I began with a theory. Since antiquity, poets, philosophers, and physicians have classified people into four styles of temperament. For Plato, they were the Artisan, Guardian, Idealist, and Rational. I have come to call them the Explorer, Builder, Negotiator, and Director. Each basic type, I suspect, is associated with a distinct cluster of genes—along with the expression of certain brain chemicals and a unique collection of personality traits. When people pair up, I propose, they tend to fall for a type different from their own, pulled by an unconscious biological appetite to create more genetic variety in their young and to raise their children with a wider array of parenting skills. Furthermore, each kind of pair will have its own joys and challenges, so a Builder married to a Director might face one set of highs and lows; a Negotiator-Explorer couple, another.
To see how these ideas play out in the real world, we e-mailed thousands of married O readers and asked each spouse to complete our online survey independently (once partners hit "submit," they couldn't read each other's answers). Part of the survey consisted of questions I had originally developed for the new dating/relationship site Chemistry.com (see "Do We Click?" ) to determine a person's love type. Other questions addressed issues that might cause friction in the relationship—money, sex, respect, boredom—as well as levels of general happiness.
Then I studied the hundreds of pages of data collected by Beta Research Corporation, the company that carried out the survey for us, on 500 couples who answered our questionnaire. With some respondents as young as 21 and others in their 60s, the average age for women was 47 and for men, 49. Some 83 percent of couples had children, many still living at home. And on average, the spouses had been married 16 years. Were some pairings more compatible than others? Are certain types better left unwed?
Negotiators have specific personality traits that have been linked with estrogen. Although estrogen is known as a female sex hormone, men have it, too, and there are plenty of male Negotiators. As the name suggests, this type is superb at handling people. Negotiators instinctively know what others are thinking and feeling. They artfully read facial expressions, postures, gestures, and tone of voice. Their interest in identity extends not only to others but to themselves. So they are introspective and self-analytical—men and women who take pleasure in journeying into their thoughts and motives. As a result, when they form a partnership, they like to delve deeply into the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship.
Not only do Negotiators connect psychologically, they also have the ability to remain mentally flexible. When they make decisions, they weigh many variables and consider various ways to proceed; they see things contextually, rather than linearly—I call it web thinking. As a result, they tend to be comfortable with ambiguity. Negotiators can be highly intuitive and creative. And they like to theorize. Perhaps their most distinctive characteristic is verbal fluency, the facility for finding the right words rapidly. With this skill—alongside an agreeable and accommodating nature, compassion, social savvy, and patience—the Negotiator can be very friendly, diplomatic, and authentic.
But as with all qualities, these traits can warp. Negotiators sometimes become such placators they appear wishy-washy to the point of spinelessness. Because they're not willing to confront, they can turn to backstabbing. With their need to examine all the possibilities, they can get bogged down in rumination as opposed to action. And in a relationship, their desire to connect and dissect all the subtle meanings between the two of you can become cloying and invasive.
Specific activities in the testosterone system are what distinguishes this type. Again, although we think of the hormone as male, it is shared by both sexes, and there are many full-blooded women Directors. Whatever the gender, people of this type are competitive. They strive to be top dog and have many skills to get there. They are pragmatic, tough-minded, and most notably decisive, able to make up their minds rapidly, even when faced with difficult choices. Rational analysis, logical reasoning, and objectivity are their core strengths. They also pay attention to details and can focus their attention to the exclusion of everything around them—an ability that enables them to weed out extraneous data and progress on a straightforward path toward a specific goal: the solution. Many Directors are also ingenious, theoretical, and bold in their ideas. Moreover, they are willing to take unpopular, even dangerous paths, to get to the truth. So they persist and often win.
Directors are particularly skilled at understanding machines and other rule-based systems, from computers and math problems to the details of biology, world finance, or architecture. They excel at sports, and often have an acute ear for all kinds of music. Their interests can be narrow; but they pursue them deeply and thoroughly. And they can captivate those who share their hobbies.
Placating leaves the Director cold. He or she often chooses to do a good job rather than please others. In fact, Directors are the least socially skilled of the four types. When preoccupied with work or personal goals, they can appear aloof, distant, even cold, and are generally not interested in making social connections, with the exception of those that are useful or exciting to them.
As with the other types, the traits that make Directors so successful may become grating: For example, their confidence can veer into bragging, their exactitude turn uncompromising, and their forthrightness simply seem rude. And because they often see issues in black and white, they miss the nuances of social, business, and personal situations. But thanks to their dedication, loyalty, and interest in sharing ideas, Directors make close friends. And they can be fiercely protective of those they love.
Calm, affable, and people oriented, the Builder's personality is influenced by the serotonin system. Social situations are often fun and relaxing for Builders; they like to network. Because duty and loyalty are their strong suits, they often acquire a devoted pack of peers and pals. And they're true guardians when it comes to family and friends.
Builders are cautious—but not fearful. They think concretely. They have a clear memory of yesterday's mistakes, so they prepare. These people are not impulsive with their money, their actions, or their feelings. Security is important to them. Structure and order are, too. Taking particular pride in upholding social norms, many are traditional, and they often have a strong moral streak. Builders don't get bored easily, which enables them to be methodical, hardworking, and dependable. Thanks to all these solid qualities, they tend to be regarded as pillars of the community.
But Builders can go overboard. In their quest to do things the "proper way," they can be intolerant of other ways. Indeed, they can be stubborn. And with their need for order, rules, and schedules, they can stifle spontaneity. Their stoicism can turn into pessimism, their conformity into rigidity, and their concrete thinking sometimes makes them too literal. Normally, however, Builders are community minded, industrious, and popular with colleagues and companions.
Explorers have a very active dopamine system, a brain chemical associated with the tendency to seek novelty, among other qualities. An Explorer might look up from the newspaper on Sunday and say, "Want to go to Warsaw?"—and by Wednesday you're in Poland. Champions of "never a dull moment," these adventurers live to discover new people, places, things, or ideas, often on the spur of the moment. Friends, family, and colleagues frequently regard them as highly independent and autonomous.
Explorers have more energy than most people; they tend to be restless, sometimes fast-paced. And they are highly curious—"For always roaming with a hungry heart," as Tennyson put it. Constantly generating new ideas or creative insights, they easily shift their attention from one thing to another. Although the classic Explorer is a race-car driver, South Pole trekker, or bad-boy rocker who lives hard, taking drugs and having risky sex, I know many who exercise their passion for adventure by reading several hours a day; collecting stamps, coins, or antiques; or walking through the byways of a city.
People quickly like most Explorers. Generous and sunny, they tend to be playful, sensual, sometimes hedonistic, often unpredictable, and regularly amusing. But they can be difficult to take—especially in a marriage. They do not tolerate boredom well. So they are generally not interested in routine social or business events. In fact, Explorers try to avoid routine of almost any kind, and can trample on another person's cherished beliefs and habits—not to mention be impatient.