The Four Tendencies in Relationships

Have you ever dated someone who never got off the couch?The Four Tendencies in Relationships

You knew he had amazing potential, but he never did anything with it. Trying to motivate him was a waste of time.

Or maybe you’ve dated the opposite:

Someone whose time was scheduled down to the minute.

He never did anything spontaneously; it all had to be planned in advance. He was amazingly productive but an imperfect boyfriend. He had too many other priorities.

Gretchin Rubin noticed these patterns when she was writing her 2015 bestseller, Better Than Before. She was examining why we find it so hard to establish desired habits and break bad ones.

She found that some people are really disciplined. They’re good at living up to expectations. It’s a point of honor to them. You don’t let anyone down.

These people were also really good at structuring their own time. They set their own goals and worked hard to meet them.

But then there were people who could not follow the rules. They thought discipline and habits were for sheep. They wanted to do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it.

Rubin realized that how a person responds to expectations puts them into one of four categories: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.

Understand your tendency, and you understand an important component of what makes you tick.

Understand his tendency, and your relationship gets a whole lot easier.

One of the challenges of relationships is working with each other’s quirks and preferences. You have to be able to plan things and organize your time together without driving each other crazy.

If you have different tendencies—a different relationship to discipline, rules, habits and expectations—then you can find yourself caught up in endless arguments.

When Beth was growing up, rules kept her family life flowing smoothly. Whenever there was a problem that kept cropping up, whether it was forgetting coats at school or leaving shoes by the door where someone could trip, her mother laid down a new rule.

So when she fell in love with Jeremy and they decided to move in together, she wanted to set down some ground rules. Having rules would help them live together more harmoniously … or so she thought.

But Jeremy was outraged. He accused her of trying to control him. In fact, every time she tried to establish a rule, he went out of his way to break it.

Beth was in tears. She wondered if they were completely wrong for each other.

I didn’t think so. They just needed to understand each other’s tendencies.

Beth was an Upholder, while Jeremy was a Rebel.

Upholders are excellent at meeting inner and outer expectations. They do well with rules and discipline, unlike Rebels. Rebels hate being told what to do. Their motto is, “You can’t make me, and neither can I.”[1]

For their relationship to work, Beth could certainly set rules for herself, but that wasn’t going to work for Jeremy. She had to learn to be more indirect about getting Jeremy on board, while Jeremy had to learn that his distaste for the rules didn’t make Beth’s desire for rules wrong.

The most common tendencies are Questioners and Obligers.

Questioners question all rules, following only those that make sense to them. Obligers are great at following other people’s rules but struggle to make themselves do anything on their own.

Anya was a Questioner married to an Obliger, and it was driving her crazy. She explained:

“He’ll wake up every morning like clockwork and go to work and do his job, but when it comes to actually doing anything at home, he’s useless. He has all these big dreams and never does anything about them.”

She couldn’t understand how her husband could be so disciplined at work yet unmotivated when he was off the clock.

Anya herself wasn’t like that. She was incredibly disciplined when it came to her own pet projects and goals. But she struggled to give her work the kind of obedience she saw in others. She wanted to know that a task made sense before she put time into it.

Anya was relieved upon learning that her husband was different from her. It was a big relief. She realized she’d been judging him for not being more like her.

Understanding each other’s tendency helps you accept one another for who you are. It also helps you speak each other’s language when it comes to motivating each other to achieve.

So which tendency describes you best:

Upholder, Rebel, Questioner or Obliger?

Can you see how your tendency might have played out in past relationships? Let us know in the comments.

[1] Gretchen Rubin, The Four Tendencies (New York: Harmony Books, 2017).

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8 thoughts on “The Four Tendencies in Relationships

  1. Katy said:

    This is brilliant! Although I’ve read everything on relationships, human behavior, and psychology that I could get my hands on, this is a new one for me. We know we need to accept each other, without judgment, but it is a lot easier to do that when you understand what’s going on.

  2. Anonymous said:

    Thanks, this is the first time I’ve ever responded to one of these articles as it was really insightful 🙂
    I’m a questioner mostly, but also an obliger in that I will follow other’s rules IF they make sense but am lazy about my own rules regardless of how sensible they are! I can honestly also be a rebel when feeling defensive… usually when premenstrual :0
    My man is an upholder through and through… hmmm no wonder he gets so frustrated with me!!

  3. Anna said:

    Thank you for this article! I have been struggling with my teenagers and this helps me to understand them better 🙂 I know which category I am, and which ones my kids are, but I can’t figure out which one would match my husband! 🙁

  4. Carolyn said:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Jessica. I think it would be great to see more in depth examples / real life solutions of how different couple tendencies have made it work for them.
    And what about same tendency couples – what do they do? Because i could imagine things could get too boring if they are both the same? Do you think so?

    • James Bauer said:

      I’m glad you found this article interesting. I’ll start with your second question…same-tendency couples. These couples are living life by the same rule-book, so to speak. They don’t find it boring. They both speak the same language when it comes to meeting obligations, following agreed guidelines, etc. This leads to harmony (most of the time).

      When you have different tendencies, the key is awareness. Instead of seeing your partner’s behavior and thinking they are behaving badly, you see their behavior and say to yourself, “Oh!…Right…that’s because they are a different creature than me. It’s not because they don’t care or don’t love me.”

      One of the things I’ve discovered from years of deep consultation with people about their inner world of thoughts is that people are more different on the inside than we are on the outside. So the key really isn’t a long list of combinations and examples for making it work. The key is the awareness itself. It frees you to love each other rather than resisting the differences.

      • Anonymous said:

        Ok, great. Thanks for your clarity. Much appreciated! I hope it helps me with my future partner!

  5. Christine Taylor said:

    I am definitely a questioner and the man I am in love with is an upholder.
    This is a problem for us I think and you have just made it somewhat clearer to me

  6. Jessica said:

    I loved learning about this! It is a relief to know that my man and I are two different types instead of thinking we weren’t meant to be. I’d love to read another one about the 4 types going into more depth if possible.

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