Know Yourself, Know Your Spouse, Know Your Subortinates, Your Peers, Your Boss and Your friends
June 17, 2007
Know Yourself, Know Your Spouse
(Note: This article is also applicable to subordinates, your peers, your boss and your friends. Edit if with microsoft word and try replacing Ron with your name and Stacy with your boss name or your subordinate name or your peer name.)
Understanding each other’s temperaments will help your love grow.
by Art and Laraine Bennett
Vivacious and energetic Stacy volunteers at her children’s school and for her parish, shuttles her five kids to their many activities, and runs a home-based sales business. Her husband, Ron, is a dedicated medical researcher—organized and efficient on the job and at home; he relishes time alone, reading or playing the piano.
When Stacy and Ron first married, they delighted in their widely differing temperaments. Stacy admired Ron’s depth of reflection and sensitivity, his meticulous attention to detail, and his sense of order and purpose. Ron chuckled indulgently over Stacy’s fun, impromptu adventures and enjoyed meeting her many social contacts.
But once the kids began to come and the pressures of work and family increased, Ron found the hustle and bustle of Stacy’s life draining. He needed time to “decompress” after work, while she wanted to talk about her day or rush off to a meeting as soon as he walked in the door. Ron reacted by withdrawing in unwelcoming silence, often heading straight for the computer. And because he found their home in constant disarray due to Stacy’s many commitments, he also began staying late at work.
By the time they sought help for their marriage, Stacy felt she was living in an “emotional vacuum.” Ron rarely wanted to talk, she said, whether about her day or about the kids. Ron explained that he felt badgered and couldn’t relax in a home that was like Grand Central Station.
The Big Four. Opposites attract! We like people who have temperaments similar to our own, but it often happens that we fall in love with someone very unlike ourselves. Stacy and Ron are a classic example. She is a talkative, easily distracted sanguine who lives for people and needs abundant interpersonal interaction. She was drawn to a deeply thoughtful, sensitive, and artistic melancholic—an introvert who needs abundant time for silence and reflection. In another common “opposite temperament” combination, the peaceful, docile phlegmatic seems made for a strong-willed, take-charge choleric.
The concept of these four basic temperaments—choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic—dates back more than two thousand years to Hippocrates, the “father of medical science.” He held that differences in personalities were caused by an individual’s predominant bodily fluid—hence, the rather unappealing names!
Though we no longer relate it to bodily fluids, temperament is still studied and used as a self-assessment tool today. In clinical practice and many years of working with married couples, we have found that problems like Ron and Stacy’s can be averted through an understanding and acceptance of each other’s temperaments.
Preloaded at the Factory. Temperament is most easily understood in terms of the dominant pattern of reaction that we are born with. God has given each of us a tendency or inclination to react quickly or slowly, intensely or calmly, and to hold on to that reaction for a long or a short period of time. Our emotional response, sociability, and prevailing mood are all affected by our inherent temperament.
How quickly do you react to a person or an idea? How strongly do you react when praised or chastised, or when pressed for an opinion? Are you quick-tempered or easygoing? Do you tend to look on the bright side, or do you take a more pessimistic approach? Do you tend to mull things over for a long time before responding, or do you fire off an opinion off the top of your head? Because our reactions are so habitual, part of how we are “hardwired,” we may not even realize that we are thinking, acting, or responding in ways that are typical of our temperaments. In fact, all of these reactions are tip-offs.
Another indicator—and a primary distinction among the temperaments—has to do with extraversion and introversion. Generally speaking, an extravert is one who tends to focus on and be comfortable with the external environment—people and events. An introvert’s comfort zone is the interior world of personal thoughts and emotions.
The choleric and the sanguine temperaments are the most extraverted: they are energized by social interaction and are comfortable expressing themselves. The phlegmatic and melancholic are the introverted temperaments, needing time alone to recharge their batteries and cautious about expressing their thoughts.
The boxes on pages A4 through A8 give nutshell descriptions of the four temperaments. As you look them over, though, keep in mind that no one fits neatly into a category! Most of us are a combination or blend of temperaments—typically, a primary and a secondary one.
Respect, Don’t Project. Often we are unaware of our own pattern of reactions. At other times, we assume that everyone reacts the same way we do. In fact, however, people with different temperaments will have widely differing reactions to identical situations.
Here is a simple example from our own life. We were seated at a dinner table at a fund-raiser for our son’s football team. Decorating the table were photographs and articles about the team; however, they were fixed upside down under a clear plastic tablecloth. Choleric Laraine immediately pulled up the cloth and peeled off the photographs in order to see them better.
“That’s the difference between you and me,” said phlegmatic Art. “I wanted to read the articles, too, but I didn’t think I ought to rearrange the table decorations. I resigned myself to looking at them upside down.” Identical stimuli, very different responses!
How do such variations affect a couple’s relationship? As with Ron and Stacy, differences that were initially attractive can soon become a source of irritation. Then, spouses may find themselves drawing apart in the way described by Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, pioneers in the study of temperament:
“What is of central importance is that husband and wife respect each other’s temperamental characteristics. . . . A marital problem can develop and escalate if one or both partners . . . assume that such a behavioral pattern is somehow a matter of choice and represents a willful refusal to make a change ‘for the better.’ ” [our emphasis]
In such a case, “the inconvenience or frustration that the one partner’s temperament creates for the other is interpreted as another evidence of willful intent to annoy and harass” (Temperament in Clinical Practice, The Guilford Press, 1986).
A Fresh Start. This is the downward spiral in which Stacy and Ron were caught: Each assumed that the other was intentionally refusing to honor their deepest needs. Once they discovered how deeply their individual reactions were rooted in their temperaments—which are God-given and, as such, inherently good—they could grow in mutual respect, acceptance, and empathy.
Ron stopped thinking of Stacy as a scatterbrained chatterbox as he came to understand her deep need for abundant and expressive communication. Stacy began to accept Ron’s periods of silence as vitally necessary to his well-being, rather than assuming he was being “antisocial.”
With their new understanding, each spouse learned to make practical concessions to honor the other’s temperament and needs. Stacy reassessed her schedule and commitments. She stopped pouncing on Ron the minute he walked in the door. Instead, she strategically chose times when he felt most refreshed—say, early on a Saturday morning, over coffee—to talk over significant issues. Ron made an effort to communicate more and complain less. As his need for personal time and space was met, he found more energy for joining Stacy in various social ventures.
Many Styles, One Goal. Every marriage has its own style. Some couples argue and others don’t. Some have opposite temperaments, others have similar ones.
But no matter what the particular marriage style, every couple can benefit from learning more about their temperament types. Increased knowledge about ourselves makes it harder to fixate on the splinter in our spouse’s eye, while overlooking the log in our own (see Matthew 7:3). It provides a way to improve our relationships by identifying the natural tendencies in ourselves that can either benefit us or trip us up. Then, with God providing the grace for change, we can more easily correct our own weaknesses.
Increased understanding of our spouse’s temperament deepens our appreciation of the unique person we married and can even rekindle the spark of first love. It fosters empathy, acceptance, and the attentive and “personalized” love that shows our spouse how deeply we care about them. Then we can become the “intimate community of life and love” that God calls married couples to be (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603).
Art Bennett is a marriage and family therapist and the Director of the Alpha Omega Clinic. Laraine Bennett is a freelance writer and speaker, with Art, on marriage and family issues. They co-authored The Temperament God Gave You (Sophia Institute Press) and are working on their second book, on marriage. They have four children—one of each temperament type.