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Single Living

This article is the third in a four-part series where Laraine
Bennett examines how to relate to spouse of a different temperament.
This month's installment looks at the phlegmatic.


“I see now,” said Winnie the Pooh.

“I have been Foolish and Deluded,” said he,

“and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”

“You’re the Best Bear in All the World,” said Christopher Robin soothingly.

“Am I?” said Pooh hopefully. And then he brightened up suddenly.

“Anyhow,” he said, “it is nearly Luncheon Time.”

— A.A. Milne, The World of Pooh

Are you dating someone about whom everyone seems to say, “What a great guy!” (or “gal”)? Someone easy-going and unhurried, sweet and humble (like Pooh Bear)? Someone who, if he were any more calm, might be dead? If so, you may be dating a phlegmatic. (See my earlier Catholic Match column on “The Fine and Mellow Date.”)

Phlegmatics are the backbone of our society, with their homebody natures, their traditional values, their dependable work ethic, and their inherent sense of loyalty. They are the most patient of all the temperaments, rarely get bored (though they are sometimes accused of being boring), and are methodical and unpretentious. Think farmers, fire-fighters, and military personnel. But also: engineers and teachers.

You may be thinking that this even-tempered, steadfast guy (or gal) would make a great husband (or wife). You would be right.

Unlike the splashy sanguine, melodramatic melancholic, or assertive choleric, your phlegmatic partner never tries to steal the limelight or win kudos for his achievements. He is understated, diplomatic. “I don’t want to stand out. I just want to fit in, help my team, and help my family.” That was phlegmatic Brandon Roy, All Star guard for the Portland Trail Blazers.

But don’t dismiss this affable, unpretentious individual. The phlegmatic can make the greatest leader of all; like Saint Joseph, he leads by example and quiet strength.

Phlegmatics may not be your most dashing heartthrob, but they will be generous and self-giving in love, more concerned about their spouse than themselves. They are empathic listeners, understanding, and unlikely to hold a grudge. They may need a little nudge if you want more pizzaz in the romance department (candles and soft music, weekend getaways, or a romantic movie). But, once you let them know, they are usually happy to please.

Phlegmatic parents are easy-going and patient with their children. They enjoy the simple things of life: playing baseball in the backyard, reading the favorite bedtime stories over and over, and endless rounds of “Go fish.” They are soothing and comfortable, like an old shoe, and children appreciate this. But because the phlegmatic has a hard time being demanding or insistent, he may leave discipline to the more assertive spouse, yet he may also resent the spouse (especially if the phlegmatic is a male) for taking over. A phlegmatic parent may be puzzled or even concerned if he happens to have a choleric child, and he may not realize the need to keep a tight leash on a sanguine child, until it’s too late. Still, children generally benefit from the stability that a phlegmatic parent projects. The phlegmatic’s even temper, good humor, and capacity for withstanding abuse also make him ideally suited to raising teenagers!

On the down side, a phlegmatic can sometimes value cooperation so much that he fails to assert himself or take charge when necessary. At work he can tend to be overly patient with the status quo, remaining in a lower-level job for lack of assertiveness; at home, rather than provoke confrontation, he may let things slide that should be dealt with. He can be too willing to sit back and let others take the lead—which may, over time, lead to resentment. (Or his spouse may become fed up with his lack of motivation!) He is easily discouraged and can lack self-confidence, making him prone to avoidance or silent withdrawal. Though he can carry his crosses without complaint, there are some occasions when the true cross means stepping outside your comfort zone, taking a stand, and facing up to conflict. Christ himself said, “I have come to bring not peace but the sword” (Mt 10:34 ).” Being assertive or confrontational can be a hidden, more difficult cross for the easy-going phlegmatic.

The natural humility of the phlegmatic should be considered one of his greatest strengths. A choleric may undertake great and arduous works, a sanguine may evangelize charismatically, and the melancholic may aspire to the heights of contemplation — yet, none of this is even possible without humility. As Saint Teresa of Avila wrote, “Humility is the foundation for the spiritual life.” And, in a marriage, as well as in the spiritual life, humility—the ability to say “I’m sorry; I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”–is a pearl of great price.


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