5 Personality Traits That Can Doom a Relationship
Narcissism is far from the only relational wrecker.
Posted April 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Perfectionism, dependency, and pervasive negativity are other characteristics that can take a corrosive toll on relationships.
- Like narcissism, these characteristics are inflexible and not likely to change just because a partner conveys they are problematic.
- Many with personality pathology don't enter treatment because their defensiveness says the problem resides with everyone else.
Nowadays, with narcissism in the spotlight, it seems most people's radar is tuned for spotting pathological self-absorption and controlling jealousy streaks in their new relationships.
While it is wise to be savvy to the signs of such malignant tendencies, it’s been my experience over the years that there are several other personality characteristics to be aware of that can signal relationship doom.
While not to be a harbinger of hopelessness, we have to consider that the maladaptive characteristics of personality pathology are highly ingrained and not going to discontinue because we tell someone it doesn't work for us.
People with personality pathology indeed can change if sufficiently motivated to (e.g., Yudofsky, 2005; Shannon, 2019). However, even in the hands of very skilled therapists, as detailed by the notable personality disorder psychiatrist Michael Stone (2005), there are some traits and characteristics that are, at best, on the edge of treatability (many being in the narcissistic and sociopath realms) never mind left to a non-specialist to try to work with.
Below are five personality characteristics, not often illuminated, that some of my patients struggled with within their relationships with romantic partners, family members, and co-workers. These may not be as immediately obvious as the acute brutalities of entering into a relationship with someone high in narcissism or an otherwise sadistic individual. Rather, the following can be of a more insidious unfolding and, as put by one patient, a corrosive experience, the characteristic chipping away at their tolerance and incrementally wearing them down.
Treatable or not, many with personality pathology don't enter treatment because their defensiveness dictates they see the problem as being everyone else, and partners and family members are left to try and manage. Being vigilant for these dynamics early in relationships could save a lot of frustration down the road. Even fatally-flawed individuals can magnetize us, given they often have positive qualities, but is it worth the toll of a continually-eroding soul?
What may begin as an endearing tendency to defer to your wants not unusually evolves into an inability to make any decision in the relationship. “I don’t know, what do you want to do/eat/watch/listen to?” is the answer to every question involving a choice. Each decision they need to make must get run by you for approval or to verify they aren’t somehow making the wrong decision.
People with such dependency in relationships seem to come from families where independent thinking was frowned upon and perhaps even punished. They fear any decision they make will disappoint you, which could lead to you leaving. Ironically, their actions tend to produce the thing they fear the most, in that most people can’t handle having a relationship with an adult they must guide like a small child, and there is a break-up.
Chronic yielding to your decisions and opinions early on may be a harbinger of the need to provide pedantic guidance for the duration. (For a more detailed discussion, see "3 Big Signs of Dependent Personality Disorder.")
2. Passive-Aggressive Behavior
If you’ve ever given someone the silent treatment or were intentionally untimely for an appointment because you had a bone to pick and knew it would get under their skin, you’ve engaged in passive aggression. We’ve all done it at some point, even if it’s just talking about someone behind their back. This is passive aggression (no hyphen).
However, people with passive-aggressive (note the hyphen) personalities exhibit a vacillating pattern of passive aggression (no hyphen) along with a more “in your face” assertive style. For readers familiar with the TV show "Seinfeld," the character of George Costanza was a classic illustration of this pattern, and it was clear how it affected his relationships.
Such people tend to bring unpredictability to relationships in that people around them don’t know how they’ll respond. Will they be contrite to your face after a disagreement, only to spread a vicious rumor about you later to “win the argument” in their mind, or will they erupt in a flurry of anger and not be able to let it go until you submit? (For a more detailed look, see "Understanding the Passive-Aggressive Personality.")
Personality Essential Reads
Perfectionism can be pathological and lead to interpersonally controlling behavior. Individuals obsessed with doing things perfectly tend to rigidly adhere to rules, details, schedules, and routines. Essentially, they control their anxiety by controlling their environment, and people tend to get sucked into this vortex.
You probably know someone who can’t take their family on vacation without a minute-by-minute plan of what they’ll be doing; it’s the nemesis of a relaxing time. If you attempt to reason with the person that there’s plenty of time and no need to schedule things so carefully, chances are you’ll be met with a ridiculing, irritable reply that you don’t appreciate their trying to make sure the vacation time is maximized.
Not only can such individuals be controlling your activities, but also your presence. Perfectionistic people tend to hold the people around them to the same ungodly standards they hold themselves, and if you don’t live up to them, you may expect put-downs of being lazy and not trying hard enough. In effect, it’s communication that, if you want to be in a relationship with them, you need to be prepared for their vision that, “You’re part of my life, you’re an extension of me, and will be just as polished.” (So as not to confuse this condition with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), see "OCD or OC Personality?")
4. Pervasive Negativity
Imagine meeting someone attractive and seemingly with the same sense of sarcastic humor you have. As you get to know them, the sarcasm isn’t only in their humor; it's clearly a caustic interactional style, another tool to exhibit their discontent.
If you gave them a million dollars, the reply would be, “Great. A million bucks. Are you trying to kill me? Do you know the amount of taxes I have to pay on this?!”
You’ll probably also notice they start to invalidate your struggles and seem to enjoy one-upping your hardships.
“You've been sick? I got food poisoning at my favorite restaurant the other day. I can't even go enjoy a meal out anymore. I didn't sleep for 24 hours and was dehydrated, but I was so delirious I couldn't drive, so I had to ask my mother to take me to the doctor. Great ride that was. The woman hits every bump in the road."
It's as if, as noted by Millon (2011), "suffering is seen as something noble, permitting them to feel special, if not elitist." Such depressive personalities see the world through a grey lens at best and, being the ultimate example of misery loves company, will do their best to slip those glasses over your eyes and drag you down with them as a partner in commiseration. (Pervasive negativity is usually indicative of a depressive personality. "Depression or Depressive Personality?" can help clarify the difference between this and episodic depression like major depressive disorder.)
5. Push-Pull Dynamics and Playing the Victim
This is a trademark move of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Being hypersensitive to rejection and abandonment, the person with BPD may perceive, for example, your need to reschedule a date night as a sign you’re not interested and will soon dump them. Enraged with the idea you would do this to him or her, they lash out, even before knowing the facts, and make it seem as if they want nothing to do with you now.
Why someone whose biggest fear is abandonment would act so aggressively, thus risking abandonment, may seem vexing, but it is no mistake. It is a preemptive strike and a way to save face in their mind; “You didn’t push me away. I got rid of you!”
More often than not, after realizing their over-reaction, they try to re-engage you; “I really like you, I can’t believe you did that to me. I’d like to try again, but you need to understand I’m not into playing games…” gaslighting you with the victim card as if to see if you’ll run to save them and tell them it’s not their fault.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees they won’t continue to misinterpret things. Anyone struggling in such a relationship is encouraged to read Stop Walking on Eggshells (Mason & Krieger, 2020) to learn how to more successfully interact with friends or loved ones with BPD and The Buddha and the Borderline (van Gelder, 2005) to learn about what life is like with BPD. (For more, see "4 Troubling Myths About Borderline Personality Disorder.")
Disclaimer: The material provided in this post is for informational purposes only and not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any illness in readers or people they know. The information should not replace personalized care from an individual's provider or formal supervision if you’re a practitioner or student.
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Mason, P. & Krieger, R. (2020). Stop walking on eggshells: Taking back your life when someone you care about has borderline personality disorder (3rd ed). New Harbinger.
Millon, T. (2011). Disorders of personality: Introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal (3rd ed). Wiley.
Shannon, Joseph W. (2016, September 29). Reasoning with unreasonable people: Focus on disorders of emotional regulation. Brattleboro Retreat, Brattleboro, Vermont.
Stone, M. (2005). Personality-disordered patients: Treatable and untreatable. American Psychiatric Press.
Van Gelder, K. (2011). The Buddha and Borderline: My recovery from borderline personality disorder through dialectical behavioral therapy, buddhism & online dating. New Harbinger.
Yudofsky, S. (2005). Fatal flaws: Navigating destructive relationships with people with disorders of personality and character. American Psychiatric Publishing.