Understanding Your Lover’s Biological Temperament Can Soften Misunderstandings and Conflicts

In the three years they’ve been together as lovers Seth and Brenda sometimes drive each other up the wall.

     “We lead separate lives,” she tells him. When you want to party, I never feel you want to introduce me to your friends, show them I’m your girl. Like she’s real. She exists. Its like you hide me in a box and it kills me!”

     “I come home exhausted, hungry for romantic time with you and all you want is to go out and socialize,” he answers.

     “The few times we do it’s always with your friends. A stupid bunch of frat boys who think with their penises and have a whole lot of growing up to do.”

      “You mean it’s me that has a lot of growing up to do.”

     “If the shoe fits. But that’s not what gets to me. There’s never any time, time for me, for you, for us. I want romance as much as you but when you come home exhausted I’m lucky to get a 90 minute window before you collapse on me.”

     “I bust my ass to be successful and provide for us. I feel good inside when I can make an affluent life for my lady.”

     “An affluent life for his lady!? It took you over two years to agree to find an apartment for us!”

     “You always pressure me. No matter what I do it’s never enough for you!”

Wait! Before this escalates any further, let’s take a look at the deeper reasons why Seth and Brenda fell in love with each other.

      “You’re my Rock of Gibraltar, loyal and true,” he tells her.

      “I love being there for you,” she answers.

     “I let my ideas run away with me and you help me to focus, make decisions, get things done.”

      “Your ideas surprise and often shock me. But they make me tingle with excitement. And the thought of living the most outrageous ones with you makes me feel deliciously wicked.”

     “I need your steadiness and predictability.”

     “I need your passion and energy.”

     “You’re always so generous to me. Sometimes it makes me cry.”

     “I feel your hunger whenever you’re near me. When you touch me you make my heart tingle.”

Powerful reasons why Seth and Brenda fell in love. But what makes them so powerful? Helen Fisher in her fascinating work on the genetic basis of personality would understand these two lovers as having two profoundly different temperaments. She’d describe Brenda as primarily a Builder and Seth as an Explorer.

Builders are loyal, conscientious, dutiful and morally proper. They’re also conventional. They admire customs and follow social norms. They respect authority, follow the rules, love making plans and enjoy keeping schedules. They’re literal, detail oriented and orderly. They’re cautious but not fearful and enjoy being social. They’re superb at managing people at work. They’re the pillars of society and run largely on Serotonin, the mother of all neurotransmitters, which flows through numerous pathways throughout their brains and affects their attitudes and behavior. It’s comes as no surprise to learn that Brenda is a highly respected tax attorney with a long list of clients who depend on her for her proven ability to save them money and keep them out of trouble with IRS. She really is Seth’s Rock of Gibraltar.  

Explorers couldn’t be more different than Builders. Helen Fisher describes them as sensation seeking adventurers whose neural pathways are bathed in Dopamine. They’re intensely curious, unusually creative, restless, energetic and often impulsive. They’re willing to take risks to pursue their many interests and get bored easily when not absorbed in something that engages them. They tend to be optimistic, irreverent, autonomous, adaptable and can play many different roles. They’re politically liberal, flexible in their personal lives (some would say too flexible) and generous with their money, time and ideas. Above all, they crave novelty and find unpredictable situations exhilarating. It’s also not surprising that Seth is a successful musician who plays intricate compositions by Bach and Segovia on his acoustic guitar and makes the room vibrate when he plays Led Zeppelin, Hendrix or Metallica on his electric guitar. Brenda first met Seth when he was playing Metallica. He made her heart tingle and after a few proper dates with him it spread to the rest of her body.

Seth and Brenda are also genetically similar in one crucial respect. They’re both what Helen Fisher describes as Negotiators. They have a large number of estrogen bathed, neural connections in their brains that enable them to be imaginative, intuitive and incredibly sensitive to one another. They’re often able to sense each others feelings from a facial expression, eye movement, breathing, tension in their bodies, in an instant, without a word to one another.

      Here are the deeper needs they fulfill in each other.

      Brenda is:

  • Delighted by Seth’s energy and vitality
  • Excited by his impulsiveness and risk taking
  • Intoxicated by his playful sexuality

Seth is:

  • Soothed by Brenda’s patience and trustworthiness.
  • Delighted by his ability to tease, amuse and entertain her.
  •  Buoyed and strengthened when she organizes and manages their adventures.

Seth and Brenda are a splendid example of opposites attract. But as with all opposites, they sometimes grate on one other. Here’s how it happens with them:


  • Views Seth’s disregard for rules and tradition as reckless and disrespectful.
  • Sees him as intellectually careless, even feckless.
  • Gets angry when he doesn’t understand her need to have routine social gatherings with friends.
  • Is irritated by the unending torrent of words that come pouring out of him. Once she shouted at him, “Mercutio, thou speak’st nothing!” One of the few times she got him to finally put a lid on it.


  • Is often frustrated by Brenda’s unquestioning acceptance of rules and tradition. He once compared her to one of the mindless characters in Luis Bunuel’s film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which really pissed her off.
  • Sometimes thinks she’s intellectually tedious.
  • Gets upset by her stubbornness and inflexibility.
  • Feels stifled by her need for the same old social engagements
  • Is disappointed when she has no taste for deep, free-flowing, open-ended discussions with him that don’t necessarily lead anywhere.     

Okay, so far so good. We have a decent handle on why Seth and Brenda fell in love and how they trigger each others raw spots. But genetic differences in temperament provide only half the explanation. The other half is explained by the deeper, unspoken attachment needs they bring to their relationship, needs that were sometimes shaped by early, painful emotional experiences in their families.

Seth never knew his father except by reputation. He was a musician who abandoned his mother, Seth and his two younger brothers when they were very young. Years later his father became famous but died suddenly from a drug overdose at the height of his career. At a very early age Seth learned that his mission in life was to be as strong as he could to care for his mother and younger brothers in every possible way. Already well imbued with explorer genes – from both his father and mother – it was easy for him to grow into a sensation seeking adventurer. Over the years Seth has been a steady source of financial and emotional support for his family but always at the neglect of his deeper emotional needs. The groupies who showered him with attention at his concerts and the endless one night stands made it easy to repress, or even deny, these deeper needs for real caring and nurturing. A line from an old Joni Mitchell song has always resonated for Seth: “Acid, booze and ass, needles guns and grass. Lots of laughs. Lots of laughs.” One night after drinking a bottle of champagne, Seth collapsed in the middle of a concert. He lost the gig and his manager almost wrote him off. Shortly after that, he started seeing Brenda.

Brenda’s father and mother divorced when she was seven years old. From then on, she and her older brother lived with her mother and the kids saw their father every other weekend. Brenda’s older brother adapted a lot easier to their new lives than Brenda. It was easier for him to avoid getting caught up in their mother’s pain and despair over the loss of their father because he’d always been emotionally close to him. Brenda adored her father and delighted in playing hockey, soccer and handball with him. But it always had to be his activities, the ones he enjoyed. Without meaning to, he made it hard for her to talk to him about the deeper emotional stuff that was important to her, especially what she was going through with her mother. From the day they separated, it became Brenda’s exclusive job to tend to the emotional needs of her mother at the expense of her own needs, a pattern that continued with all of her ex-boyfriends. When she first met Seth at his concert, she had a powerful feeling that he really saw her and sensed what she was feeling, something she’d never felt before with anyone.      

Like all serious lovers, Seth and Brenda struggle with meeting each others need for a loving partner who offers comfort and connection so life’s joys can be savored and life’s hurts can be tolerated and survived. These words come from Sue Johnson in her moving video on The Life Giving Need for Emotional Connection. There are two important ways that couples counseling can help lovers like Seth and Brenda achieve this goal:

  • They can be encouraged to understand and celebrate how different they truly are biologically in terms of their genetic temperaments or personalities.
  • A good couples counselor can help them learn how to achieve a deeper emotional connection and feeling of safety with each other. I ask every couple I work with to read Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a lifetime of love. 


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