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To Understand Your Relationships, Try Understanding Yourself

A new study shows how you bring your own sensitivities into your relationships.

Source: Bbernard/Shutterstock

You’ve just had an argument with your partner, and you’re sure that you’re not the one at fault. You were simply trying to carve out some time for yourself to sit down and get a project done in the few minutes you had before getting home and needing to cook dinner. However, your partner demands instead that you use this precious time to discuss the family finances. The matter doesn't seem urgent, and it appears that your partner just wants to talk. This is just one in a string of incidents in which you feel that your partner is intruding on your priorities. The question becomes, then, are you just being too selfish, or is your partner too demanding and controlling?

Relationships involve a constant give-and-take between the desires of each partner for both self-expression and intimacy. According to a recent paper by University of California Davis psychologist Christopher Hopwood and Michigan State University’s Evan Good, problematic relationships result when people bring their own personal difficulties into play, but at the same time are overly sensitive to the problems of their partners.

Interpersonal sensitivity, in the view of Hopwood and Good, is a quality rarely examined by personality psychologists, but one that can play a major role in relationship difficulties. As the authors note, “the literature on personality, relationship functioning, and well-being has been focused primarily on individual differences in the way a person behaves, paying relatively little attention to the perceived impacts of others’ behavior.”

The authors use what is called an Interpersonal Circumplex (IPC) model to understand relationship problems from the perspectives of the person’s own qualities and the person’s perception of others. To understand the IPC, imagine a circle with two straight lines intersecting right in the middle at 90-degree angles. One line represents the dimension of warmth, ranging from affectionate to remote, and the other is dominance, ranging from controlling to passive. An additional set of two dimensions intersects with these, yielding another four qualities (two sets of two polar opposites). These two dimensions range from meanness to niceness, and socially avoidant to attention-grabbing. Altogether, there are eight personality qualities created by the four dimensions, and these form the framework represented by the IPC.

Your personality, in the terms used by the IPC, can be described by exactly where you fall within these four dimensions. This is the personality that you bring to your relationships and which forms part of the equation in understanding the source of interpersonal difficulties. For example, you might have a mean streak or be too likely to give in to other people, at least in the ways you describe yourself. However, your personality also includes the sensitivity that influences how you interpret the ways in which other people interact with you. Maybe you are especially annoyed by meanness in others. As in the example when your partner wants to spend time with you that you feel you can’t spare, it may be that you’re hypersensitive to being controlled by other people, who, in all likelihood, don’t mean you any harm. In this case, you would rank high on the “sensitivity to control” end of the dominance sensitivity dimension. The IPC, as applied to your sensitivity to the personalities of others, identifies your “hot buttons.”

Using measures of both personality problems and personality sensitivities, Hopwood and Good hoped to be able to explain the variations among people in their scores on a range of measures that tapped their personality traits, personality disorders, and their self-reported health, tendency toward alexithymia (difficulty expressing emotions), experiences in relationships, and impression management tactics. The first in the two studies involved nearly 1,000 undergraduates (80 percent female) who completed online questionnaires.

The purpose of this study, more specifically, was to determine whether the structure of people’s own self-rated personality traits correlated with the structure of their sensitivities. In other words, are people high in self-described dominance also likely to be irritated by people they perceive to be overly controlling? Do mean people feel ticked off when they’re in the presence of people they perceive as similarly antagonistic? Participants completed the IPC measures both in terms of their own characteristics and in terms of behaviors in other people that bother them.

The findings of this first study confirmed that the IPC self-ratings and ratings of sensitivities actually fit into the circumplex structure. The findings also showed that people who had more interpersonal problems had more sensitivities, and that people tended to be most sensitive to those who had an interpersonal style opposite to their own. This means that domineering people may be really bothered by people who are pushovers. People high in dominance also scored relatively high on the narcissism measure, extraversion, depression, and the tendency to be flamboyant.

In the second study, a sample that was similar in size and composition completed online questionnaires that included “other-focused” versions of the self-rated personality trait measures from the first study. Thus, in addition to providing ratings according to the IPC, participants rated the extent to which certain traits and behaviors bothered them when observed in other people. You might be asked, then, to indicate how bothered you are by people high in such traits as conscientiousness and neuroticism, as well as such seemingly innocuous traits as agreeableness and openness to experience. One measure also asked participants to rate how bothered they were by people with high scores on the narcissism questionnaire. The findings showed that, as predicted, people with high interpersonal sensitivities showed sensitivity to those traits as seen in other people.

The overall findings support the proposal by the authors that, in their words, “knowing the way a person views her own behavior and how she views others’ behavior is important for a comprehensive understanding of her personality, personality problems, and relationship functioning." This study has taken a novel approach to showing that problems in relationships represent a two-way street, or perhaps even a three-way street. You contribute to problems by virtue of your own characteristics, but also by virtue of your sensitivities to the problems of other people’s personalities. Finally, perceiving partners as having certain traits can add to your interpersonal woes.

To sum up, personality is not a quality that exists in isolation within any given individual. We project our own personality problems onto others, but also interpret the traits of other people in terms of our own preferences for the qualities of others. The next time you find yourself annoyed by your partner's behavior, this study suggests you should truly ask “whether it’s you or me.”


Hopwood, C. J., & Good, E. W. (2018). Structure and correlates of interpersonal problems and sensitivities. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12437.