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Why "Mixed" Relationships Can Go Wrong

...and how understanding each other's personalities can set things right.

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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. She assigns them the Myers-Briggs online personality-type test which is free and which covers 75 questions. "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 that might be messing with their relationship, including introversion and extroversion.

Of course, relationships are complex, highly individual machines with lots of moving parts. Introversion and extroversion may or may not play a part in a 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 between introverts and extroverts are obvious—like time at home vs. time out and about, or alone time vs. together time—especially when couples are unaware of how their personality types factor into those concerns. Instead, one or both might be taking things personally.

And listen up, introverts: You're not the only ones who get worn out by being pushed to change. "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.

It All Seems Familiar…

Carol has also noticed deeper issues that 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 of 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 be 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," Carol says.

The Hidden You

Another reason we might be drawn to a particular person is because he or she 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," Carol says.

While the extrovert might bask in this admiration at first, this symbiotic relationship could go sour. The introvert's admiration may turn to envy and resentment, and 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 actually use that as inspiration for your own growth. But, as Carol suggests, "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 says, 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. And once you become aware of the problems behind the problems, you can proceed accordingly.

Check out my books, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After; The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World; and 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go. Support your local independent bookstore; click here to find an indie near you.