Understanding Your Partner’s Temperament


In July of 2012, I posted a blog based on the book Understanding Your Child’s Temperament (1997, 2005) by the esteemed pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, William B. Carey, M.D. I frequently use the book in therapy, and strongly recommend it to parents. Borrowing an excerpt from my 2012 blog:

“Categorizing nine possible ways of looking at temperament (what he defines as behavioral patterns, or ‘styles of behavior’), Carey identifies the following nine temperament traits: Activity, Regularity, (Initial) Reaction, Adaptability, Intensity, Mood, Persistence and Attention Span, Distractibility, and Sensitivity. To facilitate my information-giving with kids and families, I grouped Carey’s nine categories into a poorly-clustered mnemonic aid, using the first letter of each trait: A-R-R / A-I-M / P/D/S. The first two clusters conjured up for me images of pirates (A-R-R) taking A-I-M at another ship; but don’t ask me what P-D-S means: public display of savagery, maybe?” (Recently, a client simply and adroitly suggested that “pirates display savagery.) Continuing with the excerpt from my 2012 blog:

“At any rate, Carey urges parents and other caregivers to record observations of their child(ren)’s temperament traits (behavioral patterns). Urging the use of a separate piece of paper for each trait, Carey writes: ‘As objectively as you can, watch, listen, and describe the pattern of how your child responds to particular people, settings, and circumstances. Think of this notebook as a journal you might take on a trip. Or, think of yourself as a reporter who does not know this child, as someone who is an impartial, detached, but watchful witness.’ The result is what Carey calls a ‘Temperament Profile.’ He admits that ‘all nine traits are present in children to varying degrees,’ but it’s the variations you’re looking for in each category; the highs and lows and average variations per category. Once we have a clearer understanding of a child’s temperament, we can begin to improve our fit with better parenting and/or caregiving techniques. Carey observes: ‘You cannot…hammer the undesirable traits out of a child through rigid discipline, bribery, attempts at reasonable persuasion, or other tried-and-failed methods. You can learn to accept those traits and—at the same time—develop alternate ways to manage your child’s temperament to reach the immediate objective: reduced stress and increased harmony in parent-child interactions.”

The more I use and think about Carey’s “Temperament Profile” vis-à-vis the parent-child relationship, the more I intuit its value for other relationships; like an adult, romantic relationship. To borrow another excerpt from my 2012 blog: “In an era when science is enabling us to understand human experience in new ways, it is important to examine the common debate about much of development and personality can be attributed to ‘nature’ or genetics, as opposed to ‘nurture’ or experience.” Think for a moment how the hardwiring of “nature” or genetics is currently playing out in your adult, couple relationship(s); for example, when the traditional wedding vows really mean “To have and to mold from this day forward.” Could it be that some of the frustrations we experience in our partner are due to a temperamental hardwiring, versus their willful resistance? Could better “Understanding Your Partner’s Temperament” influence a more harmonious relationship? I think so. I propose so, because those children grow up to be adult, romantic partners. To tweak Carey’s advice: “You cannot…hammer the undesirable traits out of a (partner) through (rigidity)….You can learn to accept those traits and—at the same time—develop alternative ways to (peaceably live with your partner’s) temperament.”

Because Dr. Carey proposes “behavior(s)” as a window, or clue, into understanding the hardwiring of temperament, consider his nine proposed traits, and descriptions. I take the liberty to exchange the word “children” with the word “partner.”

Activity – “The activity characteristic of temperament refers to physical motion during sleep, play, work, eating, dressing, bathing, and other daily circumstances….(Is your partner) highly active?….Or is… physical motion generally low in most circumstances?”

Regularity – “(Regularity) is better observed as consistency, organization, or predictable patterns of…behavior, such as completing tasks on schedule….(Is your partner) predominantly regular and predictable, like clockwork, or if…reactions and activities are difficult to anticipate?”

Initial Reaction – “What is (your partner’s) initial reaction to new people, situations, places, foods,…and procedures?….(How) bold or hesitant…when faced with unfamiliar, novel environments?….At one end…is the (partner) who accepts and approaches ordinary degrees of novelty with little hesitation or plunges in quickly. At the other end is the (partner) who does not engage in new situations or withdraws from them entirely, at least for a while.”

Adaptability – “Adaptability is the longer-term adjustment that follows the initial response….It shows a range between flexibility and rigidity in adjusting to the environment after the initial response has occurred.”

Intensity – “Intensity refers to the amount of energy in (your partner’s) response, regardless of whether it is positive and happy, or negative and fussy.”

Mood – “(Is your partner’s) predominate mood…positive, negative, or somewhere in between?….(What) we are describing here is the (partner’s) observable reaction style, whether pleasant and friendly or the opposite. We are not attempting to estimate internal feelings of happiness, contentment, sadness, or depression, which may be quite different.”

Persistence and Attention Span – “Persistence refers to (your partner’s) tendency to stick with the activity despite obstacles or interruptions….Attention span is demonstrated by how long (your partner) sticks to an activity or pursues  a task when there are no interruptions. Persistence is similar to attention span and differs only as to the impact of the interruption.”

Distractibility – “Is your (partner) easily distracted by stimuli around (them)? Or…usually tune out surrounding sights, sounds, lights, or people and continue…without interruption?….(Look) for a dominant pattern in your (partner’s) response to interruptions and distractions.”

Sensitivity – “Sensitivity refers to (your partner’s) sensory threshold, or the amount of stimulation from outside factors—such as noises, sights,, smells, and lights—needed to rouse a response. This is not the same trait as distractibility, which refers to whether stimuli interfere with (a person’s) behavior…at that given moment….All five senses give clues to the…sensitivity trait….(Look) for a dominant pattern….(Is your partner) acutely aware of, and responsive to, sensory stimuli inside and outside (their) body? (Or) fairly average in sensory responses? Or does it take a greater amount of stimuli to jolt a response?”

On a separate piece of paper using the rating scale below, rate your partner on each of the nine, albeit brief, temperament descriptions. For example, write the number besides each of the nine temperament traits that you perceive in your partner.


Not Sure     A Little Bit     Moderately     Quite a Bit     Extremely

Now, rate yourself on the nine traits. Have your partner do the same, then compare results. The outcome could make for a profitable discussion.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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