On this Valentine’s Day, we are looking at healthy relationships; how to grow them and maintain them. In an old article, “Five Keys to Keep Your Valentine’s Heart” by Barbara Bronson Gray on WebMD, she reviews a study in which researchers distilled years of relationship studies and identified five strategies that help predict positive relationships.
- The findings were:
• Openness: talking about feelings and encouraging your partner to do the same
• Positivity: acting upbeat and cheerful in your daily interactions with each other
• Assurance: doing things that show you’ll be there for the other person and are committed to the relationship
• Shared tasks: dividing household chores and responsibilities fairly
• Shared social network: including your partner’s family and friends in your activities from time to time
The study’s author, Brian Ogolsky, proposes that these strategies should be part of every partner’s toolkit for relationship enhancement. “The thing about maintenance is that you don’t always notice when it’s happening, but you do notice when it’s not being done,” Ogolsky said.
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What is furthermore interesting about the study’s findings is how they closely match the ‘Big Five Personality Traits.’ The Big Five are five broad domains which define human personality and account for individual differences. It is a model based on common language descriptors of personality. This theory is based therefore on the association between words but not on neuropsychological experiments.
This theory uses descriptors of common language and therefore suggests five broad dimensions commonly used to describe the human personality and psyche. The five factors are:
• Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is insightful, imaginative or independent and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine.
• Conscientiousness is the tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. Traits include being organized, methodical, and thorough.
• Extraversion is the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others. On one end, a person gets their energy from interacting with others, while the on other end, a person gets their energy from within themselves. Extraversion includes the traits of energetic, talkative, and assertive.
• Agreeableness is the tendency to be friendly, compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not.
• Neuroticism identifies certain people who are more prone to physiological stress. The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control.
Everyone possesses these traits on some level. The Big Five personality test gives more of an insight into how you react in different situations, it is commonly used by career professionals and psychologists use this information in a personality career test for recruitment and candidate assessment.
However, the predictive power of the Big Five personality traits extends to satisfaction in romantic relationships. Recent studies find that personality trait levels may predict relationship quality in dating, engaged, and married couples.
With the ‘Openness’ trait, that matches with the ‘Openness’ strategy. Early in the relationship, there is a lot of curiosity, excitement and eagerness to know more about the person, this relationship, its future etc. This curiosity can sometimes die overtime, the feeling of ‘your partner like the back of your hand’. As great as that is, you run the risk of overfamiliarity, and if you are both are not open enough to try new thing, experiences, you can get into a rut; the feeling that your relationship isn’t and can’t move forward and you are just ‘stuck’. Additionally, when it comes to being open about your feelings and opinions, it is great to know you can be yourself with your partner and your feelings and opinions are valid to them.
High conscientiousness definitely gives a sense of assurance; being dependable reassures your partner that they can trust you, there won’t be that paranoia about having the rug pulled up from under them. On the other hand, just like anything, too much of it can be a problem; there is dependable, and there is predictable. You do not want your relationship to get boring, and feel too much like a safety net that one or both of you begin to wonder if you are just settling, if there is something better out there.
There are a few misunderstandings when it comes to extroversion; it’s not necessarily about being the life of the party, high confidence or fun-loving. As I said earlier, it is the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others. Even introverts can seek some form of stimulation. So the strategy of including your partner’s loved ones into you activities, is opening yourself up to the new things and experiences. Extraversion has a bit of an overlap with openness because to get the stimulation you seek, you have to be open to new avenues. However, bring them into your activities and life is never an all access pass into your world. It is reasonable to set boundaries especially in the early stages of the relationship. These boundaries are for your convenience and not a way to cut your partner’s loved ones from their lives.
Another bit of overlap in the traits is agreeableness, and how it pertain to cooperation, compassion and even-temperedness. With everything you do and share with your partner, you are to be a team. It is not just about you and your needs, your partner’s need and wants are to be validated. So with the previous point, your partner’s loved ones, you have to be patient and willing to compromise because these people are important to your partner. The strategy that goes well with this trait is sharing tasks. Agreeableness is not just about big gestures and compromises, it’s the little things that show that you are both working together, in the relationship and life. You are a team.
The trick in here is learning to pull your weight and not dump or be dumped on. These compromises shouldn’t make you feel like the lesser person or the one ‘carrying’ the relationship. You are equals and in a really healthy relationship, these things do not feel like effort at all, sometimes it just becomes second nature.
Last but not the least trait is neuroticism; with the strategy of keeping positive, it’s a bit like not overly questioning the relationship status. Overthinking, overanalyzing and obsessively ‘checking’ your partner loves you. It could be from the simple things, attention, gifts and having some unrealistic idea of your relationship. You could smother your partner and drive a wedge between you both. The key word here is obsessive; obsessed with some aspect of the relationship whether or not it need to be fixed. You end up destroying everything trying to fix one thing. This also works with positivity, overly positive even in the face of evidence contradicting your ideals can also suffocate your partner. Ignoring the problems and hoping being upbeat and cheerful in your daily interactions will fix it eventually. It is great to be excited to see your partner, to have each other and be in love, you just have to be ‘sure’ you are on the same page. Being positive shouldn’t blind your from the problems and being neurotic about the problems rarely ever fixes anything.
Dr. Lara Kammrath, an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, speaking on the suggested strategies said, “…it could totally be the case that people who are happy in their relationships do these things, but it doesn’t mean doing these things makes your relationship better.” She further added “If these aren’t happening, it probably means your relationship is pretty distressed…(and) You might want to start trying them.”
Now some may think that my partner doesn’t do this or that, ‘what if their personality is the problem and our relationship is doomed?!’ That’s where the theory of changing your personality comes in; some people say you can, and some say you can’t. Fact of the matter is that your personality is a result of adaptation, to your environment and life. For example, when you are in complete darkness, but you are still able to navigate your way to the door. Your sense of sight may be hampered but your other senses make up for the ‘loss’. Then when the lights are back on, you go back to using vision again because it is easier and your default sense to use in the situation.
Personality traits are similar. Simply getting older can cause significant personality changes. The theory about your ‘work face’ and ‘home face’ plays heavily here, we change our personality how we see ourselves and how we want and/or need others to see us. This is not to say you are ‘faking it’, both ‘faces’ are yours, they are just used in different circumstances. Additionally, personality changes can still occur depending on new life experiences, going outside your comfort zone and developing/dropping habits. It can be extremely difficult to but it depends on how motivated you/your partner are to try.
Ultimately each personality trait, whether you are high or low on the scale, has its positives; but these positives may be best in one aspect of your than another. The trick is balance, and finding the right balance that works with your relationship and your life.