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 temperaments—choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic—first 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 content—a springboard, if you will—for 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 viewpoint—generally (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 him—his 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:
- Allegro collerico (Choleric)
- Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)
- Andante malincolico (Melancholic)
- 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.