Marital Stability and Our Personal Baggage
Sometimes it’s not about who you’re with, but who you are.
Posted July 16, 2018
Each partner brings along personal baggage to their relationship. These are the things that we’ve learned and experienced since we were children, and form the bases for our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. They affect the things we believe and how we interpret situations, the kinds of emotions we experience, and the behaviors we display to the outside world.
Our personalities, the characteristics that make us unique individuals, are one form of baggage. Psychologists break down personality into what they call the Big Five. These include emotional stability, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and open-mindedness. Each trait has a polar opposite, so emotional stability has emotionally stable at one end of the scale and unstable at the other end. Each of us falls somewhere on the scale between the two extremes on all traits. Where we fall dictates how we interact with others and interpret events, as well as how we are viewed by other people. They also determine how effective we are in our personal relationships.
Agreeableness relates to our ability to get along with others. People who are agreeable are trusting and trustworthy, and even-handed in their relationships. They’re typically positive, altruistic, and obliging, rather than antagonistic, egotistical and competitive. In marriage, agreeable partners are less likely to provoke conflicts, and are better at handling them when they arise. They’re open to compromise and are willing to sacrifice their own personal needs to accommodate the wishes of their partners. Because they’re more trusting, they’re less prone to question the motives and intentions of their partners.
At the opposite end, spouses who are disagreeable tend to stir up conflicts with their partners. Their arguments are often accompanied by yelling, insulting, criticizing, and other forms of verbal abuse. Disagreeable individuals place their personal needs and interests above getting along, so they can be insensitive and inconsiderate. Sometimes their skepticism about their partner’s motives causes them to be suspicious, unfriendly, and uncooperative.
Extraverts tend to be enthusiastic, action-oriented individuals who are up-beat, assertive, and have a positive attitude. Introverts, on the other hand, tend to be less socially engaged and have lower energy levels. They tend to require less stimulation than extraverts, and while they might be perfectly comfortable in social situations, they prefer instead time to themselves to pursue their own interests.
This is the only grouping that doesn’t seem to affect the success or failure of a marriage. There’s no evidence that you’re better off being married to an extravert or an introvert. On the one hand, extraverts are very good at establishing emotional connections with others, and that includes their partners. On the other, their need for social involvement and stimulation can put pressure on a marriage, especially if their partner prefers less social stimulation and more downtime. Still, one style is not necessarily better than the other, and it really depends on what one partner thinks about the extroverted or introverted tendencies of the other.
Conscientiousness refers to being goal oriented. Highly conscientious people tend to be reliable, self-disciplined, and well-organized. They’re likely to be reasonable and considerate of their partners and are prone to put effort into making their marriages work. Their sense of responsibility, willingness to work at their relationship, and need to make it succeed makes them much less argumentative and antagonistic.
In contrast, those who are not conscientious are more self-involved and less considerate of others. Because they tend to be less motivated, they might not work as hard at their marriage, nor are they likely to put in their fair share when it comes to household chores. They’ve also been found to have weaker impulse control and so may be more prone to act without thinking and make off-the-cuff negative comments, and possibly more open to having extramarital affairs.
Emotional stability may be the most important trait for marriage. Emotionally stable individuals tend to be secure, confident, and even-tempered. They’re not over-reactive and generally maintain a positive demeanor. In short, they take things in stride and are effective in getting along with others, even those who others might find difficult.
In contrast, people who are low on emotional stability are highly anxious and tend to be absorbed with negative emotions. They’re often argumentative and tend to overreact during conflicts, expressing themselves through complaints, criticisms, contempt, defensiveness, and loudness. They’re also more prone to irrational thoughts and misinterpretation of events. They may, for example, take an off-hand remark or a joke as a personal affront and then react accordingly. Because of how they can interpret situations, they’re usually unhappy in their relationships and hold negative feelings about their partners, and these feelings come out in how they treat them. In short, their partners have to work hard to keep their relationship on an even keel.
Open-minded people generally have liberal attitudes, are intellectually curious, creative, adventurous, and like new experiences. They’re prone to hold unconventional opinions and tend to be more in touch with their feelings. Because they’re empathetic, their partners see them as caring, sensitive, understanding, and concerned about their needs. Additionally, their ability to be flexible means they can take a proactive and thoughtful approach to disagreements.
Those who are closed-minded have more conventional and traditional interests. They prefer the familiar, are more conservative, and are generally uncomfortable with change. While such attitudes are not necessarily problematic for a relationship, closed-minded people tend to lack flexibility and empathy. Instead, their rigidity can make them appear self-absorbed, neglectful, and inconsiderate, particularly when presented with new ideas by their partners.
People who lean toward the positive end of the scale on agreeableness, conscientiousness, open-mindedness, and emotional stability have the potential to be excellent partners. However, very few people have all the positive traits, and most of us are positive on some and negative on others. There are highly conscientious people who are weak on emotional stability, or highly agreeable people who are closed-minded.
Whatever personality weaknesses we have, we tend to compensate for them with our strengths. Take a person who is disagreeable but also highly conscientious. While he or she might instigate arguments, at the same time they might work extra hard meeting their partner’s needs so their relationships can stay intact. It’s the balance of our good and bad traits, with the good helping to cancel out the bad, that makes us tolerable to others. It’s often those who are at the extreme negative end on certain dimensions, such as emotional stability, who are likely to have chronic marital problems that spring specifically from their personalities.
However, even if we have a good balance of strengths and weaknesses, there can still be personality issues in a marriage. For example, a moderately disagreeable partner who conscientiously tries to fix the conflicts they start can be a constant source of anxiety to someone who doesn’t like confrontation at all. Another who believes success is most important might find a partner who’s only moderately conscientious to be unworthy of their love and respect. An extroverted person might find the solitude that’s preferred by their introverted partner to be exasperating.
But even if partner’s personalities are in sync, the conditions of the marriage can upset that balance. Personalities have some fluidity, and environmental conditions can affect how we think and act. An open-minded person may become frustrated and develop a pattern of combativeness if married to a close-minded individual. If a partner is uncommitted or untrustworthy, an emotionally stable person can become less so, behaving chronically anxious and angry. An agreeable person may gradually become more aggressive and less agreeable if they’re under constant stress or have to cope with chronic negative events, such as financial problems.
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