Understanding the Temperaments:
Sharing the Strengths and Bearing the Weaknesses of Our Spouses’ Personalities
Why is it so difficult for husbands and wives to understand each other? Is it possible to overcome the barriers to peace and unity that so often seem “hard-wired” into our personalities? On October 23rd and November 5th, Fr. Michael Dahulich, PhD., Dean of the Seminary, gave lectures for the wives of seminarians on how we can apply an understanding of “temperaments” to both marriage and parish ministry.
Father Michael began his first presentation with an overview of the purpose of marriage, which is for a man and a woman to help each other attain theosis, to become more and more like God. However, differences in personality, or temperament, can stifle this mutually assisted growth in Christ unless those differences are properly understood and adjusted for in the spiritual context.
According to a model that dates back to ancient Greek philosophy, there are four temperaments: Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholic, and Phlegmatic. Fr. Michael used an in-class survey and detailed charts to help student-wives understand where they and their husbands fall within that spectrum.
We can begin to envision the different traits of each temperament by examining how each might answer the classic question, “Is the glass half-empty or half-full?” The focused, driven Choleric will respond impatiently that, obviously, the glass is both half- empty and half-full, and that there are more important questions to answer. The Sanguine, a happy-go-lucky, talkative optimist, will find the glass half-full. The Melancholic is a pessimist, who after brooding and analysis will answer “half-empty.” The non-committal Phlegmatic may watch the Choleric’s bluster with quiet amusement; he himself will be reluctant to expend the energy to consider the question. But when pushed for an answer, he will say the glass is half-full.
Rarely, said Fr. Michael, is a person purely possessed of one temperament to the exclusion of all others. Typically each person has both a major and a minor temperament. Some people may even have a blend of three, but not all four, since Choleric and Phlegmatic temperaments are mutually exclusive. Similarly, two spouses possessing Choleric and Phlegmatic “majors” face a particular challenge, as the volatile Choleric tends to lack patience with the Phlegmatic; and the Phlegmatic may in turn be stifled and overshadowed by the Choleric’s sheer strength of will and personality. Spouses of other temperament combinations will share some common traits and can more easily mitigate the differences between them.
But the temperaments can be “tempered” within loving relationships and perfected by participation in the spiritual life. Each temperament tends toward particular fallen passions which must be fought against -- rough edges to be smoothed – and each is also inclined toward particular virtues which can be “consecrated” and brought to bear in the pursuit of holiness. For instance, the Choleric could learn patience and peace from the Phlegmatic’s example, while the Phlegmatic could learn to develop discipline and diligence from the Choleric. By learning to appreciate, and compensate for, each other’s temperaments – which requires, more than almost anything else, the willingness to both grant and ask forgiveness, “even seventy times seven” -- any man and woman united in the Sacrament of Marriage can attain salvation together.
Father Michael discussed in some detail the numerous harmonies and conflicts that the various combinations of temperaments would present within a marriage. He then focused this discussion within the particular context of a priest’s wife working to aid her husband in his ministry. Her understanding of the temperaments can help her strengthen key areas of his ministry: navigating the interpersonal dynamics of parish councils, crafting his sermons, and in particular, working with sisterhoods and other ministries often led by women, such as Sunday School programs.
Understanding the four temperaments, their intricacies and interactions, is a valuable aid for appreciating others as they are and knowing how to live with them and love them. As Fr. Michael emphasized, Christ always accepted people as they were during His earthly ministry – He encouraged people to change, to abandon sin and pursue perfection; but He never rejected them or turned them away. And He guides His Church to act in the same fashion. He encourages all of us to change – to live a life of repentance, to continually redirect the totality of our imperfect personhood towards perfection in Him.
Personally, I found both lectures to be insightful and deeply interesting. I look forward to using the knowledge Fr. Michael passed on to us to become a better Christian, a more loving wife and mother, and a more effective parish member, whatever my role in parish life may be.
By Suzanne Lichtenstein, wife of Mark Lichtenstein, 1st Year M. Div. Student-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese