Psychology professor Glenn Roisman and graduate student Ashley Holland say that while personality has been found to be predictive of perceived relationship satisfaction and success, other measures of relationship quality may offer additional insight into how a romantic relationship is functioning.
"Obviously there are going to be strong links between how you perceive your relationship and how you perceive yourself. But maybe there are not going to be such strong links between how you perceive yourself and how well you actually interact with your partner," said Holland, who led the research as part of her master's thesis.
"Our question was whether personality traits get reflected not just in how people perceive their relationships, but actually how they're behaving toward one another - and how their bodies respond while they interact," added Prof. Roisman, a co-author on the study.
For their study, the researchers gave dating, engaged and married participants a questionnaire about their own and their partners' personalities and the quality of their relationships.
The subjects were asked to indicate where they fell on a spectrum of each of the "big five" personality traits: extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience.
This part of the analysis confirmed that how an individual describes his own personality characteristics corresponds to how satisfied or dissatisfied he is in his romantic relationship.
The team also compared the self-reported data to that obtained by observation and specific physiological measures.
Trained observers watched videotapes of study participants as they discussed disagreements and agreements in their relationships, and coded each person on his or her positive and negative behaviours, such as smiling or scowling, avoiding or making eye contact, and so on.
All participants were given final scores that reflected the balance of positive and negative behaviours and attributes observed.
The researchers also measured participants' heart rate and skin conductance, a gauge of how much a person sweats, during their interactions.
"Both heart rate and skin conductance have been linked to a host of important outcomes in interpersonal relationships, including the likelihood of divorce. It's a problem if you need to inhibit yourself greatly while having a conversation with your partner about the kinds of things that you would ordinarily be talking about and trying to resolve in your daily lives," Roisman said.
The researchers found that the way the participants described themselves and their relationships was not strongly linked to how they behaved toward one another in the laboratory, which suggested that those studying relationships might need to look deeper than what individuals report about themselves and their romantic partners.
"Romantic relationships are complex and multi-faceted, and, therefore, measuring the quality of romantic relationships should probably include a variety of approaches in order to get a more nuanced view of how the relationship is functioning," Holland said.
The study has been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.