaries for engagement and detachment. When is it okay to be pulled away, especially from a difficult interpersonal moment, and when can you agree you will make an effort to remain focused on each other? Similarly, the partner who is all focus can find it difficult to come back to the relationship when he or she is engaged in an experience that commands full attention. 
  • Persistence. The ninth dimension, persistence, has to do with frustration and determination.  How hard is a person willing to pursue a goal, even when a new approach is required, when discomforts and difficulties abound, when it would be so much easier to walk away or to defer to outsiders, asking for help. A couple that can agree to finish a discussion or resolve a disagreement is going to have a far more successful relationship than the couple that leaves loose ends untied and unfinished business on the table. The weight of unresolved issues accumulates and becomes increasingly burdensome. A lack of persistence may be the simple explanation for why someone might allow that to happen. In that situation, help from a disinterested party, (bringing in a third person aligned with one partner would normally be triangulating), can be the key to forging new patterns that work more effectively.

Better understanding your partner can help your relationship. You can identify when to rely more on yourself and when turning the reins over to the other may be a good idea. You can operate better as a team, each honoring unique strengths, and each benefiting from input of the other. Knowing that my husband will persevere brings me great comfort and trust; him being certain that I will adapt if he gives me the time to do so reassures him that I do not ignore his point of view. 

What temperamental qualities in your partner do you most value? How do they help your relationship sustain itself, grow, flourish? What are temperamental qualities in your partner that require you to take responsibility for a certain aspect of your relationship? Are you in agreement about who contributes in what ways?

Copyright 2018 Roni Beth Tower


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