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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Relationship Personality

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.


Importance of Personality in a Relationship

Hi Dr. Jim. How important is personality in a relationship?


No one would deny that personality is one of the factors that probably attract people to each other, at least initially. That said, it’s not always predictable what combination of personality traits a given person will fall in love with so to speak. Some researchers and online dating sites emphasize the principle of similarity – that is, two people will be happier the more alike their personalities are. However, recent research underscores the notion of complementarity (e.g., Houts, Huston, & Robins, 1996), which says that couples achieve compatibility by harmonizing, or even exploiting, differences in partners’ interpersonal styles and life skills.

For instance, Dryer and Horowitz (1997) found that individuals in complementary partnerships (submissive people with dominant partners, dominant people with submissive partners) reported more satisfaction than did those with partners whose styles were similar. Moreover, individuals complementing their partner’s behavior were more satisfied with couple interactions than were those whose goals were not complementary. This and other evidence increasingly speak to the importance of complementarities across various relationship types. This seems consistent with the four general perspectives on compatibility as delineated by Levinger (1986). These perspectives include: (1) the relationship among the partners’ values, personalities, and predispositions, (2) the patterns of accommodation adopted by a couple, (3) the couple’s adaptability to each other’s needs in the face of mutual conflict (mutual transformation), and (4) temporal changes or convergences in preferences, goals, and dispositions (dispositional transformation). Thus, broadly speaking, complementarity implies that successful couples integrate qualitatively different issues into the relationship.

All of that said, it’s important for couples to explore the nuances and idiosyncrasies of each other’s personalities. Only in this way can a couple know if indeed they can accommodate each other. You might think this is no easy feat, assuming that everyone is absolutely unique. This is true for fingerprints and other bio-data, but our “psychological DNA” seems to be another story. The International Programs Center at the U.S. Census Bureau puts the total population of the world at approximately 6.5 billion people, yet it may surprise you that social scientists assert that all of those individuals’ personalities can be described in terms of just five, common traits that are easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN:

Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (sensitivity)

These personality traits are independent, which means that you can be high on one dimension and low on others, or high on all of them, or low on all of them, etc. The way people express themselves is related to their personality make up. Often one or two of these five traits will be dominant in a specific person, although this not always obvious even to the person. The table below summarizes the drivers and behaviors typically seen in a dominant personality trait.

Dominant Trait


Typical Behaviors

Openness to Experience

Sensation seeking and learning things in general

Eager to learn, spontaneous, asks many questions


Interested in understanding details and practical application

Detail-oriented, contemplative, pragmatic


Interested in relationship-building

Friendly, engages others, vocal



Interested in avoiding conflict and pleasing others

Good listener, respectful, amenable, strives for consensus

Neuroticism (sensitivity)

Interested in controlling circumstances and expressing self

Deep feeling, driven, reactive


Have fun reading the information above. You also might read about this Big Five Model of Personality on Wikipedia. The model is not perfect, but it’s one of the best validated theories of personality in psychology. It even describes people in vastly different cultures.

The nice thing about this model is that it’s easy to use. You’ll easily recognize these traits in others, and especially in a romantic prospect with whom you spend time in many different situations. Oh, that’s the key to getting to know someone – spending time observing and interacting with them in many different contexts and situations. Only then will you see patterns about what makes them tick. With that in mind, it’s my advice to make dates as diverse as possible with the same person. Go dancing, mingling, sharing thoughts and feelings, try new things, double date, visit each other families and spend alone time together. The idea is see how the person handles him/herself under different types of stimulation – crowds, strangers, activities with different energy levels, etc. This is crucial in giving you a full and true understanding of their psychological DNA and their level of compatibility with you.


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

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