Long-term intimate relationships bring out a person’s strengths and weaknesses and therefore can offer tremendous opportunities for growth.
Development of personality traits
People tend to develop certain personality traits and habits as a way to thrive in their childhood environment. People become introverts or extroverts, serious or fun-loving, accommodating or contrarian in response to a confluence of factors. The culture we are raised in, family structure and dynamics, critical events, and genetic disposition all contribute significantly to the way we behave. For example, we may navigate through life by blending in and not making waves, by withdrawing into books and our own imagination, or by being active and engaging the people around us.
Our primary personality traits feel as though they are who we are. “I am quiet.” “I am outgoing.” But they are only part of who we are—the part of us that is the most highly developed, the most practiced, and the most ingrained in our neuro-network.
As a result of developing certain qualities, we generally tend to neglect opposing qualities. For example, an introvert feels comfortable alone but awkward at social events. An extrovert feels comfortable with people, but feels bored and empty when there’s no outside stimulation.
Usually, we feel satisfied with our personality traits until life somehow reminds us of how limited we are. Trauma, tragedy, life struggles, and falling in or out of love are the most common events that challenge us to become more whole and balanced human beings. These are often the turning points in our lives.
It so happens that we often fall in love with someone who holds some of the qualities we have neglected or pushed aside. After the initial stage of falling in love, people often polarize, that is, they step back into the personality traits they feel comfortable with and accentuate those qualities in response to their partners’ opposing qualities.
For example, the introvert complains, “Can’t you ever stop having a good time and just sit down with me?” While the extrovert retorts “Why don’t you ever talk to new people?”
When your primary personality traits are attacked, you become entrenched in the defensive. Each drives the other into more extreme positions, causing a downward spiral in the relationship. Questioning turns into attacking. “You never go out!” says the extrovert. “You can’t sit still!” says the introvert.
Given sufficient necessity or desire to evolve, people have an opportunity to mitigate their extreme natures, to avert the frustration and disappointment that so often follows the fire of a romantic or intriguing beginning triggered by the attraction of those opposites. Here are three keys to developing balance in oneself and in the relationship.
1. Develop the other side.
We have to consciously work on ourselves to become more balanced if that is desired. Without swinging to the opposite extreme, we should consciously develop the other side. Someone who is sweet and accommodating should start making the difficult phone calls rather than asking his or her partner to do so, e.g., dealing with the lawyers and accountants, or making the call to someone who has charged too much. Someone who is tough and direct can try to show some compassion.
2. Honor the other person’s differences.
We must appreciate, and not belittle, our partner’s opposing personality trait. Contempt simply puts the other person on the defensive. People are more likely to risk change when they feel support and love.
3. Lovingly encourage the other person’s attempts to develop new trait.
We can encourage, but not force or manipulate, our partner to develop the new trait. Encouragement works best when it is light-hearted and lacks emotional heat or pressure. It is also important not to criticize or make fun of our partner when he or she is attempting new skills.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD