“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Empathy as a Key to Romance: Help from the Four Temperaments


Ten years ago this month, my husband and I had our first date. We usually make a big deal out of it as our own personal version of Valentine's Day. It's our time to reflect on what we were thinking back then and try to pull up some of the lovely memories from our earliest days together and fold them into our current appreciation of one another. When I look back at all of the things that have contributed to peace, happiness, and romance in our shared life, next to sacramental grace stands out one glorious gift: reading The Temperament God Gave You. (Be sure to read the description.) The concepts in this book totally changed my life and made my home safe for democracy. I don't remember which lady in our Mom's Book Club suggested that we read it, but I owe her my next born child (who may not ever exist without the help from this book! Ha!! J/k...j/k.). I had picked up snippets about the temperaments from reading lots of Shakespeare but had never thought to take them seriously as keys to better understanding everyone I've ever met. It is like the Philosopher's Stone of relationships.

The Oracle at Delphi gave us the aphorism, "Know thyself." Jesus added to that when he said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." For my money, one of the best things that anyone can do to achieve these lofty goals is to get to know the four temperamentscholeric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmaticfirst described by the ancient physician Hippocrates and (once shorn of their association with the mistaken theory of the "four humors") just as relevant today. It's one of my favorite instances of the Christian tradition having assimilated, transformed, and developed further some good stuff from paganism.

The four temperaments help you to know yourself by offering a concise yet thorough primer on why you are the way you are. The more you know yourself, the more you can master yourself, the more you can give of yourself. It also teaches you to love your neighbor better by helping you to know and to build empathy for him or her. My husband and I have been most impacted by the handy "Temperament Combinations in Marriage" chapter as well as the the very practical one titled, "How to Motivate Yourself and Others." By learning about the deeply rooted differences and similarities between yourself and your loved ones, you can make a lot of progress towards genuine empathy and greater love.

Here's a quick breakdown of the four (note: with the emoticons, it's important to know that one's temperament is most strongly expressed when he or she is under stress; begin at top right and move clockwise):

Choleric: (top right) Extraverted. Productive; zealous; pragmatic; intense; confrontational.
Melancholic: (bottom right) Introverted. Loves truth, justice, principles. Reflective; slow to react or initiate.
Phlegmatic: (bottom left) Introverted. Loves harmony, peace, cooperation.
Sanguine: (top left) Extraverted. Optimistic; interested; creative; adventurous; fun-loving.
*Click here for the temperament test from the back of the book.

Most people are a combination of two temperaments with one being dominant and the other secondary. Of course, there are many things which add further dimension to these bedrock tendencies. All of the nurtured features that overlay these natural inclinations must be taken into consideration. The book is very eager to assure that personality is distinct from temperament in that it is the collection of cultivated habits and life experiences which further define our uniqueness. The authors are not advocating that their reader attempt to reduce others to their temperaments, setting aside all of the nuances there to be appreciated. Instead, it provides contenta springboard, if you willfor better communication. For example, I am a choleric-sanguine married to a melancholic-phlegmatic. We're a classic case of "opposites attract." Because my husband first captured my attention by being the life of a party one night, I assumed that he was just as extraverted as I am; so I proceeded to book social engagements for us about 4-5 nights per week. I couldn't understand why he would start groaning when he looked at the calendar. So, we had a lot of stress in this arena of newly-married life. We couldn't figure out a way to level with one another.

By contrast, take the example of melancholic Mr. Bates from last week's Downton Abbey. Sanguine-phlegmatic Anna is distressed that Bates is off by himself looking sullen and anxious. He tells her, "Your husband is a brooder, and brooders brood." She does not respond with, "Well, snap out of it," as a choleric might. Instead, she says, "Well brood on me, then." She accepts that this is his tendency and chooses to redirect it towards a more positive end.


If you invite me to your wedding, you're going to get this book. I know the cover is kind of meh (I put a pretty wrapping-paper cover on mine), but it is the best tool for marital harmony that I can possibly give to another couple. What ten years of loving my husband has taught me is that we're always happiest when we're taking the time and the energy to consider each other's distinct viewpointgenerally (remembering our temperaments) and specifically (appreciating the particularities of the given circumstance and observing carefully each other's language, verbal and otherwise). This is how empathy fans the fire of romance. Nothing tells me that I'm cherished by my husband like his accurate articulation of what I'm experiencing and his offer to share the yoke. I think about that as I look around at all of the couples at weddings. I like to imagine how they compare and contrast temperamentally. Here's a hilarious photo of some married friends of mine at a reception which reads as if it were a caricature:


I promise that this is not staged. Everything about it is perfect, from the colors of their clothes to the light fixture shadows behind them which seem to represent their respective capacities for this party. You just know this sanguine wife and melancholic husband complete one another in the only way that he and she can. Neither is daunted by the other; they appreciate their differences and do not begrudge one another for them. I give this book as a wedding present because I wish someone had done that for me. If I had known from the get-go that my husband is drained by socializing rather than energized (like I am), I could have spared us at least a dozen fights about "over-committing" and "being so lame." If I had known that nagging is the worst thing that I could do to inspire my husband to take out the trash every morning, I wouldn't have seethed through my coffee steam a thousand or so times. Choosing to say, "It makes such a difference in my day when you take out the trash on your way to work. Thank you so much *kiss*!" has been infinitely more productive than an exasperated, "How many times do I have to remind you to do this? Do I have to put it in your hand and open the door myself??" I now know that when he does not take out the trash, it's not a deliberate choice to make my life harder (my go-to choleric assumption about most things); rather, he's contemplating the next chapter of his dissertation or dreaming of a world without modern architecture. It's not what I would be thinking about as I crush a yogurt container under the lid of the trash can, but it is one of the things that I love about himhis ever-teeming mind.

One of my favorite scenes from Brideshead Revisited is when a very drunk Sebastian vomits into Charles's window and his fellow reveler attempts to explain the situation:
I trust that you will forgive my friend. The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault - it was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the very root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.
This is how God is with us. He is all-knowing and all-merciful. We are called to imitate that greatest empathy. Now that I have a clearer understanding of how my husband thinks, I more easily and happily give him the benefit of the doubt; which is no more than the courtesy that I give myself all the time. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This is a mandate of our faith. And it is a burden made all the lighter when we realize that the unique temperament of our beloved is the very Will of God, and that God shares with us His Divine Spirit to keep our wedding vows a whole life long.

***

If you're interested in artistic representations of the four temperaments, you'll find countless paintings, sculptures, allegory plays, and even a ballet. If you want a musical interpretation, I highly recommend Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, Opus 16. Its movements and their respective temperament illustrated are as follows:
  1. Allegro collerico (Choleric)
  2. Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)
  3. Andante malincolico (Melancholic)
  4. Allegro sanguineo — Marziale (Sanguine)


 This Valentine's Day, have fun listening with your spouse and noticing all of the musical features which best represent your temperaments. Do you hear all of that thunder and lightning in the first movement? Yeah, that would be me. 

37 comments:

  1. What is the animal associated with the melancholic in the picture above? A pig?

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    1. Apparently, yes. I'm wondering if it's a truffle hog, which could be a good thing. ;)

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    2. I'd like to know the date and original source of the picture. It's very interesting.

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  2. This book has been on my radar for a while now, but I've yet to read it. Also, I know there's a "The Temperament God Gave Your Kids" - have you checked that one out yet? I feel like it could be very useful as well.

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    1. I've read all three of their books (there's also "The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse," which I own and would be willing to lend you) and all are very good and helpful. The two about children and spouses specifically go into more depth in those areas, but they're touched on in the original book.

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    2. Yes, I'll be reading that sometime in the not-too-distant-future, I hope.

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  3. Kathryn, this is a very honest essay about the power of empathy in a relationship. I have gained so much by considering the temperaments. However, perhaps it is in my temperament to resist categories and I felt somewhat pigeon-holed by those in my life that tried to explain everything about me in terms of a temperament. For me a book that helped me grow so much in understanding my husband was Wild At Heart. This book gave me insights into the fundamental differences between what motivates some men versus women. Added to this has been my latest epiphanies through Susan Cain's book. Quiet: The Secret Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. This helped me not only understand my husband's mind better, but appreciate my own as well. It has made me a much more understanding mother and teacher too. Even MRI's show that the ways people process information is different. We really are unique in our sensitivities, our need for reward, and our aversions to risk and can gain so much by trying to see things from another's viewpoint. Cheers!

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    1. I've heard great things about the introvert book - guess I need to sit down and read it, or maybe get my extroverted husband to :)

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    2. I've heard great things about those two books. And I want to underscore your point about not pigeon-holing people into these categories. The temperaments are only helpful insofar as they serve as a springboard for better communication. (See more like this in my comment to Sarah below.)

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    3. You can be multiple temperments.

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    4. I concur. Not only can one person have multiple temperaments, you can have different predominant temperaments at different times AND in response to multiple situations. Yes, there are people who are mousey and those you'd characterize as boisterous, and others overbearing, etc. But the fact is that given a tough situation even the mousey types become overbearing lions and so forth.

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    5. Anonymous, the book acknowledges that most people have two temperaments, a primary one and a secondary one. Susan, the book is very sensitive to the complexities and nuances of every individual human being. I think if you read it, you'll be satisfied with it's account of the sorts of things that you described. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. That book changed my life, too. Same book group! And the movements of that piece of music are such fun to reflect on. Thanks for this!

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  5. :-) that "caricature" picture is of my husband's roomie from college & his wife. So funny to stumble across this. I enjoy reading your blog & fun to find out we like the same people too. :-)

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    1. Ha!! I love it. What a small world.

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  6. This book made a HUGE difference in my marriage and general ability to play well with others. It's a perfect wedding gift!

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    1. "...play well with others." YES. That's what it has done for me, too.

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  7. I think the Bennetts' books have a lot of really great things to say and are generally helpful. I would say, however, that for someone who wants a deeper understanding of the temperaments, or finds the Bennetts' accounts of the temperaments' respective vices somewhat harsh (and not conducive to cultivating sympathy), to check out Carol Tuttle's books The Child Whisperer and It's Just My Nature. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with her overall, somewhat new agey (and Mormon?) theories of "energy", she has really done a great job of pinpointing the natural movement of each type, as well as the ways each type complements and completes the others. For example, she points out how the sanguines come up with ideas (Type 1 in her typology); the phlegmatics make a detailed plan to carry out that idea (Type 2); the cholerics step in a get it done (Type 3); and the melancholics take a look at the whole and see how it can be improved (Type 4). I don't recall seeing anything like that in the Bennetts' books, yet I think it's kind of essential for developing emphathy. Rather than judge the sanguine, who comes up with a thousand ideas and follows through on few of them; as flighty, it inclines me to appreciate them for those ideas themselves, rather than judge their frequent lack of follow through. It is their nature to give the rest of hope in possibilities, and for that I am very grateful. Examples like this one abound in her books.

    Tuttle also does some interesting things with the physical aspects of each temperament. For an example of her facial profiling based on the 4 types check out http://dressingyourtruth.com/face-profiling-videos/

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    1. It's so interesting to see these ideas take shape in other ways, adding more facets and more depth to the insights. Thanks for the suggestion!

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    2. Thank you for this!!! I took the quiz yesterday and am totally a melancholic, so not even close to a choleric. It seems that there was a lot of judgment going on as you said. I really love that idea of sanguines thinking of ideas, phlegmatics planning it, cholerics doing it, and melacholics critiquing. Probably because I'm terrible at follow-through, so I'm used to thinking of my skills as useless and irrelevant.

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  8. This was so much fun to read. One of my favorite things about Shakespeare class in college was learning about the cultural background, complete with the 4 temperaments, humour theory, the great chain of being etc. Total nerdom. Looks like the book would be useful too though! Also, I've never thought about the connection between God being all-knowing and all-merciful. If anything I usually hear the opposite, kind of like a cosmic Santa Claus who "sees you when you're sleeping." Great post!

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  9. That's me dancing! Contrary to what the picture suggests, I'm actually not a sanguine. But in a certain respect, my husband and I *are* opposites. I am choleric-melancholic and my husband is melancholic-choleric. We know each other very well because we share the same temperaments. But, the balance in each of us makes a BIG difference. Knowing how we are each alike and different is a huge part of conflict resolution.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification, Sarah! I realize that there are photos from my wedding of my husband dancing very dramatically and comically, and he is totally not a sanguine. This is where the personality overlay is important. A handy little formula might be Temperament + Personality = Character. Also, my mother pointed out that sanguines might be too worried about what other people will think of them should they "dance like nobody is watching." Knowledge of the temperaments should function as a starting point--not an end--for better communication and and stronger relationships. I know you better now thanks to your clarification! :)

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  10. This stuff has some really good historical value, but there has been so much in personality research in the past 100 years, that it is difficult justify its continued application. The dominant theory of personality (which is defined as our characteristic way of interacting with others) is the Five Factor Model (FFM) which was developed through some impressive methodologies. The researchers started with the principle that describing people in detail is important for our survival, so the key to deciphering personality is in linguistic analysis. They took the entire english dictionary and pulled out all the words that described people - thousands and thousands of words. Then they rationally clustered those words which were similar - ex. outgoing, extroverted, sociable, etc. These temperaments would have been used in this sorting. They ended up with several dozen clusters of words. Then the researchers put these clusters in note cards and had people sort the cards to describe their loved ones. The researchers used cluster analysis (a statistical method) to see how the words clustered together during the sorting. They ended up with 5 factors. This is about 30 years ago. They have since found a genetic basis for each factor. The five factors are 1) neuroticism (which is emotional reactivity), 2) extroversion, 3) openness (i.e. flexibility), 4) conscientousness, and 5) agreeableness. They've also found that certain profiles are complimentary to each other. To make it a little more complicated (because people are) they find that people don't get a rigid score in each factor - they are properly given a range. This is because people don't interact the same way in all circumstances. Only folks who have personality disorders are interpersonally rigid. By the way, temperament is personality in infants and toddlers. Your children have certain temperaments they are born with (they actually tend to line up with the five factors rather well). But you can't call it personality yet because children are very flexible - they haven't developed a stable pattern of interaction yet. They just have tendencies. I'm a psychologist by the way, so this stuff is super important to me. The old Greek temperaments and popular tests like the Myers-Briggs, while interesting, don't actually predict any subsequent behavior very well - they have poor validity. People like them because it helps them to categorize in a way that leads to certain useful discussion - so be it. But they are problematic in practical application. What practical application for the Church? Things like trying to help couples, premarital preparation, evaluation of aspiring vocations, etc. There are some VERY serious implications. And the five factor model predicts pretty well in areas like relationship conflict, vocational appropriateness, and fitness as a couple. The best marriage inventories actually incorporate the five factor approach. Prepare-Enrich for example - which predicts with an 85% accuracy whether a marriage will fail within 5 years. So practically speaking, we've got to start moving forward.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Deacon. Can you recommend any practical literature or even books for the layman on the Five Factor Model?

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    2. Thank you, Deacon, for adding so much supplemental material to this topic. The more we have to work with as we navigate the complexities of our relationships, the better!

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  11. What were Adam and Eve's temperaments? Before and after the fall? What about the New Adam and the New Eve? Did they possess all temperamental strengths without their weaknesses? Before the Fall, man's passions were rightly ordered, subject to his soul. I wonder what that looks like in a perfect mind, heart, and soul. By the way, I loved your analysis of Groundhog Day (film).

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    1. The Bennetts (the couple who wrote the book I'm recommending) say that Jesus (and I think we can say, Mary, too) probably had a perfect balance of the positives sides of all four temperaments. Unfallen man and woman would have probably possessed that same harmony. Thanks for reading!

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  12. I appreciate the Bennetts work in helping us realize what is motivating those around us. But I find the four temperaments a little simplistic. I find the Myers-Briggs categories a little more comprehensive and nuanced.

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    1. The temperaments are simplistic in the way that one's skeleton is simplistic. It gives your character shape, but not a whole lot more than that. Myers-Briggs adds personality to the equation, which is like adding muscles and smiles and whatnot. The two systems are very compatible and mutually informative.

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  13. Before the Temperament God Gave You was published my spiritual director had me get the absolutely fantastic "Personality Plus" books by Florence Littauer. It changed my life. It was fun and easy to read and I highly recommend it. It has really helped me understand myself and others.

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    1. I'll have to look for that. Thanks!

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    2. Loved books by Florence LIttauer. Twelve years ago I was being treated for a suicidal depression and besides medication, was sent to a great counselor, who provided me with Littauer's books. I believe one of them had a chart in the back that listed all the different personality categories and they all lined up with the four temperaments. I am so thankful to this day for the counselor who helped me get well.

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  14. Thank you for the lovely review of our book! We very much appreciate your positive comments! A priest friend of ours read your blog and shared it with us. We always feel very gratified to learn that our books have been helpful. (Also, I love the photo of the couple dancing!) In reply to the deacon, I wish to highlight the fact that we do not claim that temperament = personality, nor do we wish to categorize everyone as one of four types; but rather, we wish to say simply that temperament is one aspect of our total personality (the part that we are born with as opposed to those aspects that come by way of the environment) and it's a handy tool for getting to know oneself and growing in humility and understanding of others. Of course, as Catholics we believe we are neither determined by our genetics nor by our environment. And the concept of temperament is not merely historical! In fact, temperament can be found in contemporary research (see, for example, the work of Jerome Kagan of Harvard. He used to be a behaviorist until he became convinced of the reality of temperament. The Long Shadow of Temperament and The Temperamental Thread are two books by Jerome Kagan.) Of course, no contemporary researcher would use the ancient Greek terminology or 4 classifications as we do; our point in doing so is to maintain continuity with Catholic tradition (and the many saints and spiritual writers who used these names) as well as to provide a certain catchy "handle," so to speak. However, the underlying reality of temperament is no mere artifact of history. I hope this helps clarify things. :) Anyway, thanks again for the review!

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    1. Oh my goodness! How fun that you found my post! I'm glad that I have the chance to thank you "in person".... thank you for your wonderful books. :)

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