- Alexandra Solomon, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University
- Danielle Dick, PhD, Danielle Dick, PhD, is a psychologist and the Commonwealth Professor of Psychology and Human and Molecular Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University.
- Genesis Games, LMHC, couples therapist and owner of Healing Connections
“The Big Three are genetically influenced temperament and personality dimensions that show up consistently in studies from around the world, in both kids and adults,” says Dr. Dick, who adds that understanding where we and our partners fall in each of these three categories allows us to “be more intentional about taking positive steps toward making our lives better.”
Though Dr. Dick’s research surrounding the Big Three originally focused on children, psychotherapist Genesis Games, LMHC, says it’s unsurprising that the framework can also extend to romantic relationships—especially considering that the characteristics we have as children often follow us into adulthood.
According to Dr. Dick, where we fall on the Big Three “shapes countless aspects of our lives, from day-to-day mundane things, like whether you enjoy interacting with your neighbor” to the more serious things, like “whether you’re more prone to developing depression, anxiety, or substance use.”
Read on to find out what each facet of the Big Three means and how understanding where you and your romantic partner fall in each category can help improve your quality of communication and prevent petty arguments from materializing at all. (To help you learn where you fall, check out this questionnaire.)
The Big Three: extroversion, emotionality, and effortful control
Extroversion “refers to how much people enjoy being around other people and being a part of social gatherings,” says Dr. Dick. If you’re high on extroversion, Dr. Dick says you may be the type of person who’s “more sociable, outgoing, and full of energy.”
On the other hand, says Dr. Dick, people who are lower on extroversion “are more reserved, preferring time alone or with a small number of close friends.”
Emotionality has to do with how we deal with our emotions, and "how prone we are to fear, frustration, or distress,” says Dr. Dick. “Individuals who are higher on emotionality are more likely to be worriers or quick to [get irritated].” On the lower end of the emotionality spectrum are people who describe themselves as “going with the flow.”
“Individuals who are higher on emotionality are more likely to be worriers or quick to [get irritated].” —Danielle Dick, PhD
If you’re someone who gets nervous easily, worries a lot, or easily feels blue, Dr. Dick says, you likely land high on the emotionality spectrum. If sudden changes in plans (or in life) don’t make you immediately cringe, you probably land on the lower end of emotionality.
3. Effortful control
Dr. Dick defines effortful control as “our ability to regulate our emotions and behavior,” with the “effortful” component being key. That's because you’re working the same “muscle” when you’re trying to motivate yourself to do something as when you’re trying to stop yourself from doing something.
You can discern where you fall on the effortful control scale by asking yourself if you typically follow through on plans you make and assessing whether or not you think things through before pursuing them.
How being aware of your relationship Big Three can stop petty arguments
While Big Three mismatches in relationships can lead to arguments (i.e., someone low in extroversion being with someone high in extroversion), it’s not the mismatch itself that’s the problem, says clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD. The problem arises when we assume that our partner’s Big Three are an exact match to ours, and we operate accordingly.
“So often, we try to exert change over our partners, wanting them to be more like us. Or we judge our partners, wanting to convince them that their way is the worse way,” Dr. Solomon says. With this mentality, it becomes all too easy to judge our partners, which can look like wanting to convince them that their way isn’t right or that it’s otherwise deficient. This becomes problematic because a relationship is still made up of two individuals with independent thoughts that—newsflash—might not always line up.
“We can actually learn to navigate differences effectively and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.” —Genesis Games, LMHC
Relationship Big Three mismatches “can lead to tension if we expect the other person to operate in the same way we do or we intend to change the other person,” Games says. “If we approach differences from a place of curiosity and with the intention of understanding, we can actually learn to navigate the differences effectively and complement one another's strengths and weaknesses.”
For example, if you’re high on extroversion and your partner is lower in that regard, you may feel like you’re constantly struggling to get on the same page about what constitutes “fun.” Someone high in extroversion might enjoy going to music festivals or checking out a new restaurant in town, but a low extroversion partner might not want to participate. This might make the high extroversion partner feel sad and the low extroversion partner misunderstood. In reality, though, it's not that the low extroversion partner doesn't want to spend time with their high extroversion counterpart, but that they “need more downtime to recharge, and social gatherings can be draining,” Dr. Dick adds.
Alternatively, if you’re lower on extroversion and your partner is higher, you might feel that they’re not as interested in spending time with you because they want to spend time with friends. However, Games says, it’s helpful to “understand that they are extroverts and recharge by being around a variety of people.” This can help you see that “It’s not about me or us, but a coping mechanism that is neither good nor bad,” adds Games.
So what can you do if you find that your relationship Big Three traits aren't as closely matched as you’d like? Simple: Communicate. Dr. Solomon suggests asking your partner: “Can you help me understand what you're thinking? Can you help me understand your perspective, approach, [or] preference?” Curiosity, she adds, “helps us shift away from a ‘me versus you’ experience of the difference and move toward a stance that is us looking together at the difference.”
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