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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Shayla Love

Is neuroticism affecting your relationship? Don’t stress

Three people sit on a couch as they look at each other and talk
In nearly every episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza (center) represented a stereotypically neurotic person. Photograph: NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

In one early Seinfeld episode, George Costanza became convinced that his girlfriend was going to break up with him. When they talked on the phone, he was so tense that he made a list of odd, unnatural conversation topics, like how good he was at reversing in his car. When he asked her to dinner, and she wanted to do lunch instead, George had enough. He decided to break up with her before she could break up with him.

In nearly every episode of Seinfeld, George represented the stereotypically neurotic person: someone with a lot of anxiety who frets about everything, including romance. Earlier this year, a recent review of 148 papers on neuroticism found that this trait and relationship quality are negatively associated – when one goes up, the other goes down.

So what is neuroticism and how does it interfere with dating? Getting to know your own levels of neuroticism can help you see if this trait is getting in the way of your relationships.

What is neuroticism?

The psychological definition of neuroticism is different from the ordinary meaning of being high strung. Neuroticism captures how often people have negative feelings like anxiety, sadness and anger – and, importantly, how stable or reactive their emotions are.

When people use the word neurotic in their everyday lives, “it tends to focus most on the anxiety, nervousness and fear aspects” and “doesn’t necessarily capture the potential for more sadness, depression and irritability,” said Aidan Wright, a psychology professor who studies personality at the University of Michigan. Some researchers even prefer to call this trait emotional stability, instead of neuroticism.

Neuroticism is a spectrum: it’s not that people have either total emotional stability or are fully neurotic. “To some extent everyone feels, thinks, and behaves in a neurotic manner,” said Larissa Wieczorek, an educational psychology and personality development research associate at the University of Hamburg.

Most people, for example, will show signs of neuroticism in response to very stressful situations. But people high in neuroticism experience more stress each day, and react more strongly to that stress. In studies where people wrote diary entries about how many problems they encountered per day, those high in neuroticism reported more problems and more intense negative emotions. “It has been shown to be related to basically all mental illness and many physical maladies as well,” Wright says.

There are scales and quizzes you can take online to find out if you’re high in neuroticism, but a quick gut check would be to ask yourself if you are someone who experiences a lot of bad feelings, and if other people notice this about you. This might mean you’re high in neuroticism. “If you’re someone known for having a level head and handling stress really well, then you might be low in neuroticism,” Wright said.

How neuroticism shows up in relationships

Your partner hasn’t said “I love you” for a while. What’s the reason? A person low in neuroticism might interpret this as their partner being busy or look for their partner to express love in other ways, like through actions. A person with high neuroticism might interpret this situation in a more negative way: their partner doesn’t love them any more, is angry or has fallen in love with someone else.

Christine Finn, a psychologist at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, has found that neurotic people are more likely to interpret ambiguous scenarios, like the “I love you” example, in a negative way. They are also more susceptible to noticing and remembering negative information from their environments. “Those situations were neither positive nor negative, but left open the potential for interpretation; nevertheless, neurotic [people] perceived [them] in a more negative way,” Finn said.

Generally speaking, people high in neuroticism have a more negative view of the world, including romance. “If you ask a person with high neuroticism how they perceive the quality of their romantic relationship, they will almost always rate it more negatively than a person with lower neuroticism,” Wieczorek said. This bias can affect how satisfied people say they are with their relationships, and also end up impacting the partner, even one who is low in neuroticism.

People who are high in neuroticism worry a lot, and might insist on their partners behaving in certain ways to lessen their worrying – which could result in a partner feeling overly controlled or resentful. If a person is high in neuroticism, they might also seek reassurance from their partner more often, which can be grating over time.

People high in neuroticism are also particularly stressed out by social situations, and fear social exclusion. “Conflicts with the romantic partner, where people may fear losing the other person, are therefore likely to be particularly distressing for those with high neuroticism,” Wieczorek added.

Signs that neuroticism is affecting your romantic interactions include worrying a lot about what your partner does, what their intentions are and whether the relationship is good or stable.

“Due to their impulsiveness and their tendency to worry, they may also argue more often with their partners and have a higher probability of cheating,” Finn said. “Neurotic people’s relationships tend to be more unstable – they have a higher probability of breaking up compared to emotionally stable people.”

How neuroticism can benefit relationships

People who are high in neuroticism can absorb their partner’s moods more easily. In one 2020 study of couples aged 67 and over, German researchers found that in people with high neuroticism, positive moods were more closely connected to their partners’ positive moods, compared to people with lower neuroticism. This meant that when their partners were happy, they were happier, and it actually ended up decreasing their neuroticism over time. But when their partner had lower positive moods, their neuroticism could increase.

This work highlights how neuroticism is complex, and not entirely bad. Having a relationship with no neuroticism wouldn’t necessarily be ideal. “In general, being a worrier and a cautious person – two central features of neuroticism – is not a bad thing per se,” Wieczorek said, even though most of the overall research has focused on the negative consequences.

Being high in neuroticism might mean that someone cares a lot about the health of their relationship and what their partner needs.

“You want one or both people in the relationship to be high enough in neuroticism that they take threats and concerns in life seriously enough to do things about them,” Wright said. “Neuroticism can push people to avoid taking risks that are too big, and plan for rainy days.”

How to keep neuroticism from dominating your relationship

People who are high in neuroticism usually can’t decide to stop being that way and become a completely different person. But they can learn to notice their responses, thought patterns and behaviors. “We may not be in control of how quick we are to negative emotions, worry and the like, but we can control how we interpret them, respond and behave when we do experience them,” Wright said.

One strategy Finn recommends for a highly neurotic person is called “three good things a day”: write down three positive things – about life more generally or about a relationship – you experienced or felt each day. She also suggested trying to resist negative patterns of feeling and thinking by looking for alternative explanations for a partner’s behavior when their mind jumps to the worst case scenario. Wieczorek agreed: “A person who is high in neuroticism may learn to monitor and question their overly negative evaluations of themselves, their partners or their relationships.”

Good relationships also have the ability to dampen neuroticism. One study found that romantic relationships can help young adults high in neuroticism become more emotionally stable. “Experiencing trust and security within a relationship may evoke more positive feelings in neurotic individuals,” Finn said.

A relationship doesn’t have to be free of neurotic behavior or tendencies in order to thrive. For instance, John Gottman, a relationship researcher, proposed that for every negative interaction in a relationship, there should be five times as many positive interactions. There’s room for some neuroticism as long as it is counterbalanced by other traits – of which we all have many. “Our levels of neuroticism are just one facet of the diamond, in that they are just one part of our personalities,” Wright said.

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