The Way We Are and Why
Melancholic Wife? Phlegmatic Husband? Here’s Help
BY Tim Drake
November 9-15, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/4/08 at 1:45 PM
Art and Laraine Bennett know a thing or two about temperaments.
Art is a family therapist. Laraine is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in philosophy. Together they authored the popular book The Temperament God Gave You, and their latest, The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse.
They recently spoke with senior writer Tim Drake from their home in Bristow, Va.
How were you first introduced to the temperaments?
Art: The priest who was giving us spiritual direction introduced us to the temperaments. We found it so helpful in our spiritual life that we thought it would be helpful to us as parents and spouses, so we decided to provide the Catholic perspective on the temperaments as a handy tool.
What are the four temperament types and can you describe each of them briefly?
Laraine: The choleric is the natural leader. They’re energetic, strong-willed, decisive; they react quickly. They’re goal-oriented and persevering. A real type-A.
The opposite of [the] choleric would be the phlegmatic. They have a low-key reaction to everything. They don’t feel anything intensely or hang onto any particular feeling very long. They’re reserved, easy-going, not easily provoked.
Then there’s the sanguine, who is best described as a “people person.” They react quickly and intensely, but it’s not a sustained reaction. They’re bubbly, extroverted, outgoing. They’ll volunteer for everything and then forget and move onto another interest. They see the glass as half-full.
Finally, there’s the melancholic, who’s [the] opposite of sanguine. They’re extremely introverted, reserved, quiet, detail-oriented, persevering, reflective and sensitive. They so long for heaven that everything on earth falls short. They’ll typically have one very close friend. They tend to view the glass as half-empty.
Why do they have such awful sounding names?
Laraine: When Hippocrates came up with the very first personality test in 350 B.C., he decided to use the predominant bodily fluids for naming them. Historically, the Church has continued to use them, and so have we. Basically, the same types have been consistent throughout the centuries. Father Conrad Hock wrote the pamphlet “The Four Temperaments” back in 1934 and offered helpful advice. We felt that his insights should be updated and expanded to offer practical advice for parents and spouses today.
Art: The Church has generally used the temperaments for people in spiritual direction to help the director and the directee focus on where there might be challenges. Many clergy have told us that they have had exposure to the temperaments in their diocesan seminary formation.
So, this isn’t some pop psychology mumbo jumbo?
Laraine: No. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis de Sales wrote about the temperaments, as did theologians Adolphe Tanquerey and Father Jordan Aumann. Pope John Paul I wrote an essay on the temperaments, and Pope Benedict XVI has even mentioned them.
How is temperament similar to or different from personality?
Art: While you’re born with a temperament, it’s critical to remember that it’s just part of your personality. It’s the part that is nature. Unlike some Protestant thinking, it isn’t your personality. Your personality includes formation, education, culture, intelligence and experience. Temperament is the way we tend to react to things, the way we are “hardwired,” our default setting, so to speak. All temperaments, for example, can be leaders. The way that you change and grow is through acquiring virtue.
Laraine: Personality is the big umbrella. Under it are the temperaments, education, culture and everything that composes your total personality. Some tools out there, such as the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator or the Enneagram [Type Indicator], say that this is the way you are, but as Catholics, we believe that ultimately, you’re free to choose how you react to the world and with the help of God’s grace you can grow in virtue.
How are the temperaments similar or different from things like the Myers-Briggs Inventory or the DiSC assessment?
Art: They’re similar in that the Myers-Briggs and DiSC come from the temperaments. The temperaments describe four classic ways that people tend to react. Myers-Briggs adds the concept of extroversion and introversion, but basically says that this is your total personality.
The classic temperaments are much more modest than that. The temperaments tell about an important part of you, but also identify the weaknesses or areas where you may need to grow. Ultimately, what really matters is the choices we make, whether we choose to grow in virtue and to love God and our neighbor.
How is understanding our temperaments useful?
Art: The overall purpose of the temperaments is to lead to more self-understanding and self-awareness. It’s one of the tools that can help us to have that self-understanding and knowledge of others. It’s a very practical tool with a venerable history in the Church.
Laraine: Most of the saints have said that it’s important to have self-knowledge, to know how you’re reacting. A choleric person can be obnoxious and a cross to all around them. They may need to grow in the virtue of meekness. The melancholic may need to learn to be more outgoing. The sanguine might need to learn when not to talk. Understanding one’s temperament can help you to get along better with the people around you. The reason God gave us one primary temperament is to learn that we need other people to help us grow in the lifelong project of growing in virtue.
Art: We’re a work in progress.
Is it possible to have one temperament at home and another at work?
Art: This is a frequent misunderstanding. Your temperament doesn’t change, but you learn new skills or virtues in order to excel in your job. Our work will push and pull us in certain directions. A teacher needs to be more detail-oriented, and a salesman is more sanguine. Life pulls us outside of our temperaments.
In religious life, you can choose to be contemplative and never have to deal with people, or you could be a leader, founding different orders. There’s room in the Church for all these different ways of being.
Are there particular saints who fit each of the different temperaments?
Laraine: Yes, but we would look at the whole of their life. There are many, like St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, who we might describe as choleric — he was a fiery soldier early in life — who grew in virtue, and at the end of his life seemed calm, meek and peaceful.
St. Peter, who was quite impulsive, would be described as sanguine. He often spoke first and thought later. St. Teresa of Avila was also sanguine. She read romance novels and talked all the time prior to her conversion in the convent. While she didn’t change her temperament, she grew in virtue over time.
Edith Stein and Padre Pio might be described as melancholic. They were intellectual, introverted, driven by ideas and by piety. They humbly put up with their crosses.
Thomas Aquinas would probably be described as phlegmatic. He was very productive, but G.K. Chesterton described his innocence and simplicity of soul. He had an easy-going, peaceful exterior and interior and the classic dry wit of the phlegmatic.
How can understanding the temperaments help spouses?
Laraine: Right in the beginning of our book we provide the example of a husband who is melancholic and a wife who is sanguine. When they’re first attracted to one another, she brings social life and he brings order, precision and reflection. At first they’re thrilled with each other. Over time, the romance wears off. They have kids and their jobs get rough. He comes home from work and is exhausted. As soon as he enters the door, she pounces on him to talk, talk, talk. He responds by going to the office for a moment of quiet. She feels neglected. She goes further into her temperament, asking, “Why aren’t you talking to me?” — which he perceives as nagging, and he retreats further into his style. Art, in his marriage counseling, sees these people and has to help them understand that there are temperament issues going on.
Art: We need to get each spouse to realize that the other isn’t doing these things willfully or on purpose. We try to help people not get wrapped around the axle. If spouses start thinking that the other is doing this on purpose, it can undermine the marriage and the harmony. Opposites might be attracted to one another, but down the road you have to recalibrate. Understanding the temperaments fosters a posture of respect, understanding, and affection. If you’re sitting there brooding, thinking that the other person is trying to ruin your day, these things are undermined.
Understanding your spouse gives you the skills and tools necessary to create the possibility of more harmony.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
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