Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How Much of You is Reflected in Your Close Relationships?

Stanley O. Gaines, Jr

Within close or personal relationships, many individuals find it relatively easy to pinpoint the influence of their partners’ behaviour on their own behaviour (e.g., “Look what you made me do!”).  However, many individuals do not seem to appreciate how much their behaviour toward relationships partners is a reflection of individuals’ own personality characteristics.  By “personality,” I am not referring to popularity.  Rather, I use the term personality to refer to a variety of psychological characteristics – other than intelligence (i.e., presumed cognitive ability) – that differ from person to person.

It is not unusual for personality psychologists to focus specifically on traits (i.e., individuals’ answer to the question, “What are you like?”) when attempting to identify personality influences on individuals’ behaviour.  However, the domain of personality psychology is broad, encompassing values (i.e., “What do you believe in?”), attitudes (i.e., “How would you evaluate that person, place, or thing?”), motives (i.e., “What compels you to behave as you do?” – keeping in mind that individuals do not necessarily know the answer to that question), emotions (i.e., “How do you feel about that person, place, or thing?”), and even moods (i.e., “How do you feel in general?”), alongside traits.  In turn, personality psychologists distinguish among many different traits, values, attitudes, motives, emotions, and moods.

Some aspects of personality are more obviously interpersonal (i.e., carrying implications for the way that individuals behave toward other persons) than are other aspects of personality.  For example, in the process of writing Personality and Close Relationship Processes (Gaines, 2016), I learned that the interpersonal trait of nurturance (which tends to promote other-focussed behaviour) is reflected consistently and positively in individuals’ relationship-maintaining behaviour; whereas the interpersonal trait of dominance (which tends to promote self-focussed behaviour) is not consistently reflected in individuals’ relationship maintaining behaviour – and, sometimes, dominance actually undermines the maintenance of relationships.  Similar patterns can be observed for the interpersonal attitudes of positive working model of other (other-focussed, consistently promotes relationship maintenance) and positive working model of self (self-focussed, sometimes undermines relationship maintenance).

Within troubled relationships, do individuals have any hope of cultivating interpersonal characteristics that can strengthen bonds with significant others?  According to interpersonal theorists, as long as one is dealing with individuals who do not suffer from clinical disorders, the answer is Yes.  For instance, even if individuals currently are locked into patterns of expressing dominance and/or positive working model of self within their relationships, those individuals can be taught (often within the context of psychotherapy) to develop patterns of expressing nurturance and/or positive working model of other.  In turn, individuals’ newly developed patterns of other-focussed behaviour may help make the difference between the maintenance and breakdown of close relationships over the long term.

By emphasising the potential impact of personality characteristics on individuals’ behaviour in close relationship processes, I do not mean to imply that individuals’ behaviour is solely a function of personality.  Indeed, at the beginning of the present blog, I noted that individuals’ behaviour in close relationships can be understood largely in response to partners’ behaviour.  Rather, I emphasise personality because relationship scientists often have under-emphasised individual-difference variables in favour of social-psychological variables in attempting to explain how close relationships are created, maintained, and (perhaps) destroyed over time.  I hope that everyday people and relationship scientists alike will (re)consider the impact of personality on relationship dynamics.

Find out more about Personality and Close Relationship Processes.

Winner of the 2018 IARR Book Award, International Association for Relationship Research.




About The Author

Stanley O. Gaines, Jr

Stanley O. Gaines, Jr. (Brunel University London) is the author of Personality and Close Relationship Processes (2016) and Culture, Ethnicity, and Personal Relationship Processes (...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!