For a Happy Marriage, Both Spouses’ Personalities Matter
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When people complain about their spouses or other partners, they sometimes say that they’re incompatible in some way, that their personalities don’t match. But what makes a good match of a couple’s personalities? To have a happy, satisfying relationship, is it better for the two people to have similar personalities or to have different, even opposite, characteristics that complement one another? For decades, researchers have not fully agreed on whether “birds of a feather flock together” or “opposite attract.” The inconsistencies in research findings may be explained by different methods, samples, or cultures.
My colleagues and I attempted to address this question about personality similarity using a more comprehensive method, focusing on couples in long-term marriages. Along the life journey, some unhappy marriages dissolve at early stages, and some people remain happily married for decades. How much of a relationship’s success is due to the personalities of the two people? To examine this question, we analyzed data from 3,178 older couples from a nationally representative dataset, the Health and Retirement Study, who had been married for an average of 37 years.
For the first step, we looked for patterns of personality configurations among the couples. To do this, we used their scores on five basic personality traits: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. Certain patterns of these characteristics are more desirable and beneficial than other patterns. For example, scoring high on agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness but low on neuroticism is better than the opposite pattern.
Based on patterns of scores, we statistically identified six basic personality configurations among the couples based on whether the wife’s and husband’s scores indicated positive or negative personality characteristics. Six patterns of personalities emerged in the data: positive wife–negative husband (33% of the couples), positive husband–negative wife (19%), similarly positive couples (25%), similarly negative couples (15%), extremely negative husband–average wife (5%), and extremely negative wife–average husband (3%). More than half of the couples in our sample had opposite patterns of personality traits, 40% had similar traits, and about 8% had one spouse who had extremely negative scores.
Knowing each couple’s personality configuration, we first compared the demographic characteristics for the six different types of couples. Results showed that similarly positive couples fared the best in terms of education, income, and health. That is, couples in which both people had positive patterns of personality traits were generally more educated, more financially secure, and healthier. In contrast, couples in which one or both people had a negative personality pattern—that is, similarly negative couples and couples in which one spouse was extremely negative—fared the worst. The couples in which the partners had opposite patterns—positive wife–negative husband and positive husband–negative wife—fell in the middle in terms of education, good health, and wealth.
What about the quality of people’s relationships? We found that couples in which both people had positive personality characteristics reported the highest marital quality, followed by opposite couples (positive wife–negative husband and negative wife–positive husband). Couples in which one or both spouses had patterns of negative traits reported the lowest marital quality. Importantly, these patterns were obtained even when the roles of education, income, and health were statistically removed.
There is no simple answer to the question of whether it’s better for couples to be similar or different. Relationship quality is determined not only by the absolute levels of the two individuals’ personality traits, but also by the particular traits on which spouses are similar or different, the size of the differences between the two people’s personalities, and whether their personality patterns align with each other. Being similar does not necessarily guarantee a good marriage; couples usually need to be similar on positive personality traits to achieve a good marriage. Similarly, having opposite personalities is not necessarily something to worry about as long as your personalities are not too different. However, if one or both partners exhibits extremely undesirable personality traits, the couple may be at a higher risk of marital problems and unhappiness.
Clearly, personality matters in long-term marriages. If you don’t get along well with your partner, understanding both your and your partner’s personalities may be the first step to solving the problem.
For Further Reading
Wang, S., Kim, K., & Stokes, J. (2020). Dyadic profiles of personality among older couples: Associations with marital quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37, 2012–2031. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520916246
Shuangshuang Wang has her Ph.D. in Gerontology, and is a research fellow at the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a faculty member at Shandong University in China.