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Temperament Clashes in Relationships

Why can't you be more like me?

Temperament clashes exist to some extent in nearly all relationships. They emerge around the 10th month of living together and often rise to crisis level in the second year. If the couple doesn't manage them well, they rupture the relationship by the fourth year.

Temperament has many dimensions that greatly influence tastes, preferences, choices, and decision-making. You can think of it in a shorthand way as your innate emotional tone—what it feels like to be you. In its more fundamental aspects, it changes little over a lifetime—temperament classifications of infants tend to persist into old age. But this can be misleading, as individual emotion regulation strategies create much of the variance we see in people. Shy children, for example, can grow up to make a living in areas like politics or public speaking, although they remain fundamentally shy, overcoming temperamental inhibitions with every speaking engagement. They will never be the life of the party, but they often develop the capacity to enjoy the life of the party.

Temperament management strategies sometimes create disparity in "what it feels like to be you" and how you "feel" to others. If you perceive that people don't get you or don't get the "real" you, it may be that you manage your innate temperament so well that other people can't get an accurate feel of your emotional tone. Or you may be caught in a reactivity dance with your intimate partner that distorts your temperamental qualities by making them seem more extreme.

The dimensions of temperament most likely to be exaggerated in committed relationships are intensity (energy level) and mood, particularly anxiety regulation.

Broadly speaking, people with high innate energy are more inclined to action than reflection and prefer some kind of external structure to guide their abundant energy. Those with lower energy levels tend to have a slower metabolism, be more thoughtful before acting, and prefer a looser external structure so they can think about where to invest their more limited energy.

Mood contrasts in committed relationships cluster around anxiety regulation. Specifically, what lowers anxiety in one partner raises it in the other. One partner focuses on details while the other attends to the big picture; one is more organized, orderly, punctual, and rigid than the other. For example, if it's very important for you to be on time, it's almost certain that you're married to someone who is often late.

"Opposites attract" turns out to be a myth. We are drawn to people with moderate differences in temperament, looking for potential partners who "fill in our gaps," as a popular movie character put it. For instance, high-intensity people want partners they can relax with, while low-intensity folks are attracted to those who energize them. (You bring me up, I calm you down, and we meet in the middle.) Highly organized people admire the spontaneity and tendency to "think outside the box" of their less organized dates, who, in turn, enjoy the stability and "feet-on-the-ground" qualities of their potential partners.

While we are not attracted to opposites, we seem to become opposites when living together.

Emotional Reactivity

Over time, people react to differences in emotional tone, particularly in regard to anxiety-regulation, thereby widening the moderate differences that first attracted them. For instance, anxiety in the high energy partner elevates in response to the care-free demeanor of the other partner, who in turn tries to "let go" or "back off" in response to the increased anxiety in the household. The more anxious one partner becomes, the more "laid-back" the other seems.

Emotional reactivity makes it seem like you got more than you bargained for in your partner, as the qualities of attraction become sources of resentment. One partner complains:

"I wanted somebody energetic, not bouncing off the damn walls! Just calm down!"

The other counters, "I wanted someone mellow, not dead! Get up and do something!"

They criticize each other's personality rather than specific behaviors, which feels like betrayal to both:

"You used to love me for this quality, and now you criticize me about it."

"You told me you loved me, but you can't accept me for who I am."

Caught in a relentless competition about whose temperament will prevail, all their arguments take the form of:

"You have to be more like me!"

The irony is that they wouldn't have been attracted to each other if they were more alike.

Another irony about criticism of temperamental differences is that it gets you more of the behavior you don't want, by activating toddler-like demands and defenses described in a previous post. Criticism of temperament maximizes resentment and depression in one partner, while increasing resentment, anxiety, and anger in the other.

How to Tell When You're in a Dispute About Temperament

  • Your partner seems "wrong" in the way he/she perceives things—"decent" people wouldn't see or do it that way.
  • Your partner honestly doesn't get why you're annoyed.
  • You're convinced that your way is the only right way.

Good News
Once a couple gets over the hump of temperament conflicts (which can take 10-20 years without intervention), they get back to appreciating their differences, as they did early in their union. In long-term relationships, the parties come to accept their different preferences, tastes, and behavior, without judging their partners or thinking they're wrong or inferior because they disagree. In place of no-win temperamental competitions, they cooperate like teammates. They divide labor according to their metabolic specialties, with one partner handling the deadline chores and the other concentrating on the longer-term tasks. They are like different wheels on the same axel, covering different ground but going in the same direction.

My next post will show how to negotiate about behaviors derived from temperament without hurting your partner or damaging your relationship.