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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.


Personal Characteristics for Couples to Seriously Consider and Explore

Some online dating blogs, industry commentators and academic researchers routinely push the notion that matching people on personality traits is the main recipe for a happy relationship. The problem with that theory is that it’s proven wrong all the time.  Couples with dissimilar personality traits can have successful -- that is satisfying and enduring relationships -- pairings just like couples with similar personality traits.

That said, there are some personal characteristics (learned or changeable attitudes) that do impact relationships, but are not exactly in the domain of traditional personality traits. These factors are important for daters to know about when they assess each other and contemplate getting together and exploring the potential of their match. These characteristics are practical considerations, since they help to determine much about how a person lives his or her daily life. That’s a crucial point -- daily life.  Successful couple adapt to each other’s lifestyles -- not just personalities. We tend to notice and give credence to personality, but we often overlook daily life issues until it’s too late.

Questions about one’s identity, how one interacts with people, and the way of looking at the world are all important factors to take into consideration when it comes to finding a mate. Some of the most important issues in this respect are:

Conscientiousness: Many attitudes and behaviors reflect on a person’s conscientiousness, such as adherence to a routine, self-discipline and the capacity for organization, planning and orderliness.  Conscientiousness plays out in every area of relationships. People who are conscientious are likely to be frustrated by a lower level of conscientiousness in their romantic partners.  Also, high conscientiousness in men is related to increased esteem towards them by their wives.

Integrity: This issue involves overall honesty of the person, along with whether his or her behavior is trustworthy.  It consists of a person’s dependability or reliability, loyalty, and honesty.  Honesty and trustworthiness are two extremely important attributes that people desire in romantic partners.  Establishing and maintaining trust is essential for continued commitment in a relationship.  There’s no partnership without a sense of trust.

Adventurousness: Adventurousness is another trait that can have a negative impact on a mismatched couple.  People scoring low on this trait are reluctant to try new things; they tend to be sedentary and prefer a routine.  Highly adventurous people, on the other hand, are ready to take off at the drop of a hat, love to experience new things, thrive on change and resent routine.  Research has shown that sharing novel and exciting activities prevents boredom and stagnancy in a relationship. Being adventurous together is a good thing for a relationship. However, pairing two people far apart on adventurousness can cause serious personality clashes in the relationship.  

Rigidity. This refers to the need for control, standards (other-oriented perfectionism), flexibility and open-mindedness.  Being able to adjust in order to achieve compromise with a partner is essential to relationships, and this ability is nearly absent in people high in rigidity.  According to experts, pro-relationship acts -- like sacrificing needs and preferences and making accommodations for a partner -- helps build relationship trust.  

Dominance: This characteristic consists of assertiveness, tolerance for differences in opinion and tolerance for goal differences.  A number of studies have demonstrated that the complementarity theory holds for this factor - people who are generally dominant tend to get along better with people who are more submissive, and vice versa. However, dominant / submissive couples are at risk of developing co-dependency problems and the submissive partners may tend to fail to achieve successful differentiation of their selves, which is fundamental to long-term intimacy.

Attitudes and worldview: This is a highly complex set of characteristics that involve a variety of issues that frequently cause problems in romantic relationships. For instance…

  • Gender roles: One’s gender role attitudes are reflected in numerous areas, but all of them essentially boil down to power balance in the relationship, from decision making, child care, chores and errands to division of financial resources.

  • Money attitudes:  Conflicts about money can be a major indicator of problems in marriage; couples that argue about money feel much less esteem for one another than couples that do not argue about money.

  • Political and social attitudes: While standing on the opposite sides of left / right spectrum does not necessarily prevent partners from forming a successful bond, these attitudes, especially in their extreme form, and even more so if combined with intolerance, can cause major opinion clashes in the couple.

  • Parenting style: Similar strategies and opinions about parenting are important when a couple decides to raise a child together. Parenting styles – measured by attitudes, approaches, amount of affection shown to the children and level of discipline used – are varied, and must be taken into consideration.  When it comes to parenting, being a team when it comes to parenting is imperative, as inconsistencies will typically lead to adjustment problems and maladaptive behavior in children.  Style differences can also cause difficulties in marital relations, specifically in terms of couple intimacy.

  • Relationship attitudes and dating philosophy: There are some issues that can actually make or break a relationship, such as differing levels of readiness to commit, different relationship values, and lack of consensus about whether the relationship will end in marriage or is just a short fling.  Each individual enters into relationships with their own preferences and expectations.  If fundamental differences do exist, a couple may find that they have to either significantly compromise on important issues or look elsewhere.

  • Romantic attitudes: While some might argue that being romantic, attentive or chivalrous have little to do with long-lasting relationship satisfaction, the fact is that these attitudes are not just skin-deep.  Surely, romantic gestures and passionate attentiveness are more frequently observed in the early stages of courtship.  Nevertheless, there is no denying that remembering anniversaries, breakfast in bed and little affectionate gifts can contribute to a lasting romance, maintenance of passion and feeling of being loved, which in turn have a major impact on relationship satisfaction.

Dr. James Houran's "Office Hours with Dr. Jim" column is published every Monday.

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