The personality dimension of introversion-extraversion is one of the five basic qualities that psychologists use to differentiate individuals. The “quiet power” of introverts, as identified in Susan Cain’s (2012) highly-regarded book (Furey, 2012), provided long-overdue insights into the many strengths of people on the introverted end of this dimension. Among lay readers as well as researchers, Cain’s findings have had a positive impact.
Because extraversion is so highly regarded as a valued social skill, people who aren’t extraverts (or who try to fake it) may feel that they’re out of sync with our very talkative and oversharing society. But what does this mean for their close relationships? Can you truly experience intimacy if you don’t openly express your feelings? How about the response of the partner of an introvert? How does it feel when your partner prefers silence to your desire to keep up a steady stream of conversation?
Introversion, then, with its associated characteristics of aloofness and a tendency to be withdrawn, might prove to interfere with the support you feel you receive from your partner. When you’re in trouble, will your introverted partner be able to provide the help you need? As cited by Verhofstadt (2007), research suggests that introverts themselves don’t seek social support when they’re stressed. Therefore, they may also be less willing to provide such support when their partners need it. However, in Verhofstadt's studied of married partners, it was the quality of the relationship, not the personalities of the individuals, that predicted perceived marital support. An introvert will be no more or less likely to help you when you need it, based on this study’s findings.
This is the first piece of good news.
Looking at the broader scope of satisfaction with the relationship, Australian psychologist John Malouff and colleagues (2010) examined the findings of 10 studies on personality and relationship satisfaction among heterosexual partners. The final set of samples that Malouff et al. examined involved nearly 3,900 participants. The news about introversion was not particularly good, in that introverts' relationship satisfaction was lower than that of more extraverted partners. Moreover, the relationship satisfaction of the introvert’s partner itself was lower than when an individual's partner was extraverted. This finding held true even when the research team considered the possibility that introverts may tend to marry other introverts, inflating the apparent relationship between personality and satisfaction.
There’s reason to think, however, that it’s not introversion-extraversion, per se, which influences how satisfied people might feel with their partner. This personality dimension does not exist in isolation from other attributes such as neuroticism—the tendency to be anxious and worried—and level of openness to new experiences. The problem with the Australian team’s study was that, as comprehensive as it was, it failed to examine the entire constellation of personality traits when examining introversion.
In fact, most studies of introversion do erroneously examine it in isolation from other personality characteristics, and few look at the impact of attachment style—the tendency that people have to establish secure bonds with others. University of Calcutta psychologists Sangeeta Banerjee and Jayanti Basu (2014) examined personality and attachment style as predictors of relationship satisfaction among 40 couples, including those high and low in marital quality. Among men, lower extraversion was related to poorer marital satisfaction, but so were a set of other qualities including less-secure attachment style and lower coping ability. For women, coping style and perception of social support predicted marital quality.
Returning, then, to the takeaway if you’re currently in a relationship with an introvert: Don't worry. On its own, your partner’s (or your own) preference for quiet reflection and alone time won’t interfere with your relationship satisfaction. However, if your partner is also higher in neuroticism as well, this could create problems. It can also be difficult to negotiate relationships with partners who are anxiously attached to the point of being clingy. Similarly, partners who are both introverted and high on avoidant attachment may be particularly resistant to efforts to achieve intimacy.
To sum up, there are no reasons why introversion on its own should stand in the way of relationship satisfaction. What might be more important to focus on is the extent to which your partner feels comfortable with you. It might mean that, if you’re an extravert who happened to fall in love with an introvert, you need to provide that space from time to time. Your emotional support will be appreciated, and with this sensitivity to your partner’s needs, both your and your partner’s fulfillment can flourish.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016