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Can your relationships change your personality?

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New research published this month by Bühler et al. (2023) in the European Journal of Personality suggests that relationship changes such as forming a new relationship, getting married, and getting divorced are associated with changes in personality and life satisfaction. The authors define personality as “broad patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.” Although personality traits are considered to be very stable, they can change, especially as individuals mature or as they experience different life events. Additionally, as the authors review, some individuals’ personalities may be more prone to change than others.

Personality Characteristics and Life Events

The current research focuses on the Big Five personality traits (openness to new experiences, emotional stability, introversion/extroversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness), which are considered “core” personality traits, as well as self-esteem and life satisfaction, which are considered “surface characteristics” and thus are more disposed to change.

The research also focuses on six major life events related to relationships “entering a new relationship, marriage, birth of a child, separation, divorce, [and] widowhood.” In their analysis, the researchers distinguish between “gain-based” life events such as entering a new relationship or having a child and “loss-based” life events such as divorce or widowhood.

Methodology

Bühler and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 44 different studies including more than 120,000 participants to investigate the corresponding changes in personality associated with these life events. The authors also considered age, gender, culture, and ethnic background as potential moderators of these effects. Furthermore, the authors allowed for the possibility that some changes in personality might occur immediately following an event but that some changes might take longer to appear.

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis involved nationally representative or community-based samples. Most samples came from Western countries (including several European countries, Australia, and the U.S.). Only a few studies included participants from Asian countries and no studies included participants from South America or Africa. Most participants in these studies identified as White/European. About 60% of the participants were women.

Results

Of the relationship life events that were studied, entering a new relationship was associated with the greatest corresponding change, an increase in life satisfaction. Entering a new relationship was also associated with an increase in conscientiousness. Although the other effects were smaller, marriage was associated with an increase in life satisfaction and a decrease in openness to new experiences.

The birth of a child was associated with decreases in extroversion. Interestingly, separation was associated with increased life satisfaction while divorce was associated with decreased life satisfaction. Divorce was also associated with increased conscientiousness. No personality changes were reliably associated with becoming a widow.

Conclusions, Implications, and Limitations

The authors concluded that although the effects tended to be small, “major life events are indeed associated with personality change.” The authors speculate that because these life changes occur over the long term that they may cause enduring changes in personality as well.

Additionally, the authors believe that experiencing many of these life events could cause changes in personality to accumulate over time. For example, getting married may be quickly followed by parenthood, and the corresponding changes in personality of these two events may have stronger impacts than either event when considered alone.

The authors also noted that gain-based relationship events were more strongly associated with personality changes than loss-based events. However, the authors believe that gain-based events may have larger effects in only in the short term and that loss-based events may have larger effects as they unfold over the long term.

The authors caution that not everyone reacts similarly to life events and that these studies were largely based on participant self-report. Bühler et al. also recommend that future research include more diverse samples.

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