- Certain personality traits may help people get along better with others, but not predict compatibility.
- Emotional stability, warmth towards others, and self-control relate to how well we get along with others.
- But compatibility between two people matters most for relationships—the unique way two people interact.
Are some people more likely to have successful relationships? Are there certain personality traits that are better suited to helping people get along with others? According to personality researchers, the answer is—sort of.
To understand how personality affects relationships, we have to think about three aspects of relationships.
First, we have to consider what is called “actor” effects. Actor effects refer to how people’s personalities affect the way they feel about others—whether some people just tend to get along well with others, like other people, and are happier in their relationships compared to other people.
Second, we have to consider “partner” effects. Partner effects refer to how people’s personalities affect the way others feel about them—whether some people just tend to be people who others get along with better, like better, and are happier in relationships with compared to other people.
Third, we have to consider “relationship” effects. Relationship effects refer to effects that are unique to specific relationships between people—whether two people uniquely get along with, like, and are happier with each other than they would be with someone else. In other words, whether some people are just more compatible with each other.1
Why do these three aspects of relationships matter for understanding how personality shapes the way we get along with others? To make sense of the role of personality, we have to think about the way people’s personalities shape each of these effects—how people’s personalities shape the way they like and get along with others (actor effect), the way others like and get along with them (partner effects), and the way their personality interacts with their relationship partner’s, to determine their unique compatibility (relationship effect).
In terms of actor and partner effects, the results are fairly consistent—people who are more emotionally stable—that is, those who tend to experience less negative affect, like depression and anxiety, and are less neurotic and insecure—typically report getting along better with others and being happier in their relationships with romantic partners, peers, and family relationships (an actor effect).
Emotional stability is also the strongest predictor of who we get along with (partner effect)—people report getting along better and being happier in relationships with those closest who are more emotionally stable.
Researchers have referred to low emotional stability as “the relationship killer." When someone is low in emotional stability, both that person and their close others tend to be less satisfied with their relationships. This appears to be true in both romantic and parent-child relationships. For example, children’s emotional stability is related to their parent’s warmth and stress.
Two other personality domains have also been strongly linked to how well we get along with others. People who are more communal—that is, who tend to be agreeable, warm, honest and humble, and less arrogant and antagonistic—typically report getting along better with others and having happier relationships (actor effect), and their relationship partners report the same (partner effect). The same is true (both actor and partner effects) for people who have greater self-control—that is, who tend to be more conscientious and less impulsive.
People who are more sociable—outgoing, gregarious, and high in positive affect—typically report getting along better and having happier relationships with romantic partners, peers, and family (actor effect). But researchers have not found strong evidence that having a more sociable partner is related to better relationships (no partner effect)
Do Opposites Attract?
What about relationship effects? Do people with more similar personality traits get along better? As they say, do “birds of a feather flock together?" Or is it that “opposites attract?"
Maybe it depends on the particular personality trait. Well, it turns out that despite these compelling adages, researchers who have looked at personality similarity and dissimilarity have found little evidence that unique combinations of personality traits between two relationship partners predict who people are attracted to, how well they get along, or how happy they are in their relationships. This is true not just for romantic relationships, but friend and family relationships as well.
And when you consider the three aspects of relationships (actor, partner, and relationship effects) and how much they matter, it turns out that when we look at how well we get along with others and are happy in our relationships, most of our feelings about our relationships are due to relationship affects—the unique compatibility that we have with another person.
Personality traits are related to who tends to get along well with others, and who tends to be someone people will get along with, but they don’t seem to tell us why you get along well with a particular person in your life, the aspect of relationships that actually matters the most. This is why I answered “sort of” to the question of whether certain personality traits are better suited to helping people get along with others. And this is the mystery of compatibility—why matching algorithms in dating apps can only get us so far. Because researchers have yet to really figure out what exactly makes two people compatible.
A couple of caveats to keep in mind when reading about these research findings:
- Because we cannot readily assign people to certain personalities or certain relationships, the research examining how personality is related to relationships is typically correlational. Researchers do conduct longitudinal studies in which they examine how personality at one point in time predicts later relationship outcomes, which can help get a sense of the direction of these effects. (Does personality shape relationships or the other way around? The answer is both).
- This research reports on what typically happens. On average, people who are lower in emotional stability tend to get along less well with others. This does not mean that for any given person, this will necessarily be the case. If you tend to be anxious or depressed or insecure, the research suggests you may have more difficulty with relationships; but, there is also research identifying buffers of these effects. For example, having a partner who expresses gratitude appears to help buffer against the negative effects of being insecurely attached (Park et al., 2019).
(1)Typically researchers look at dyads, or relationships between two people, but theoretically, you could also have unique effects on how a triad or small group of people are together compared to how they are with other people.
Facebook image: djile/Shutterstock
Back, M. D., Branje, S., Eastwick, P. W., Human, L. J., Penke, L., Sadikaj, G., Slatcher, R. B., Thielmann, I., Van Zalk, M. H. W., & Wrzus, C. (2023). Personality and social relationships: What do we know and where do we go? Personality Science, 4, e7505.
Park, Y., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Lemay Jr, E. P. (2019). Saying “thank you”: Partners’ expressions of gratitude protect relationship satisfaction and commitment from the harmful effects of attachment insecurity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(4), 773.