Personality Theory and the Astrology of Relationships – A Series by Clare Martin

Clare Martin is the author of the beginner series of books, Mapping the Psyche volumes 1, 2 and 3 which focus on the psychological approach to astrology. In this Introduction to a series of articles she explains exactly what personality theory is. Further articles will focus on the 6 axes within the astrological chart, showing how we deal with the duality of their energies.


Personality Theory[1], Object Relations Theory, Ego Psychology, Self Psychology, Attachment Theory and Transactional Analysis are all systems theories which seek to describe the psychological structures we build in order to function in the world. Their common focus is the study of the natural evolution of ego development and the effects of distress and inner conflict on ego functioning. They recognise that life is an inherently mixed experience, that anxiety may be modified, mitigated or managed, but not eradicated.

Systems theories have been arrived at empirically, as the result of many years of clinical practice by developmental psychologists[2] during the twentieth century. Generally speaking, they represent a modern reframing of the ancient systems of element balance and of the temperament types developed Hippocrates, which have been incorporated into astrological thinking for over two thousand years. They can, however, make a valuable additional contribution to the work of psychological astrologers.

Systems theorists recognise that human beings develop and exist in a dual world and therefore always within a context of relationship, caught between subject and object, self and other, internal and external, at both conscious and unconscious levels. They believe that recognisable personality structures are formed in response to our initial experiences, which are internalised as undifferentiated global statements about the world. For example, is the world safe, resilient and nurturing, or is it uncertain, painful and precarious?

The initial expression of our instinctual needs will inevitably, at some point, be frustrated or meet with a negative response from the environment or from our carers. This leads to an adjustment process, which essentially consists of making the best of the situation.  This involves the construction of the ‘false self’ or ‘ego ideal’ which consists of a number of compromises. We begin to identify with a set of attitudes, behaviours and strategies which we believe will be acceptable to others. It is the parts of the real self which we suppress and the parts we exaggerate which define our character and which eventually becomes recognisable as our Character Style, which enables us to function in the world, often extremely effectively and successfully.

Since these adjustments describe our necessary adaptation to the world, this means that, to a greater or lesser extent, we are all in a split position. Existential conflict is fundamental to human experience, and each character structure is a defence mechanism constructed, consciously or unconsciously, in an attempt to deny or repress the tension caused by the split. As we develop psychologically, these structures become ever more sophisticated, complex and intricate.

The term ‘shadow’ refers to that part of the personality which has been repressed for the sake of the ego ideal. It is the inevitable product of ego formation, representing energetically charged autonomous patterns of feeling and behaviour. Consigned to the unconscious, the shadow exerts an even more powerful influence, acting like a beacon, attracting events and other people towards it, where it is met in projection. Relationships polarise, but they are also self balancing systems, and therefore indispensable for increased self knowledge, unless our defence mechanisms remain intact, in which case we will continue to blame others for our dissatisfactions and frustrations.

Astrologers have a slightly different approach. The natal chart tells us that it is the nature we are born with which defines the experiences we have. The natal chart contains everything we need to know about our relationship with ourselves, the world and other people.

Our environment and other people are mirrors, reflecting back to us what we can’t see without their help. These reflections are the most reliable source of information about ourselves, since, as Richard Idemon[3] observes, ‘no relationship is possible that is not on the chart in some way’. Everyone we meet simply tells us more about ourselves, which is why relationships cannot be looked at ‘objectively’. Ultimately, neither the problem nor the solution in relationship difficulties resides in ‘the other’.

Working with the many polarities in the horoscope, the house and sign axes, the angles and planetary oppositions, astrologers know that, to the extent that our conscious adaptation moves towards one pole, we are subject to the compensatory reactions of the unconscious, and therefore primitive and unadapted, opposite pole. Whenever we identify with one side of the swing, we are under the power of the other side when it takes charge, and we do not see the connection. Jung famously wrote that what we cannot accept about ourselves comes back to us as fate.  This is the basis of the psychological term ‘projection’.

In other words, we don’t really see anyone else at all, insofar as they are independent of our projections upon them. Generally speaking, we are not capable of relating to other people as they are. Rather, we find ourselves attracted to people who will enable us to live out our own personal myths, so in this sense we are looking for someone to use for our own purposes.

When people choose a partner they are making an unconscious attempt to repeat their primal relationship ‘template’.  Natal chart themes will inevitably be constellated, reinforced and become self perpetuating in our adult relationships unless, and until, we are able to see that they have something to do with us. Ultimately, the purpose of relationships seems to be the re-constellation of unresolved patterns until we can recognise the part we ourselves are playing in the story, at which point we begin to have choices.

This is very simple astrology, but extremely useful and practical. Astrologers can identify from the birth chart which of axes are particularly emphasized and therefore which of the personality styles are likely to be constellated. This enables them to ask informed questions in order to discover where, on each axis, the client is currently identified. If the extreme end of one pole is strongly identified with, then it is likely that the individual will be constellating the themes represented by the opposite pole in their relationships. Naturally, this approach needs great gentleness and sensitivity since it will touch on well established defence mechanisms, which have been understandably constructed in an attempt to avoid a repetition of the pain of the primal conflict.

But it can be a great relief to realise that what appear to be mutually exclusive polarities are actually not only both true but in fact dependent upon each other. The fusion of opposites creates a new psychological reality which is more than the sum of its parts. Self knowledge implies that we have become conscious of the opposites within ourselves. True self acceptance means that we no longer have to try and cut off parts of ourselves. Integrated personalities display a kind of musical quality, the ability to gracefully and rhythmically dance from one end to the other on any particular spectrum.

The relational birth chart

 Different systems theorists use different assessment criteria, but there are usually between six and eight main categories or themes of personality adaptation, each of which describes the nature of a specific and fundamental inner conflict, or tension of opposites.

Stephen Johnson has identified seven Character Styles, which appear to bear a remarkable similarity to the inherent tension existing within the six astrological axes. Johnson argues that, although each person has a predominant character style, a mixture of structural functioning will apply to any given person, with at least three character styles being significant, an argument which is supported by the fact that every horoscope contains all six astrological axes.

The main focus of the following articles will be to explore some of the major themes found across the ASC/DES axis, the main axis of one-to-one relationships.

The MC/IC axis, however, is also extremely significant, since it reflects the tension and creativity of the meeting of the parental opposites which resulted in our conception. No matter how dissociated or polarised or otherwise dysfunctional the parental relationship was, the quality of that causal relationship exists deeply within our psyches as our relationship blueprint and remains a powerful influence for our entire lives and, often in spite of our best intentions, is always repeated in our adult relationships to the extent that we are still emotionally enmeshed in our family patterns.

Other significant relationship stories will be found on the axis containing the Sun, the nodal axis and any axis containing a stellium or powerful set of oppositions.

The following articles will explore the astrological axes in relation to Johnson’s Character Styles:

Cancer/Capricorn:      schizoid/avoidant character style (the hated child)

Taurus/Scorpio:          oral/dependent character style (the abandoned child)

Leo/Aquarius:             narcissistic character style (the used child)

Gemini/Sagittarius:    symbiotic character style (the owned child)

Virgo/Pisces:              masochistic character style (the defeated child)

Aries/Libra:                obsessive-compulsive character style (the disciplined child) and

histrionic character styles (the exploited child)

Following Johnson’s lead, these axes are presented in the order of the developmental periods in which particular instinctual needs arise. The Cancer/Capricorn and Taurus/Scorpio character styles share attachment and bonding as their central developmental issue, typically encountered between the first and ninth months of life. The Gemini/Sagittarius, Leo/Aquarius and Virgo/Pisces character styles concern the initial period of self development, which occurs between the ages of one and three. The Aries/Libra character styles belong to what Johnson calls the period of ‘self in the system’ development, initially experienced between the ages of three and five.

Psychopathology or Narrative?

 In their more extreme forms, character structures are widely used for psychiatric diagnoses.  Personality disorders and even full-blown pathological conditions are believed to occur when the poles of any particular polarity become radically split or dissociated. “This means that we all carry the germs of psychopathology within us. In this sense potential psychopathology is an integral part of our human structure.”[4]

Johnson identifies three levels of adaptation for each character structure. In normal character styles, there will be an awareness of, and relatively successful navigation of the stress of inner conflict. At the neurotic level, the internal conflict will be experienced as long standing, life-disrupting and self-defeating. At the personality disorder level, there will be a low level of ego strength, the inability to contain a variety of affective states and a marked disruption in functioning.

The diagnostic bible for mental health professionals is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which contains information regarding every official psychiatric disorder and is used by practitioners making diagnostic assessments. In cases of severe psychopathology, the DSM-V is used as a guide for medication and other medical  treatments.

Normal character styles are, however, archetypal descriptions of the basic structure of the intrinsic and inherent human psyche. As such, astrologers can use them as narratives, as ways of understanding chart patterns imaginatively rather than diagnostically, mythically rather than medically, as archetypal rather than pathological, as fundamental existential reflections of the human condition.

This approach can help astrologers to develop compassion for the various double binds in which we find ourselves. Working imaginatively, the astrologer can find the stories which bring a birth chart to life, exploring natal themes from a mythic perspective – literally in projection – as mirrored in the great archetypal stories, myths and fairy tales which ring eternally true, through time and across cultures. It is these which describe and reflect the structural truths of the human condition just as it is, with all its conflicts and struggles intact.

[1] Stephen M Johnson, The Symbiotic Character (1980), Characterological Transformation:  The Hard Work Miracle (1985), Character Styles (1994)

[2] Significant contributors to this field are:  Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), Ronald Fairbairn (1889 – 1964), D.W. Winnicott (1896 – 1971), Margaret Mahler (1897 –1985),  Harry Guntrip (1901–75)  Edward John Bowlby (1907-90) Eric Burne ((1910-70),, Heinz Kohut (1913-81), Daniel Stern (1934 – 2012).     

[3] Richard Idemon,  Through the Looking Glass

[4] Edward Whitmont, The Symbolic Quest, p.167

Copyright Clare Martin April 2017

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