When my friend Carol Lennox, LPC
, a counselor in Austin, Texas, works with couples struggling in their relationships, she'll sometimes put them to the test. "The Myers-Briggs is online
, it's free, it’s 75 questions," she says. "I’ll have them take it in my office, and I’ll have each person read the other person's while they're sitting there."
In this way, Carol helps couples become aware of personality differences, including introversion and extroversion, that might be messing with their relationship.
Of course, relationships are complex machines with lots of moving parts, and highly individual. Introversion and extroversion may or may not play a part in any one couple's relationship difficulties. Nevertheless, the possibility bears consideration, whether you're struggling with big problems or just small irritations.
Some conflicts in mixed relationships are obvious, such as time at home vs. time out and about, alone time vs. together time—especially when couples are unaware of how personality factors in. In that case, one or both might take things personally.
And listen up, introverts: You're not the only one who gets worn out by being pushed to be different. "If you're married to an extrovert and insist they stay home a lot—and I see this a lot—then the extrovert is going to become exhausted," Carol says.
If It All Seems Familiar…
But in addition to this kind of stuff, Carol has noticed deeper issues that can come into play in relationships between introverts and extroverts. "I really have to take each person back to their childhood to figure out what it is that they're missing," she says.
One influential theory of relationships is the Imago theory developed by Harville Hendrix and outlined in his self-help classic, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. This approach posits that we form our present relationships in order to heal the wounds of our past. In other words, we choose partners who represent a kind of composite of the important caretakers during our childhood to try to fix the things that went wrong the first time around.
So really, in a way, we are choosing people with whom we are guaranteed to have conflict because we are trying to repair problems that were nurtured into us. Not only that, but we are drawn to what is familiar and what we have learned represents love—even if that representation of love is deeply flawed.
For example, introverts who had a parent who was always trying to get them to behave more extroverted might be drawn to partners who do the same thing. At first, it's familiar and comfortable, but after a while—as might have happened in the past—the introvert may feel intruded upon and start pulling away. "Then the extrovert feels rejection and it's very hard for them to handle," says Carol.
The Hidden You
Another reason we might be drawn to a particular person is because that person acts out a part of our own personality that we have buried. "An introvert may choose an extrovert out of a certain admiration for someone who is comfortable in crowds, parties, and in front of the room making presentations," says Carol.
While the extrovert might bask in this admiration at first, this symbiotic relationship may go sour. The introvert's admiration may turn to envy and resentment, the extrovert might tire of being the social engine and start pushing the introvert to become more extroverted.
Mind you, there's nothing inherently wrong with being attracted to someone who embodies qualities you want to draw out in yourself, as long as you use that as inspiration for your own growth. But, suggests Carol, "The issue with this choice is that by being with someone who acts out our buried self, we are then not required to expand into our own shadow."
Often, she continues, we have walled off parts of our personalities because those characteristics weren't valued when we were growing up. "Subconsciously, it is easier to find a partner who acts out the walled-off characteristics instead of bringing those traits out of hiding."
So if you find yourself struggling with resentment over your partner's social ease, it might be worth exploring whether you have an extroverted side that is longing to break free.
None of this, of course, is a death knell for a mixed marriage. Love can conquer all, or at least most, when you keep your eyes open. Some problems aren't problems at all, they're just personality. Others are more about the past than the present. Once you become aware of the problems behind the problems, you can proceed accordingly.
Like this post? Check out my book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. And come join my introvert party on Facebook.
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