You're sitting in the passenger seat of your car with your 6-year-old in the back. Her whimpering has turned to frightened sobbing; your blood is boiling. Your disagreeable spouse, at the wheel, has been ranting for 15 minutes, far too loudly for the confines of the car. He’s been complaining that you care more about your job than your family, that you're always late, that you leave the house a mess, and simply don’t have your act together.
This is appalling to you. You wouldn’t dream of treating a mouse running loose in your home with such abuse. Yet your spouse—your “lover”—feels entitled to bully you, and your young daughter, in this way.
You ask yourself: “How did I ever get trapped in this marriage?!”
To help you avoid ever landing in this scenario, I’m going to answer this question in three parts: The first pertains to our poor selection of a mate. The second involves a lack of revising our views as we get to know the person better. And the third describes how the person tries to manipulate us into staying.
1. Choosing Mr. or Ms. Wrong
Around the globe, young men and women have listed attraction and love as the top criteria for marriage, ranking it above personality traits (1). However, research suggests that the most happily married people are those who, regardless of what they think they want, simply end up with spouses who have excellent personality traits. In particular, a spouse’s emotional stability and agreeableness have been clearly linked to marital and sexual satisfaction (2). Surprise, surprise—it’s better to have a warm, cooperative mate than an unstable, disagreeable one!
You may be thinking that the spouses with excellent traits sound boring. You want someone very attractive and interesting, and believe you're willing to put up with some moodiness or arrogance to have that attraction. But consider how these arrogant, moody individuals derive attention: They are only sporadically emotionally or physically available, which gives the impression that access to them is a scarce and thus valuable resource (see below). Their love and good moods must be earned, a process that holds at bay any objective evaluation of their character.
I suspect that what many decent people in such relationships or marriages don’t realize, until they have endured a very long stretch of unfairness, is that their arrogant partner entered the relationship expecting special consideration. Much like in a dating relationship in which the party who desires the other more must accommodate the other’s wishes, the arrogant spouse assumes you will do more than half the work to compensate for your lower desirability. Their expectation sounds unreasonable, but arrogant people are image builders not truth-seekers.
2. Focusing on the Positive Obscures the Truth
An exclusive focus on a partner’s good qualities, and not the bad, is a threat to good judgment, especially when deciding who to marry. Consider what Walter Mischel observed regarding how people judged whether a given person had a certain personality trait (4). He found that they would recall and string together examples of that person’s behavior across time that were highly representative of that specific trait—yet they would fail to notice contradictory examples. This is why he concluded that we see other people as more consistent than they really are. For instance, in determining whether a friend is caring, we might think back to when she brought us chicken noodle soup when we were sick, lent us money to pay the rent, or threw a surprise party on our 21st birthday. And once we think of her as very caring, we may simply overlook her other, uncaring behaviors.
Imagine a prospective wife who imagines that her boyfriend is a very good person—good enough to marry. Her decision is based on the fact that he donates money to feed the poor, never holds grudges, takes losing competitive games in stride, and often tells her what how great she is. But she downplays that time he very aggressively berated her for talking to him while he was on the phone with a client. It was an honest mistake, but it left her walking on eggshells during his phone calls for months.
Imagine, too, a prospective husband who thinks his girlfriend is an angel for always doing his laundry, leaving him sweet notes and small presents, cooking his favorite meals, and giving him long leisurely back rubs. But she was no angel that time he came through the front door a couple of hours late from work. She rushed out from the dark bedroom with her arms crossed and a look of fury on her face. Pointing a finger one inch from his nose, she screamed so loudly that neighbors down the hall could hear her accusing him of cheating with that “slut” co-worker. The next day she was sweetly smiling and apologetic. She explained that she was not her usual self the previous night because she’d had a bad headache. He forgave her, and they had fantastic “make-up sex.” He felt more in love with her than ever.
I would argue that neither the girlfriend nor the boyfriend in these scenarios is decent enough to marry. In each case, the person demeaned his or her lover. If the roles were reversed, you would never belittle anyone! Your worst headache might make you a bit short with the person, but never insulting. Their belittling behavior (including the use of the word “slut”—which a humble person would not use) signals their arrogance, a trait tied to deception and exploitation (5).
You can never be sure if a romantic partner is decent enough to marry, but you can tell when they are not good enough from belittling acts like these.
3. The Arrogant Won’t Let You Go
When you try to dump the person after an outburst like the one described above, he or she might argue that they said they were sorry and it was only one mistake. But while a humble person acknowledges your right to leave and does not interfere with it, the arrogant person has an image to defend. They might say many things to make you feel guilty, to manipulate you into staying—for example, they might remind you how much they "sacrificed" to be with you. Don’t let such comments get to you—the arrogant partner may well have a contingency plan with other people waiting in the wings if things don’t work out with you.
They might also ask, “Whatever happened to unconditional positive regard?” (or words to that effect). But remember that evaluating the character of your partner is what you are supposed to be doing before marrying the person. You can respond, “Yes, I was wondering that myself when you were so out-of-line with your outburst. If you had done that on our first date, I would never have gone on a second one with you. Anyhow, the fact that you are trying to make me feel guilty to keep me from leaving is in itself an outrage.”
How to Proceed
To keep from ending up with an arrogant, deceptive, or exploitative spouse, cast a broad net. There are so many single people out there, especially on internet dating sites—you have no excuse for settling for the gummy worms on the kitchen counter when you can find a golden apple elsewhere.
What you're looking for is humility—and what you're avoiding is arrogance. The trait of humility is a must-have that undergirds sincerity and the promise of a fair marriage. Looking through this lens, you might find it easy to screen out arrogant people on sites like eHarmony, where respondents are asked hundreds of questions, such as whether it’s okay for women to propose marriage or become priests. If they say no, it may beg the question of why only men would be entitled to do those things.
You can’t be sure a person is humble; but when you encounter even one stunningly arrogant act, that may be you need to see to reject the hope that they are. Finally, don’t waste time after you see that hideous haughtiness. Yes, you are going to get grief from the arrogant person for dumping him or her, but that should simply give you the strength of confirmation to make sure the break is clean.
When you do find that sincere, humble, fair-minded person, you might be shocked to discover how sexy he or she is. It might be overwhelming to finally share a passion based on discovering the person in front of you—free from the conventional gender roles and judgments. There is nothing to fear, however, because the formula for communicating remains simple: You always mean what you say.
My related posts on humility as a personality trait:
- Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1-14.
- Botwin, M. D., Buss, D. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (1997). Personality and Mate Preferences: Five Factors In Mate Selection and Marital Satisfaction. Journal of Personality,65, 107-136
- Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: the psychology of persuasion. New York: Morrow.
- Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1982). Beyond déjà vu in the search for cross-situational consistency. Psychological Review, 89, 730-755.
- Lee, K. & Ashton, M. C. (2006). Further assessment of the HEXACO Personality Inventory: Two new facet scales and an observer report form. Psychological Assessment, 18, 182-191.
This post stems from Anita Kelly’s Science of Honesty project, which was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. I also am grateful to Mercedes Kelly (my mom) for her insights.
This post is dedicated to Tammy Van Dame. Her vibrant, frank, kind personality has inspired many, and now that includes me.