Committed relationships are fundamentally difficult because they require the collision of two separate individuals with different life experiences, values, and personalities to love each other. For this very reason, 69% of relationship problems are unsolvable.
How depressing is that?
Surprisingly you don’t have to transform your partner’s personality to have a great relationship.
“You don’t have to solve your major conflicts for your marriage to thrive.” – Dr. Gottman, The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work
Most couples do not understand or appreciate the differences in both partners’ personalities. As a result, they fight over trying to change each other, rather than leveraging each partner’s unique personality to build a strong and healthy relationship.
The Attraction of Differences and The Problems They Create
As is true for most couples, the differences between my partner and me first sparked our initial attraction and later ignited our relationship conflict.
- I initially enjoyed the frequency of social events my extroverted partner wanted to attend and later became overwhelmed with how many things ended up on our calendar. I wanted time to just be at home relaxing or to have more time to work.
- My partner initially found my ambition and passion for my business attractive, and later became annoyed that I enjoy working 60–80-hour work weeks and would be perfectly content spending a Sunday afternoon reading the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy. (Yes, I’m that big of a nerd.)
Below are other personality combinations that start out great, but often lead to conflict when partners do not recognize and honor their differences.
The Talkative and Quiet Partnership
A talkative person may adore a quieter person’s attention while the quiet person may enjoy the lack of pressure to keep the conversation going. Years later the talkative partner may feel frustrated because their quiet partner “never opens up” and the quiet partner may feel annoyed by the talkative persons need to talk so frequently.
The Introvert and Extrovert Couple
An introvert may initially enjoy attending social events and feel like they are getting out there more because the extrovert continues to plan outings. Later they may become exhausted by the constant socializing, which leads to conflicts around going out versus staying in. Meanwhile, the extrovert may enjoy some of the quieter nights in but also may become annoyed by the introvert’s desire to “stay home” so often.
The Agreeable and Assertive Partnership
An assertive lover may find the agreeableness of a go-with-the-flow partner delightful, and the go-with-the-flow partner may find comfort in not having to make decisions. While this balance works, it can also lead to the assertive partner feeling like they have the burden of “making all the decisions” and the agreeable partner may feel pressured (or “controlled”) by the assertive partner’s needs or assertive partner’s willingness to ask for what they want.1
The Emotionally Reactive and Calm Partnership
An emotionally calm partner may find the emotional drama of a reactive partner entertaining while the emotionally reactive partner may find the calm partner soothing. Over time, the emotionally reactive partner may find the emotionally calm partner dull and the emotionally calm partner may find the emotionally reactive partner’s roller coaster of emotions overwhelming.
The Planner and the Spontaneous Couple
A hardcore planner may find a spontaneous partner freeing and the spontaneous partner may appreciate having some structure and things planned for them. This can also lead to the spontaneous partner feeling burdened by the structure, just as the planner can feel out of control and annoyed with the lack of planning on their spontaneous partner’s part.
It’s clear from these examples that the things that attract us can also cause conflict. One might argue the idea of compatibility in a relationship can prevent these issues from arising, but even people who are similar in their personalities are bound to have issues.
An extroverted couple may thrive on being social and busy, but they tend to neglect making time for each other because of their jam-packed social calendar. Meanwhile, an introverted couple may appreciate the quiet time, but they may isolate themselves from others and even from themselves, which will make them feel disconnected.
It’s clear that no matter who you love, there will be conflict. As couple’s therapist Dan Wile puts it, every relationship problem is really two problems: 1) The actual problem and 2) how both partners deal with the problem.
You don’t have to change your partner’s personality to have a thriving relationship. You do have to accept their personality and then both partners must make some changes to manage the personality differences in a way that enhances the relationship. This starts by understanding your different personalities.
SCOPE Out Your Relationship’s Personality
In the book The Couple Checkup, the authors cite their personality assessment which is based on the Five Factor Model. SCOPE is an acronym for Social, Change, Organized, Pleasing, and Emotionally Steady. Every person lies on a spectrum for each item.
The authors of The Couple Checkup propose that personality is a set of characteristics that lead a person to consistently think, feel, and behave in a predetermined way. This is often considered our identity. The core of who we are and how we see ourselves.
While all of us change in minor ways and sometimes major ways over time, there are aspects of us that will likely remain stable throughout our lives.
For example, I am a high-achiever as demonstrated by my enneagram score (another personality test) of three and how many of my close friends and family members view me. It’s likely I will continue to think and behave this way throughout my life.
While this personality trait has offered me many rewards in life, it’s also a point of tension in my relationship. I tend to work 10–14 hour days and can easily find myself absorbed in a work project instead of spending time with my partner.
My partner can try to change this aspect of me, but it’s likely she will fail to do so and will only feel frustrated.
The reality is we can learn to manage the differences in our personality by proactively discussing ways to work together. If we don’t work together to navigate our differences, our relationship will struggle.
As one half of the relationship, I have to be an expert on myself and be able to recognize when one aspect of my personality is interfering with other aspects of my life, including my relationship.
For example, if I am too eager-to-please clients and colleagues in my business or on the professional board of which I am a member, I may not put up healthy boundaries and instead agree to things that will prevent me from spending time with my partner or giving myself the time needed for self-care, which in turn will impact my relationship.
It is each person’s duty, just like it is mine, to be the best version of ourselves in our relationships, and this requires us to look at how we show up in the world. I’ve had to do a lot of self-examination when my partner discussed her problems with my work schedule. This is the art of allowing your partner to influence you and finding a healthy balance that is good for both partners.
Use the table adapted from The Couple Checkup below to determine where your personality is at for each of the SCOPE categories.
Understanding yourself makes it easier to begin making choices that keep you and your relationship in balance.
Tips for Handling Differences: If one partner is highly extroverted and the other is not, then open communication is a must. The first step is to accept these fundamental differences. The problem is not your partner’s personality, it’s how you manage these differences. You can avoid difficult conflict by checking in with each other before committing or refusing to attend a social event.
Tips for handling differences: If one partner is open to change, the other may be closed off to change. While these two partners can help balance each other out, there can be feelings of frustration and resentfulness due to the differences in ways of approaching situations, especially relationship challenges.
Instead of focusing on changing your partner’s thought process or ability/inability to embrace change, work on cherishing each other’s differing perspectives and use those differences to your advantage to collaboratively reach a win-win solution.
Tips for handling differences: Differences in terms of organization can cause a lot of annoyance, frustration, and distraction between couples, especially during stressful life events. Couples need to be able to communicate openly and clearly about what role they want to play in the relationship, as well as what they expect from each other. Avoiding the extremes (perfectionist vs. sloppy) is vital to working together.
Different ideas of house cleaning, relationship goals, and long-term goals can cause a divide between partners, but the differences can become a strength. For example, the less organized partner can take the planner on impulsive adventures which will lead to getting to know one another better, and the more organized partner can be in charge of planning big events, such as anniversaries, which would increase intimacy.
Avoid the highly organized partner becoming the parent to the other partner in the relationship. Because their attention to detail and knack for planning will create this possibility, it is important that the two partners focus on equal roles and what they both can bring to the table.
Tips for handling differences: Partners that fall on opposite ends of the pleasing scale need to work on their communication styles and conflict resolution skills. The partner who scored high on the pleasing scale needs to focus on expressing their emotions honestly, as this is something they struggle with because they want to make everyone else happy. The low-scoring partner needs to work on taking a step back from asserting their feelings and thoughts so that their high-scoring partner can have a safe space in which to express themselves. The low-scoring partner will benefit in the relationship by becoming a more active and patient listener, which will allow for more open communication between the partners.
Tips for handling differences: A couple with one partner scoring high on emotional stability and the other scoring low can experience quite a few challenges in the way that they cope with stress and handle conflict. During times of stress, the more emotionally stable partner may need to use their balance to help calm the less emotionally stable partner.
Both partners may have difficulties understanding the emotional depth of each other and why the other partner doesn’t feel or react to stress the same way. It is important for partners in these situations to embrace their differences and understand each other, rather than criticize or try to change one another.
Unhealthy Personality Tendencies
It’s important to note that your personality does not excuse abusive or relationship destructive behavior.
There are certain behaviors that make it difficult to build a trusting and happy relationship. After surveying over 50,000 couples for the Couple Checkup, it became clear that consistent withdrawal, being unreliable, being controlling, exhibiting embarrassing behavior such as getting drunk at a work party and causing a scene, and extreme moodiness lead to miserable marriages.
The reality is that a happy relationship is impossible without trust and commitment, and these behaviors invite insecurity into the relationship. They are often a result of an insecure attachment style.
As Stan Tatkin puts it, insecure people, such as anxious and avoidant partners, tend to put personal needs first before the relationships needs of both partners. Whereas secure relationships tend to put both partners’ needs on par with each other by putting the relationship first.
If you consistently behave in the ways mentioned above, then it may be to your best benefit and your relationships to understand why you behave in that way and how to change your behavior so you can be a better romantic partner.
Be a Team
“The goal of marriage is not to think alike, but to think together.” -R. Dodd
A research study on 168 couples discovered that only 17% of partners matched on three groups out of the five factors above.3 This means there were at least two categories in every relationship in which partners were different.
The difference between couples who thrive and those who barely survive comes down to how partners navigate their personality differences together.
Dan Wile argues that choosing a partner who has qualities you lack can round out or expand your personality. Not to mention that “different roles facilitate the accomplishment of necessary life task.”
Like any team, you can leverage your unique skills and abilities to work together to have a meaningful and happy life. Rather than focusing on ways we wish our partners were more like us, we can learn to understand, appreciate, and work with our personality differences.
The social planner can help think through what needs to be at a social gathering, while the negotiator calls venues for negotiating prices. The dreamer pushes for changes, while the grounded partner helps create stability in the midst of change.
There is no right or wrong combination of personality traits to foster a thriving relationship. Some couples blend together naturally, while most need additional support.
Ultimately, the key to success is not your personal differences, but how you communicate and work together despite your differences. Personality differences can be advantageous.
Don’t fall into the trap of criticizing one another’s personality traits or trying to change someone to be something they are not.
5 Tips for Managing Your Different Personalities Better
- Remember Why You Fell in Love. My partner is way more social and playful than I am. At times she is playful when I have no desire to be playful, which can lead to negativistic thinking in my head and sometimes conflict. When I notice myself highlighting the negative aspects of my partner’s personality traits, I ask myself, “What do I love about this?” When it comes to her playfulness, she has added a lot of energy and spontaneity to my life and I have found myself becoming more playful over time. Thinking these relationship enhancing thoughts helps me keep a balanced perspective and be honest with my partner. Instead of saying, “What is wrong with you?” I can say, “You’re being very playful which is something I cherish about you and right now I am feeling too tired to be playful. Can we just relax and goof off another time when I have more energy?”
- Become Experts on Yourself and Each Other. If you understand how your personality operates including your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be better prepared to navigate problems that are a result of differences in personality. If you understand and even cherish the positive aspects of your partner’s personality, you’ll be able to use their unique gifts to better your relationship.
- Look in the Mirror. Conflict escalates when we dig in our heels and refuse to admit any need for self-change. Explore what aspects of yourself are immature and are in need of improvement. It is your responsibility to become a high-quality romantic partner.
- Seek to Understand. Use the conflicts as an opportunity to learn more about each other and your unique personality.
- Be Proactive. If one of you is introverted and the other is extroverted, make a strategy for social outings that work for both of you. For example, the introvert may agree to go, and the extrovert may agree to leave after a certain time whenever the introvert wants to go home. The extrovert may need more social time than the introvert and they can proactively use this knowledge to plan for this. While the extrovert grabs food with friends, the introvert can get some much-needed alone time at home.
Personality differences are inevitable. The key to intentionally building a relationship worth having is learning how to honor these differences, take responsibility for our own personalities when they make things difficult, and work together to manage these differences in a way that creates a meaningful marriage.
- An agreeable partner at times may feel “controlled” by an assertive partner. This is false (unless the relationship is abusive emotionally or physically, in which case please disregard all content in this article and seek support immediately). The reality is the agreeable partner’s lack of boundaries make it difficult for them to say no to an assertive partner and over time they create a self-validating story in which they tell themselves that they are being controlled, when in reality it is their lack of experience or willingness in asserting boundaries in a loving way that causes them to give up “control.” ↩
- This is a screenshot of the Couple Checkup Results for my partner and me. If you’re interested in taking the checkup, you can visit here. ↩
- Huston, T. L., & Houts, R. M. (1998). The psychological infrastructure of courtship and marriage: The role of personality and compatibility in romantic relationships. In T. N. Bradbury (Ed.), The developmental course of marital dysfunction (pp. 114–151). New York: Cambridge University Press. ↩