- Long-term couples know each other better than anyone else, so they should be the best judges of each other's personalities.
- New research on the difference between self-and other-reported personality traits shows that partners see each other in a positive light.
- Instead of wishful thinking, try looking at your partner more objectively so that both of you may develop in more adaptive ways.
By the time a couple has been together for a certain number of years, they undoubtedly know each other pretty well. However, do they really? If you’re in a romantic relationship that’s lasted for some time, you might believe you have a pretty good sense of your partner’s personality strengths and weaknesses. You might also think you could estimate realistically the changes that have occurred in your partner’s psychological makeup over time. Who else but you could gauge the way your partner has reacted to life’s ups and downs? Or is there something you're missing?
Researchers Test the Accuracy of Partner Personality Readings
New research by University of California Davis psychologist Ted Schwaba and colleagues (2022) took advantage of a unique opportunity to compare the ratings that people gave of their own personalities with ratings, over time, of the same qualities by others who knew them well. They had at their disposal extensive personality data from 401 adults ages 40 to 70 years of age (56 percent female) tested between the years 2017-2020. These individuals were part of an initial sample of 1785 participants 30 to 54 years old who had first responded to questionnaires in the years 2001-2005 or 2008-2011. Key to the study’s design was the solicitation of two “close others” (spouses, family members, or friends) who rated the personalities of each of the target participants.
The Schwaba et al. study was intended to investigate the validity of what's known as the maturity principle or the idea that people become more emotionally well-adapted over their adult years. By including the corroborative data of close others, UC Davis also made it possible to test whether the people who knew the original participants best would agree with the data obtained through self-report. Indeed, Schwaba and his fellow researchers expected that they would see a favorability bias toward greater maturity among the “self” than the “others."
To measure maturity, the authors drew from standard personality trait questionnaires based on the Five-Factor Model (FFM) along with those tapping the six sub-dimensions or facets of each factor (leading to 30 separate scores). Additionally, making it possible to examine the tendency to be less likely to lose one’s temper as time went on, the authors also used a specific measure of hostility known to be associated with psychiatric outcomes.
Getting Into the Mindset of the Past
Before getting into the results, try some mental time travel now to see where you would come out on this intriguing partner rating game. Start by thinking back to an earlier time, perhaps the “honeymoon” period when you first met. This might be a challenge, so as a prompt, try thinking back on specific experiences the two of you had, clearing your mind of more recent ways your partner’s personality came through in their behavior.
Perhaps the two of you went out to eat at a restaurant that turned out to be highly overpriced, had unusually poor service, and was having an off night in the kitchen. How did your partner react? Did they become so enraged that they yelled at the server? Did they withhold a tip? Or did they take it all in stride? If your partner was never very prone to anger, to begin with, so that this situation doesn't ring true, pick a quality that you think might have been less adaptive in the past than it is now.
With this concrete image in mind, send your time machine forward by 15 to 20 years (or as long as you’ve known your partner). Can you honestly see a change in either direction? Was a partner in need of anger management than a docile and easy-going individual now? Or has your partner become even less in control of their emotions than in the past?
Anger is, of course, only one emotion potentially subject to maturation over time. This complete list of adaptive and nonadaptive qualities can give you a fuller set of possibilities to consider as you evaluate your partner’s change (or lack thereof) over time. Using expert ratings of each facet, the authors arrived at the following classifications (the terms refer to facet scale names):
Adaptive–warmth, gregariousness, high activity, positive emotions, openness to feelings, openness to new values, competence, order, dutifulness, achievement, self-discipline, unconventionality, nonantagonism, prosociality, and goal-striving.
Nonadaptive–anxiousness, angry hostility, depressiveness, impulsivity, vulnerability, self-reproach, stress reaction, alienation, aggression, cynicism, hostile affect, hostile attribution, social avoidance.
Where did your partner ratings come out on this full list of attributes? Do you sense movement from less to more adaptive, consistent with the maturity principle?
What’s the Final Verdict on Partner Ratings?
Turning now to the findings, the UC Davis-led research team crunched the very extensive set of numbers within the data set using statistical tools that enabled them to track self-other rating changes over time in the adaptive/nonadaptive ratio.
In contrast to the study’s predictions, the maturity principle applied more to the ratings by partners than to those provided by participants themselves. Indeed, this maturity-of-partner effect applied to three of the five factors (agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness) and five of 11 possible facets. From the standpoint of the maturity principle, these findings suggest that people appear to soften their rough edges across their adult years in the eyes of people who know them. At the same time, though, that partners see greater softening than people do themselves suggests the presence of a positivity bias in judgments of that growth in emotional maturity.
Thinking now about your own relationship, if you err on the side of seeing greater maturity than may legitimately be the case, the UC Davis-led study would suggest that this isn’t really all that unusual. However, there is a downside to not seeing your partner more realistically. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking that allows you to imagine your partner as becoming less angry than they were when you first met. If you’re prone to the positivity bias, you might fail to detect areas where your partner could benefit from help. By the same token, if you’ve come to view your partner as more responsible over time and therefore feel okay about offloading some duties that you yourself should handle, it might be time for you to share some of the duties with a partner who may wish to be freed of so much of the burden in your relationship.
To sum up, as suggested by the Schwaba et al. study, people in long-term relationships seem motivated to see their partners grow in adaptive ways over time. Learning to add a dose of reality to those wishes could benefit your mutual growth and fulfillment as the years go by.
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Schwaba, T., Bleidorn, W., Hopwood, C. J., Manuck, S. B., & Wright, A. G. C. (2022). Refining the maturity principle of personality development by examining facets, close others, and comaturation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 122(5), 942–958. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000400.