Consider a person, let’s call him Steve, who is in a relationship with a highly anxious romantic partner. Steve is the cooler-headed one of the pair and remains emotionally stable throughout. At one point, however, the two break up and go their separate ways. Subsequently, Steve marries someone calm and collected. The marriage is, by all appearances, a committed and stable one. Yet Steve now becomes restless and prone to agitation. Why?
Various things could be going on. Steve may be experiencing more stress at work than he did previously; or his parents’ health may have deteriorated; or he may be tormented by physiologically-driven insomnia. But there may also be no obvious reason for the increase in restlessness, and the hidden driver of it may, paradoxically, be the very equanimity of his spouse.
While we typically feel calmer next to a tranquil person, upon occasion, the opposite happens: A person’s level of neuroticism increases next to a poised and even-tempered romantic partner and decreases in the company of someone higher in neuroticism. This tendency is so unexpected that it may be difficult to recognize, but for just this reason, it is important to be able to detect it and to understand its origins. Why would the proximity of a stable person cause emotional imbalance in some?
As a general matter, while we often mirror the environment and the states of other people, this is not invariably the case. For instance, many become energized in a boisterous crowd, but some feel depleted. Similarly, children of abusive parents may become abusive, in a blind perpetuation of the cycle, or they may, on the contrary, become committed to never engaging in acts of aggression.
There is a good deal to be said about the precise mechanisms at work in such cases, but here, I wish to focus on the particular case I started with: that of a person who grows restless and discomposed on account of living with another who is very low in neuroticism.
Sometimes, a person may show a version of counter-suggestibility. It is as though the other’s calm is an invitation for us to relax, but we instinctively want to do the opposite. Much as Steve may have been calmer on account of the fact the now former lover was frequently agitated, so, likewise, Steve may experience inner turmoil when the other seems at peace.
At other times, there may be a general – possibly unconscious – fear that things would be too serene and windless with two imperturbable partners and that this would either result in boredom or bring about a true storm for which the couple is unprepared.
Perhaps more often, however, the problem has to do with the roles we adopt and play in a relationship. Some of our behaviors, perhaps even most, are situationally driven and sustained, and behavioral patterns become cemented when attached to a role we've taken on. Thus, an 11-year old with two much younger siblings whose parents have been tragically killed may display a remarkable level of maturity. She may succeed in doing this because she adopts the role of the older and responsible sibling and, perhaps, of a sibling who is half-parent. This type of case is perhaps relatively familiar. What may be more frequently missed is that a person next to a well-adjusted and composed spouse may adopt the role of the fidgety child.
What must one do in the face of discovering that one’s well-adjusted and stable partner makes one neurotic? That depends on the details of the case. Sometimes, simply reflecting on the sources of one’s anxiety would help ease it. At other times, one may need to talk the issues through with others. And there may be cases in which one finds one needs a different, less stable partner, in order to display one’s better and more mature side. My goal here is simply to draw attention to this tendency. (I would note, however, that it is important not to moralize one’s psychological responses, and definitely not without understanding them first. It is not morally bad to be like Steve, and even if it were, self-blame is unlikely to help.)
People in Steve's position may be puzzled and find their increased levels of neuroticism and instability so unexpected and difficult to explain that they try to hide them from others. However, concealing persistent affective responses is typically not a good long-term strategy. If we experience inexplicable and recalcitrant anxiety, we'd be well-advised to find out its source.
I will end with an anecdote. I have second-hand knowledge of a case in which a well-respected father who also happened to be a priest was unable to deal with his son’s alcoholism for as long as he was alive. However, once the father passed away, the son stopped drinking. Relatives were puzzled.
But this reversal is not, in fact, all that puzzling. What it likely shows is that the problems in the son's behavior may have been due to a role he’d adopted in his relationship with his father. Once the father was gone, the relationship was as well, and so was the role played by the son. He no longer had any use for the wayward-son costume. Without the father, the young man could neither play nor be the problem child.
Much as one may become the wayward progeny next to a good and stable parent or play the role of the mature young adult in a family in which the parents have addiction problems or die tragically, so also one may be the rock and anchor of a nervous and anxious partner but find one’s anxiety levels rise dramatically next to a partner who always remains serene.
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