How Neuroticism May Impact Your Relationships

Neuroticism is one of the "Big Five" personality traits, along with conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, and agreeableness (per Psychology Today). The Big Five model is one of several personality assessments designed to provide a complete overview of a person's innate characteristics. Your personality profile may help predict overall health and well-being along with academic, social, and professional success. Knowing your personality strengths and weaknesses can help you understand how you interact with others and what dynamics you can expect in relationships. 

According to Britannica, your degree of neuroticism reflects how safe or threatening you see the world and other people. People with high neuroticism tend to see the world as unsafe and are more prone to feelings of anxiety, worry, distress, and dissatisfaction. Those low in neuroticism tend to be more confident, content, and emotionally stable. Your level of neuroticism can affect many areas of your life and the lives of those around you — and the health of your relationships can influence both you and others. Here's how neuroticism may impact your relationships.

Trait neuroticism or character neurosis?

Neuroticism can appear as trait neuroticism or character neuroticism. Psychology Today says people with high trait neuroticism tend to experience more negative emotions in response to stimuli. They are more sensitive to stressors and may react more negatively and intensely to stressful circumstances. People with high trait neuroticism also take longer to overcome heightened chaotic emotional states and return to a balanced mindset than those lower in neuroticism. High trait neuroticism can increase the risk of developing character neurosis. But while character neurosis refers to entrenched behavioral patterns expressed as a personality disorder, trait neuroticism is a personality trait, not a mental disorder (per Medical News Today). 

It's easy to see how high neuroticism could negatively affect relationships, but being too low in neuroticism can negatively impact relationships too. Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., author of "A New Unified Theory of Psychology," and director of the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University, says both very high and very low neuroticism can be problematic (via Psychology Today). People with extremely low neuroticism may engage in reckless or illegal behavior with little regard for themselves or others.

What causes neuroticism?

Many things can affect individual levels of adult neuroticism. A 2013 study in the Journal of Personality found that childhood trauma can lead to higher neuroticism in adulthood. However, experiencing trauma later in life does not appear to increase neuroticism. A 2019 study in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that cortical thickness was linked to high neuroticism, with thinner cortexes in women and thicker cortexes in men related to higher levels of neuroticism. 

Geographical location and gender have also been shown to impact neuroticism levels. A 2017 article showed that women across 56 cultures experienced higher neuroticism than men. In the U.S., state-level differences indicate people who live on the West Coast tend to be lower in neuroticism, while those living on the East Coast tend towards higher neuroticism. And genetics may play a role in neuroticism, as a 2019 study published in Nature found that some traits of neuroticism may be inherited.

Common traits of neuroticism

People with high neuroticism typically downplay positive emotions and circumstances and emphasize negative aspects of interactions and events. Choosing Therapy says people high in neuroticism may overly fixate on stressful or challenging aspects of a problem or situation, anticipate adverse outcomes before they happen, engage in catastrophic future thinking, or exaggerate the danger of a current situation. Those with high neuroticism may also take words and actions more personally than those with lower neuroticism, recounting and dwelling on old stories and situations that reinforce negative beliefs. 

Those high in neuroticism may be overly critical of themselves and others. They often exhibit unhelpful internal and external responses to challenging emotions or situations. The tendency to use unhelpful coping strategies can lead to substance abuse, impulsive or self-sabotaging behaviors, avoiding people, feelings, or situations, or adopting a victim mentality by giving up and feeling helpless. On the other hand, people with extremely low neuroticism may not think enough about risk and danger. They may be prone to overly optimistic views of people and situations — sometimes to the point of delusion (per Truity).

How neuroticism affects relationships

According to Psychology Today, people with high neuroticism tend to worry, feel depressed, and get angry more often than those with lower neuroticism. Left unresolved or as a pattern of behavior, these tendencies can create interpersonal conflicts that may lead to relationship issues. 

Different facets of neuroticism can affect how neurotic people interact and communicate with others. People who are overly self-conscious and anxious tend to be too obedient and non-assertive. They may be seen as pushovers and have trouble getting their needs met. Meanwhile, those who are often angry may appear cold-hearted and vindictive. Others may view them as mean-spirited and avoid spending time with them. And people who experience feelings of depression often avoid social interactions, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Qthers may believe the depressed individual isn't interested in maintaining relationships. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Family Therapy found that high neuroticism and negative mood are linked to emotional indifference in committed romantic relationships. 

However, other evidence suggests highly neurotic people may be able to enjoy loving moments more often than others. A 2019 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people high in both neuroticism and agreeableness may actually be able to recognize what makes people feel loved more often than others in many types of relationships and daily interactions. 

How to cope with neuroticism

While neuroticism can impact relationships, other traits can affect how that manifests. And there are many things people can do to protect and improve their relationships from the impact of neuroticism. Choosing Therapy recommends some methods of coping with challenging emotions and situations. These are designed to help people with neurotic traits interrupt patterned internal responses and reframe their thinking. Mindfulness means being aware of your surroundings in the here and now. Practicing mindfulness can help bring you back into the present moment to reduce stress and anxiety

Neuroticism may trigger inappropriate or exaggerated responses to people or situations. Opposite action is doing the opposite of what you feel you should do when triggered, which can help turn a negative emotion or response into a positive one. A 2020 study in Psychology Research and Behavior Management found that practicing gratitude helped mitigate common traits of neuroticism by reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Keeping a gratitude journal can help remind you of the many things you can be grateful for. 

And don't be afraid to seek professional help if you have difficulty coping with neurotic traits or relationship problems. Unified Protocol can help manage neurotic tendencies using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and other behavioral interventions to help people calm difficult emotions (per Choosing Therapy).