Welcome to "I’ll Tell You What," in which I answer questions about life as an introvert. If you have a question, send it to me at email@example.com.
Today I want to ponder two relationship questions that recently came my way about introverts who pull away.
"I am in a serious relationship with an introvert. He recently told me he needs more space. I am not a needy person, and already find there is plenty of space between us. Giving him more space makes me wonder if we are actually really in a relationship.
"I cried all night and my eyes are puffy. I don't understand how to act in this relationship. I am loving, touchy, intimate. I don't know how I can manage without all those things! Help?"
— Need To Be Loving
"I'm a classic, textbook introvert. So is a man I've been trying to get to know for a little over a year. I thought this would mean understanding and accepting each other's need for space when life gets stressful. The problem seems to be that we understand it too much. We wind up pulling away completely from each other, and giving each other too much room. And then it's really difficult to reconnect. He's worse about it than I am. He'll pull away for up to two weeks at a time. I try to understand, but it drives me insane.
"He is also an introvert who's a musician and a salesman. Those roles require a large degree of acting like an extrovert. And I think it wears him out. I've dated a few other introverts. Things were fine with two of them, but another one was just like this guy. I'm about to hang a sign on my neck: Extroverted Men Only. Introverts Like Me Need Not Apply. It's maddening."
—Tired of Trying to Be "Understanding"
Learning about introversion is profoundly empowering for many of us. Accepting our own need for space and the similar or conflicting needs of other people, and respecting our own and other people’s various ways of interacting with the world—it’s all good. It leads us to a level of acceptance that can only enhance our relationships and our humanity. But when it comes to relationships, “I am introverted,” or “He (or she) is an introvert,” is only the beginning of the conversation.
For one thing, “introverted” is not a one-size-fits-all label. Introversion and extroversion, like other personality traits, exist on a continuum. Imagine a horizontal line with introversion at one end and extroversion on the other. Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes, expressing the traits to different degrees and in different ways.
For example, your flavor of introversion might be, “Weekends are for family,” while another person’s might be, “Weekends are for solitude,” and a third person’s might be, “Weekends are for my three closest friends.” Your style of introversion might be “I could spend every night with that one special person,” while that person’s might be, “I’m OK spending only weekends together.” Your introverted way of dealing with problems might be, “Let’s sit down right now with a bottle of wine and hash this out until it’s fixed,” while your partner’s might be, “Let me think about it for a few days and get back to you.”
And, of course, introversion is only one small part of all the moving parts that make us who we are.
While it is a handy and nonthreatening label, introversion cannot take all the blame for stresses in a relationship, nor can you assume it's the only reason someone is seeking space in your relationship. That might be part of it, of course, but there could also be other more complex and potentially distressing reasons, such as fear, incompatibility, attachment issues, or any one of the myriad things that can cause people to drift or pull apart.
The only way to work out problems in a relationship is to talk about them—in depth and at length.
While I know that we introverts are great listeners, we also must know and express our own needs. In the case of “Tired of Trying," listening and understanding are not enough. It’s also important to speak up about what our minimum requirements are in a relationship—time, affection, access. (See my post about introverts' struggle to express needs.)
The response you get to your expressed needs is what informs you of the relationship’s true potential. Are your needs being received with love, or summarily deflected? Is the other person willing to meet you halfway? Are you willing to meet him or her halfway? Can you be happy with what's being offered? You can’t always get what you want, but can you get enough?
And if not, then what? It's a scary question, I know. And probably the one you most want to avoid. But if you decide that this is not the relationship for you, at least you'll know that you tried as hard as you could to get both your needs met, and so you can think of it as a "no-fault" breakup: You talked it out and found that the two of you simply need different things from a love relationship.
When you turn your sights to finding a new love, think about what you learned about yourself through these discussions. “Tired of Trying” jokes about dating only extroverts, but maybe that’s not a joke. Among the introverts I interviewed for my book, Introverts in Love, about half of those who were in relationships were happily coupled with extroverts—and appreciated the energy, social life, and out-there-ness that extroverts brought to their lives. (The other half did prefer the quiet pleasure of life with a fellow introvert.) So it may be, “Tired of Trying,” that you would be happier with an extrovert. Knowing that would be a good thing.
By the way, you also joke about how introverts “need not apply," which lets me address a concern I have about introverts: Our tendency is to wait to be chosen and pursued rather than choosing and pursuing ourselves. Sure, it’s a lot easier and less scary to be pursued, but it also puts us at risk of finding ourselves drifting into unsuitable relationships. Not necessarily horrible or abusive—although that can happen, too—but just wrong. A poor fit.
My advice to both “Need To Be Loving” and “Tired of Trying": Try to seriously assess your own needs in a relationship, believe that they are perfectly acceptable, and then lay them out there. Talk honestly, listen hard, and then talk some more. Introversion is not passivity, it is not avoidance, and it is only part of who we are.
It's never the whole story.
I’m a fan of quality self-help books, and aside from my own, a few I recommend for working through these issues include:
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