8. Personality Psychopathology Couples - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

8. Personality Psychopathology Couples

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Born That Way- Termperament Rel

Born that Way, Temperamental Challenges in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Since temperament can be seen as a first foundation for individual development, personality or character may be seen as the adult outcome through developmental interaction with the environment.  "The theory of temperament… suggests that these constitutional traits interact with the environment to influence personality development, and contribute to the development of psychopathology" (Shaw et al., 1996, page 107).  When disruptive emotional traits or behaviors become embedded in an individual's personality, they cause significant distress or problematic functioning for the individual.  At some point, it may be considered as psychopathology.  Since there are exponential numbers of environmental variations that a child may experience, it is impractical to designate specific healthy or unhealthy temperamental outcomes for individuals and eventual relationships.  Nevertheless, it can be useful to identify principles and general profiles for the therapist to understand how personality affects how two or more individuals respond to one another.  Botwin (1997) found that individuals with partners with high Agreeableness, high Emotional Stability, and high Intellect-Openness were more satisfied.  Individuals with personality characteristics of low Agreeableness, low Emotional Stability, and low Intellect-Openness were more likely to be unhappy with their marriages (page 134).  Depending on particular temperamental or personality traits or profiles, relationships may have a higher probability of conflict.  An individual may behave in ways that are upsetting to another: a dominating person may be condescending, or an unconscientious other person may be neglectful.  Or, his or her actions can evoke responses from the other person that are in turn upsetting.  Aggressive behavior may draw passive-aggressive behavior- the silent treatment for example, which turn upsets the first partner.  "In sum, people's personality characteristics can upset others directly by influencing how they act toward others, or indirectly by eliciting actions from others that are upsetting" (Buss, 1991, page 665-66).  Buss identified 15 major sources of anger and upset:

1. condescending,

2. possessive-dependent,

3. neglecting,

4. rejecting,

5. abusive (physically and verbally),

6. unfaithful,

7. inconsiderate,

8. physically self-absorbed,

9. moody,

10. sexually withholding,

11. sexualizing of others,

12. abusive of alcohol-emotionally constricted,

13. disheveled, insulting of appearance,

14. sexually aggressive,

15. self-centered (Buss, 1991, page 666).

The list appears to be relatively self-evident.  Few individuals would find these traits or behaviors conducive to a positive relationship.  Who would not be angered if their partner treated one so poorly?  It would seem that all the therapist would have to do is to go through this list with an individual or the partners, identify any problematic behaviors, and get them to stop it!  Unfortunately, the individual and couple come to therapy often already knowing what they need to do, need to stop, and need to do better.  What they often do not know is why despite knowing what to do, why they cannot seem to stop.  In other words, the individual or couple often do not know why they continue with behaviors that they often have been admonished about most of their lives.  To understand why the behaviors are so entrenched and compulsive may start with uncovering why and how they developed in the first place.  Understanding temperament can be a vital step in the therapy that involves intimacy and relationships.

"Cloninger and Svrakic postulated the existence of four temperament traits and three character traits that accounted for most of the variance in personality with psychobiological support.  Temperament is hypothesized to involve heritable neurobiological dispositions, and it consists of four dimensions: high in harm avoidance (HA), which reflects cautious, fearful, pessimistic, and shy; high in novelty seeking (NS), which reflects quick tempered, curious, and exploration; high in reward dependence (RD), which reflects tender-hearted, warm, sensitive, and sociable; and high in persistence (P), which reflects industrious, persistent and stable despite frustration.  Each of the temperaments have been relatively stable, moderately heritable, normally distributed, independent of each other and universal across the ethnic and cultural differences.  Character dimensions mature in adulthood and influence personal and social effectiveness by learning about self-concepts.  It involves higher cognitive processes and relatively conscious and explicit mechanisms than temperaments. There are three character dimensions. Self-directedness (SD) reflects the ability of an individual to control, regulate, and adapt behavior to fit a situation according to chosen goals and values.  Cooperativeness (C) reflects the ability to identify with, cooperate with, accept and work with other people.  Self-transcendence (ST) reflects the ability to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, and spiritual acceptance"(Ha et al., 2007, page 60).

Ha found that as self-directedness decreased there were more personality disorder diagnoses.  Personality disorders were often shown to have essential characteristics of low self-directedness and low cooperativeness.  His study involved young adults with low self-directedness that predicted personality disorders.  As a result, assessing self-directedness as a problematic characteristic with relatively young children may be used to look for early indications of personality disorders. (Ha et al., 2007, page 64).  The technical definition of personality disorders holds the diagnosis for adulthood.  However, recognizable tendencies and symptoms usually begin to appear in the teenage years and become increasingly characterological.  The issues are often life-long and cause individual distress, relationship dysfunction, and social deviance.  Difficult to change and challenging for the therapist, personality disorders often has significant comorbid psychiatric and medical conditions.  Accurate and early assessment of personality disorders and biological relevance to their development is important for the individual and the couple, families, and other communities in which they function.  When working with an adult client, the therapist may assess for self-directness in current behavior and in his or her developmental history.  While the client may not have a diagnosable personality disorder, tendencies to a disorder may be seen in these traits.  It is not clear to what degree traits such as harm avoidance, novelty seeking, reward dependence, persistence, self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence are innate temperamental traits, a function of temperament and environment interactions, or primarily a result of socialization by caregivers and society.  The therapist should not examine individual or couple personality and behaviors solely from the perspective of temperament.  However, temperament and multiple potential interactions historically in the family, school, and otherwise and currently in the couple may prove fruitful.  Buss' fifteen sources of anger among other personality tendencies and behaviors may be consequential to such dynamics.  It can help explain by the behaviors are so entrenched and compulsive and subsequently, resistant to change.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu