What Makes Relationships Work?

I must confess I have a weakness for Jim Carrey movies. I recently saw Fun with Dick and Jane, which actually contains an interesting insight into relationships and marriage.

Respect, Affection and Humor

Dick had recently lost his job because the sleazy company he worked for (not unlike Enron) had tanked. Dick and Jane are now facing bankruptcy: their water and electricity has been turned off, they are forced to sell their car and all their home appliances, and — the last straw — their lawn is repossessed.

One night, looking out at his dark house in the subdivision surrounded by automatic sprinkler systems, Dick snaps. He sneaks out to steal some grass for his lawn. Jane wakes up in the morning to find Dick covered in mud, asleep in bed (which is covered with dirt) with his boots on. He takes her to the window and dramatically shows her his work: “I got our lawn back!” She looks out at the pathetic lawn — which is really just a few patches of green surrounded by mostly dirt. “It’s beautiful!” she sighs and gives him a big hug.

And this is Jane’s character throughout the movie: she never criticizes Dick for losing his job or failing to find a new one in three months. She never becomes angry at him when they can’t pay the bills. She stalwartly supports him in every wacky idea he has. When he is about to rob a convenience store so that he can pay their mortgage, she goes with him saying, “You’re going to need a wheel man!”

But… that’s just in the movies, right?

Let’s take a look at what some of the latest psychological research shows us about marriage and about happiness. Dr. John Gottman has been doing research for many years on marriage and has found that happily married couples can have many different styles of relating; for example, some couples argue and others don’t.

Gottman found that when couples discussed a difficult or problematic topic, within three minutes a pattern of communication was established that could predict which couples would eventually break up. He found that some couples became “grid-locked” by certain troublesome issues which made them miserable, whereas other couples often had similarly problematic issues, but were able to discuss them with humor and even affection.

The two things that Gottman found absolutely essential to good relationships and to marriage are respect and affection. Contempt destroys a relationship. There are many different ways to express respect and affection, but these two features are essential.

After years of research, Gottman found that “[N]o matter what style your marriage [or relationship] follows, you must have at least five times as many positive as negative moments together” if the relationship is going to work in the long run (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail p. 29).

Another curious discovery was that even when the couple had no major problems or showed no animosity, if they failed to exhibit any signs of affection or humor with one another, they were also doomed to break up. These are the couples about whom you might say to your girlfriend or spouse, “Let’s never be like that, honey!” There is a complete lack of interest and involvement.

So, the mere fact of having problems is not a problem. Rather, how we discuss these problems is key. As long as people keep a sense of humor and maintain respect and affection for their partners, they can handle difficulties.

Virtues Are for Exercising

But we don’t just want to hang in there, gritting our teeth, just barely managing not to break up. We want our relationships to really thrive! We want our marriage to be a great marriage. We want to be happy.

Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania conducts research on what makes people authentically happy. He tells a story about a lizard who wouldn’t eat.

A colleague of his brought to his laboratory a rare Amazonian lizard for a pet. But no matter what he offered it, the lizard refused to eat. He tried mangos and lettuce, Chinese take-out and ground pork. He tried live bugs. The lizard was dying before his eyes. One day, he sat down for lunch with a ham sandwich. He offered the lizard a bite; as usual, the lizard refused. He took a bite and began to read the paper. He put the sandwich down and then put the section of the paper he had finished reading on top of the sandwich. The lizard took one look at this configuration and began to creep stealthily across the room. He pounced on the paper, shredded it, and gobbled up the entire sandwich.

It turns out that the lizard was unable to eat — even to survive — unless he had exercised what turned out to be a “lizardly virtue” or a key strength: stalking, pouncing, and shredding.

Dr. Seligman has discovered through his research that we humans also find ourselves notably happier when we exercise our key strengths each day. (For further information, see Dr. Seligman’s website at www.authentichappiness.org.)

What Does This Have to Do with Temperament?

When we understand our temperament, we will have an insight into our natural strengths, those God-given strengths that flow easily from our nature, our temperament.

For example, a choleric is naturally productive and finds great satisfaction in accomplishing many things. This is a key strength for a choleric. He needs to be active and productive. What happens when he is not allowed to be productive? He can slip into depression.

St. Therese Neumann, stigmatist, was a choleric saint. She was a lively, energetic, optimistic young woman who always preferred doing hard work in the field, rather than “frivolous” women’s work such as sewing or embroidery. But one day she seriously injured her back while carrying thirty-pound pails of water up a ladder to help put out a neighbor’s fire. She was forced to lie in bed for months and as a result she became quite depressed (Albert Paul Schimberg, The Story of Therese Neumann).

A key strength for the phlegmatic may be his ability to instill peace and harmony wherever he goes. He is naturally gifted with conflict mediation. He will find himself most happy when he is able to exercise his strength daily, by harmoniously working with others or exercising his strength of conflict resolution. Interestingly, many great military officers and firefighters are phlegmatic. Their ability to remain calm in high-stress situations is use of a signal strength. Both military service and fire-fighting offer a structured working environment requiring dedication to duty and the ability to follow orders without hesitation — perfect for the cooperative, dedicated phlegmatic.

Melancholic’s strengths will certainly be their depth of insight, their nobility of purpose, and their deep spirituality. Do not try to force melancholics to lower their standards, work in a sloppy environment, or take unethical shortcuts. Provide the melancholic with plenty of time and space in which to reflect and be creative.

What is a key sanguine strength? A sanguine needs to be around people. When I was in graduate school, we all coveted the scarce study cubicles ensconced in a mausoleum-like tower. I was one of the fortunate few whose name was drawn in a lottery and was assigned a cubicle. Unfortunately, it went to waste. In the dead silence of the tower, I was unable to study. I had to give up my cubicle and return to my usual study spot in a crowded coffee shop, surrounded by chattering voices and clattering plates.

Understanding our temperament also helps us avoid being “gridlocked” in the power struggles or perpetual problems which Dr. John Gottman found so predictive of relationship failure. When people can laugh about their own idiosyncrasies (which are sometimes temperament-related) and when they learn how to express affection for their partners so that their partners truly feel loved, they are on the road to having a great relationship.

As Father Thomas Berg (founder of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person) says, because of original sin, we all tend to think that what makes me happy, will make you happy. What fills my emotional needs, will meet yours. But different temperaments have different emotional needs. What makes me happy, might not make you happy. And so it is a good idea to learn not only about our own natural strengths, but also about what helps our loved ones feel loved and fulfilled.

Authentic happiness (and true love) requires the generosity of self-giving: because I love you, I want to express my respect and affection for you. I want to meet your emotional needs. I want you to be happy.

(c) Copyright 2006 Catholic Match, LLC. This article may not be copied, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way without written authorization Catholic Match, LLC

Laraine Bennett is a freelance writer with articles published in Catholic Faith & Family, Ligourian, New Oxford Review, and the National Catholic Register. Together with her husband, Art, she co-authored The Temperament God Gave You (2005 Sophia Institute Press). They have been married for 28 years have four children — one of each temperament.

This article has been re-published with written authorization of Catholic Match, LLC.

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