Would You Get Your Partner to Be Nicer if You Could?
New research suggests the benefits of trying to get your partner to be nicer.
Posted August 8, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
In Shakespeare’s "Taming of the Shrew," the “sharp-tongued” Katherine (Kate) proves to be no match for Petruchio, the man whom her father decides should be her husband. Most classic presentations of this well-known play support the model of male domination in relationships that drives the play’s action. Kate’s “taming” turns her from a “shrew” who went from upbraiding anyone within earshot to a docile creature who made a show of following every one of her husband’s commands.
Shakespeare might have intended the play to represent a "barbaric over-reach" that upsets men and women, an interpretation that would fit with the majority of his other work. In many of Shakespeare's plays, women have roles in which they equal, or out-do, their male counterparts. Regardless of the play’s intent, however, the idea it raises that some romantic partners require a bit of personality reprogramming raises some interesting relationship questions.
The idea that it’s difficult to stay with a partner whose personality is chronically abrasive receives support from a new study by Humboldt University (Berlin) psychologists Eva Asselmann and Jule Specht (2020). Using a large longitudinal sample of nearly 50,000 Germans studied from 2005-17, the researchers tested what developmental psychologists refer to as “dynamic transactionism.” This view suggests that people’s personalities influence their relationships which, in turn, influence their personalities.
You can think of dynamic transactionism as involving a series of continuous loops in which events at Time 1 influence personality at Time 2, which in turn influences events at Time 3. Your personality changes along with your relationship, which changes along with your personality. Your personality, in other words, sets you up for a certain series of relationship events beginning with the initial phase of finding a partner. Once in that relationship, your personality can change as a result of the interactions you have with your partner.
Returning to the abrasive partner example, you can see how the sequence can head in one of several directions. For some reason, you become attracted to your own personal “Kate” despite this individual having a number of undesirable qualities. It bothers you terribly that your partner refuses to do anything you ask, seems perpetually angry at other people, and in turn, is the target of other people’s annoyance, including your own friends and family. Most of the time, you can see through your partner’s mean exterior, but life would be so much easier if your partner would just be nice from time to time.
In the best of all possible scenarios, your partner’s rough edges start to smooth over as a result of your moderating influence. The less happy outcomes occur either when your partner's personality rubs off on you, and you become embittered and difficult yourself; alternatively, you instead might decide you’ve had enough, and so you end the relationship.
The personality framework adopted by Asselmann and Specht was that of the Five-Factor Model, the view that everyone has differing amounts of the five fundamental traits of conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability (or neuroticism), openness to experience, and extraversion. The authors tested the relationships over time of each of these traits with the four major relationship events of initial formation, marriage, and divorce. By measuring personality traits and relationship events together, they could statistically determine whether personality changes preceded or followed relationship events.
Those low in agreeableness, following this logic, should be less likely to become involved in new relationships. However, if they were to find a partner, might they themselves become "tamed"? If so, does there mean that there’s hope for your nice personality to transform your less-than-agreeable partner?
Across the four testing occasions, Asselmann and Specht were able to obtain data only from 14 percent at each time, but most people participated in just under two times of measurement. The data analytic strategy the authors used allowed them to fill in missing data from any individual time point. Looking at the samples' relationship changes, 19 percent experienced any one of the four transitions, and at each time, those who went through a transition could be compared to those who did not. The average age of the sample members was about 49 years old, and just under half were men.
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The key analyses in the German study involved, first of all, predicting relationship events from personality and then secondly, tracking changes in personality in the years before and after those events. Data from men and women were analyzed separately.
The findings showed that it was, indeed, agreeableness that turned out to be the number one predictor of relationship events. However, the direction of the effect was the opposite of what you might imagine. Those low on agreeableness, the “not nice,” actually were more likely to get involved in new relationships over the course of the study.
However, that’s where the good news for the disagreeable ends. As with your own potentially unpleasant partner, these individuals become less tolerable over time. Their relationships were more likely to end in separation or divorce due, the authors conclude, to higher distress in their relationship and involvement in more conflicts. That puts these people back on the relationship market, only for the cycle to begin anew.
Changes in personality following a relationship event, furthermore, tended to be relatively small. The only noticeable blips in personality changes involved slight increases in openness to experience following steps progressing toward more relationship involvement (i.e. moving in with a partner and getting married). Those who separated from a partner or became divorced became more emotionally unstable. Moving in with a partner, for men, was also associated with a slight increase in conscientiousness.
Returning to the original question of what this means if you’re with a disagreeable partner now, the German findings suggest that you’re unlikely to have an impact on modulating your partner’s negative tendencies. The odds are that a difficult partner now will be difficult into the future. However, knowing these odds could perhaps help guide you, if not to tame, then to temper your partner’s contrariness.
To sum up, failing to do anything when you’re in a relationship with a difficult person could indeed lead to an unhappy ending. It may be possible to tip the scales ever so slightly so that your personality, and that of your partner, can find your way to agreeable outcomes.
Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Asselmann, E., & Specht, J. (2020). Taking the ups and downs at the rollercoaster of love: Associations between major life events in the domain of romantic relationships and the Big Five personality traits. Developmental Psychology. doi: 10.1037/dev0001047.supp (Supplemental)