What Is the Way to Work through Personality Differences?

What Is the Way to Work through Personality Differences

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Rick, recently you talked about how you tend to live on “military time” and Lucia lives on “island time” and how you both have had to work through your conflicting personality traits in your marriage. You also tied this to how the gospel speaks to every area of your lives. How did you both eventually apply the gospel to your personality differences? How can the gospel help two people live in relational harmony? – Supporting Member

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Military and Island Time

My reader is referring to a story I shared about how Lucia and I function when it comes to time management within our marriage. It became apparent early in our relationship that our personalities were different. Lucia lives on what I call “island time.” It goes like this.

  • I’ll get there when I get there.
  • If I bump into someone at the grocery store, I may talk to them for thirty minutes.
  • I’ll plan fifteen stops and tell you that it will take one hour.
  • I’ll come home four hours later but not call to let you know I’ll be late.
  • I have a “flexible shopping plan.” I can change my plans on a whim.

I live on what I call “military time.” It goes like this.

  • There is a plan that is in place before you leave.
  • You list the items you want to purchase in the order of the stops you make.
  • The driving experience is an opportunity to cut valuable seconds off the overall shopping time.
  • There is less flexibility and spontaneity, except for competitive driving opportunities.
  • When I say I will be home in two hours, I am home in two hours or less.

Our two personalities brought conflict into our marriage, which is why we had to have a better understanding of the gospel. The gospel is not just for your salvation; it applies to the life that you live each day. The gospel saves and sanctifies lives.

Where Do You Start?

When Christians talk about their personalities and how to work through relational conflict, they become more personality-centered than gospel-centered. They place the focus on their personalities rather than on the gospel. You’ll hear counselors and teachers doing similarly. They love talking about personalities, personality testing, and conflict resolution maneuvers while giving little mention of the gospel.

Whatever you make your primary focus, you will push everything else to the perimeter. Self-focus was the original sin. Our fallen condition assumes that self-analysis would be our preferred method for changing ourselves. Adam did not look to God for help but trusted in himself.

Personality is inferior to the gospel and should not supplant it. Your first call to action must be a clear and practical understanding of the gospel. I am not saying that your personality does not matter, but by starting there, it would be like helping a crack addict. The addictive substance matters, but it’s not where you begin.

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Start with the Gospel

When it comes to personality conflict in a marriage, the first thing a couple must do is define the gospel clearly. When I use the word “gospel,” I am talking about Jesus Christ, His person and work. I am not talking about the effects of the gospel like salvation, the Bible, or even religion. I am talking about Jesus Christ, the point and focus of Christianity, the Bible, our lives, and eternity.

The Old Testament writers pointed to the coming Messiah, and the New Testament writers looked back to Him. In heaven, He will be the central theme and the point of the new song that we will sing throughout eternity. If Christ is that important to the OT writers, the NT writers, and eternity, the centrality of the gospel must be of first importance in our lives.

You cannot help any couple through a difficulty if there is no measurable impact of the gospel on their lives. Too many couples miss this essential point. They just want to have their communication, addiction, anger, or other behavioral issues removed. If you don’t start with the gospel, whatever you stack on top of your efforts will not last.

Gospel Measurements

I am a Christian counselor, not a secular psychologist. I offer hope through the power of the gospel, not seven habits for people who want to be effective. I’m like the woman at the well in John 4:29 who said, “Come see a man!” Or like John the Baptist in John 3:30, who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” If Christ is not central in your heart, with accompanying transformation, any behavioral changes you try to implement will not be sustainable or satisfying.

  • Can you clearly define the gospel?
  • Has the “person and work of Christ” affected you? Describe how.
  • Is the gospel your primary motivation for change?
  • Do you have a desire to learn and grow more in the practical outworking of the gospel?
  • Is your spouse on a similar page with you? If your spouse is not, your personality differences will continue to impact your marriage more than the gospel.

I am not saying that you have to have a perfected experience of the gospel in your life. I am suggesting that you must be aware of the importance of the gospel, which these questions will help you to discern. Without an amplified Christ animating your soul, your life could very quickly resemble a facsimile of Christianity rather than the authentic one you see in the New Testament.

Gospel Motivations

Your first assessment is how the gospel has affected you and your spouse. If you’re both leaning into it, albeit imperfectly, you’re in a great spot. Your second assessment is understanding how the gospel must impact your motivations. These verses will help you to discern your motivation for change.

  • Ephesians 4:31-32 – Note how Paul connected the motive of change to the gospel. E.g. the reason you want to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving is because of the gospel—”as God in Christ forgave you.”
  • Romans 2:4 – God’s kindness has a lot to do with why you changed. Of course, you see the kindness of the Lord in the gospel, which leads to repentance. You can’t disconnect the kindness of God from the gospel.
  • Matthew 18:33 – The reason you want to show mercy to your spouse is because of the mercy that the Lord gave to you, which you see in this text. You do to others as the Lord has done to you.

In all three of these passages, there is a connection from the gospel to the behavioral result. The gospel empowers you to do the right thing. The gospel-centered person is confident that regardless of what his personality is or his spouse’s, God is greater. Your personality will not go through a complete makeover, but you will submit it to the gospel.

Gospel Mastery

To be gospel-centered is to be like Christ. Christlike attitudes and behaviors are the “end game” as each spouse leads the other toward a better person with a purer personality. Rather than comparing yourself to your spouse, you look to Jesus and assess how well you are doing. Here are a few ways to gain a clearer perspective on areas that may need improvement.

  • Jesus has forgiven you of the worst sin known to humanity, which is your crime against God. You can forgive your spouse attitudinally and possibly transactionally.
  • Jesus does not condemn you, which positions you for accessing the humility you need not to condemn your spouse.
  • Jesus creates and operates in a context of grace. You can build out these environments for your spouse to flourish.
  • Jesus receives and loves people who are different from Him. Not to accept someone because they are different from you is not Christlike.
  • Jesus is tenacious in His desire to help you change, even if it cost Him His life, which it did. He left you steps that you want to follow (1 Peter 2:20).
  • Jesus has a profound love for you, which has a humbling effect. You want to demonstrate that kind of affection for your spouse as much as it depends on you.
  • Jesus endured many hardships because of His desire to see you be a different kind of person, which is the prototype for how you want to react to your spouse.
  • Jesus does not need you to be happy. His relationship with His Father was thoroughly satisfying, which released Him from being needy in his relationship with you. The needy person will always want while struggling to provide.
  • Jesus has shown transcendent patience with you, which is the model you want to emulate. You have the power resident in you, through the work of the Spirit of God, to be patient with those who are different from you, including your spouse.

Moving Away from Me

For Lucia and I to work through our time management conflict, we had to come to terms with the gospel. We knew that our personalities would slowly change, which is Christian maturity. But we understood that there were aspects of our personalities that came baked into the cake. Rather than the futile attempt to reinvent ourselves, we decided to fixate on the gospel.

I had to put away the personality test and other individualistic, self-centered methodologies that kept me self-focused. My problem was not a lack of understanding of myself. I know that I can be rigid and detailed-oriented. Understanding the gospel meant that I needed to think less about myself and more about others (Mark 10:45).

Rather than stewing over how Lucia was not like me, I needed to esteem her more than me (Philippians 2:3). With the gospel now securely centered in my mind, I went in a different direction. Rather than my life and marriage being about what I wanted, it became more about God and what would make His name great. It didn’t take long to realize that I needed to repent of my sin.

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Identify and Repent

Behaviorally, it was a lack of leadership in my marriage. At the heart level, it was self-righteousness—that “greater than, better than” attitude. I saw my way of doing things (personality) as being superior to her island time. My approach was to fuss at my wife for not meeting my expectations. With the gospel on the perimeter and my personality preferences in the center, I became a “functioning god.”

When she said that she would be home at such and such time, I self-righteously held her words up to her face and let her know what she said, how she failed me, how I was hurt, and how I was justified in letting her know all about it. Then when the gospel became the centerpiece of our lives, I realized that my Savior would never treat me that way. He does not motivate by fear, shame, guilt, or condemnation. He motivates by grace.

I began to think that if the Savior held me to the standard that I was holding my wife, the avalanche of my sins would pummel me. This new perspective did not mean I ignored my wife’s sins or her personality quirks. Christ does not ignore mine because He wants me to mature into Christlikeness. It is not a matter of neglecting problems but humbly helping another human to grow into Christian maturity.

Don’t Be Discouraged

I think sometimes we forget that our personalities, whatever they may be, are part of our old selves, and they need to be brought into submission to Christ. We are not partially fallen creatures. The fall of Adam and the conveyance of sin to all humanity was complete.

Our minds, which are part of our fallenness, have been affected by sin, too. Our thinking has become futile, and only the redemptive work of Christ can restore our minds from pre-regenerative fallenness. This effect of sin upon our minds is known in theology as the “noetic effects of sin.” Our personalities are part of our “former manner of life,” as Paul talked about in Ephesians 4:22-24.

When you and I were regenerated, we brought our old selves into a new life with Christ. Our old personalities were not born from above. Though we were positionally placed in Christ and possess every spiritual blessing because of Christ, we are not entirely like Christ. We live on earth with our old bodies and minds, which is, in part, why Paul is calling the Ephesians to step up to the inheritance they have in Christ.

Forgiveness and Suspicion

I am flawed, and I need a Savior. The gospel makes me suspect of myself and my motives. This revived, regenerated worldview set me free from my bondage and placed me on a path of Christ-likeness. I began to understand that I could not continue asserting my rightness while also seeking to be transformed into the life that Christ offers. With a newfound healthy suspicion of myself, I could approach my wife with a desire to understand and serve her rather than waving my rightness in front of her.

The first order of business as a gospel-motivated person, who is suspicious of his motives, is to go to his wife and ask forgiveness for a lack of leadership in the marriage, specifically in the area of our time management conflicts. Fortunately, my wife, who was also growing in her understanding of the gospel, rather than asserting her rightness, was becoming more suspicious of her motives as well.

Although we used to be two disjointed, self-willed people ensconced in the arrogance of their rightness, we were becoming two people more interested in glorifying God through our one-flesh union. We mutually forgave each other. Neither one of us was interested in who was right or wrong. We desired to figure out how we could use our strengths and weaknesses to function day-to-day practically while making God’s name great.

Practical Gospel Realignment

The gospel is God’s strength applied to our weaknesses to make us something we could never accomplish by ourselves. As part of our repentance, we began to think about how we could use our strengths in the other person’s weakness. She wanted to know why it was vital for me to be on time, plan, and execute. I wanted to know more about her thought processes when it came to time, shopping, and relating to others.

She asked me if I would help her to think through her calendar and if she could run her calendar appointments by me. My wife is the most humble Christian that I know. Though she is incredibly competent in so many ways, she has no problem admitting areas where she needs to grow. She, quite simply, is not stuck on herself. Serving her has been a joy.

Today, what used to be two people using their strengths to put the other in his or her place, we have become ever-maturing, gospel-motivated complementarians. Our differences made us perfect for each other. What used to be friction between two people set in their ways has now become an opportunity to imitate the Savior by serving each other, which has made us much stronger as one.

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