The Conversation Introvert-Extrovert Couples Need to Have

Talking points, before an argument.

Posted Jan 19, 2015

Simone van den Berg/Shutterstock

How do you deal with conflict in a relationship?

When I asked the more than 50 introverts I spoke to for my new book, Introverts in Love, the answers were pretty consistently some variation of "badly." Most said they tended to shut down.

This is not ideal.

Psychologist John Gottman, a preeminent researcher into why marriages succeed or fail, has found that how a couple handles conflict is a good predictor of the relationship's long-term potential. (Want to know more? See his book, The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work.)

Conflict in any relationship is inevitable. It's not fun and nobody looks forward to it, but chances are pretty good that if there's never any conflict in your relationship, it's because one or both of you are avoiding it. This is a particular risk for introvert-introvert couples: Kristen, whom I interviewed for the book, believes her first marriage, to another introvert, collapsed under the weight of unspoken conflict.

But introverts and extroverts approach conflict so differently—what do you do when one of you is an "I don't want to talk about it" introvert, and the other is a "Let's get it all out there" extrovert?

"When an extrovert argues, there may be a more wordy approach to it, a more emotional component," said psychotherapist Nathan Feiles. "The introvert tends to be more rational and reasonable about it, less comfortable experiencing the emotion and ambiguity."

So here's one scenario: The extrovert sees an issue in the relationship and deals with it head on, with a torrent of words and unbridled emotion. The introvert is a deer in the headlights and either quickly acquiesces to whatever the extrovert wants, to make all just go away; or shuts down and broods, having angry, muttered conversations with him or herself instead of the other person. (Me do such a thing? Heavens no. It could never happen.)

In the first scenario, the extrovert might go blithely on his or her way, unaware of the false victory he or she has allowed, or the seed of resentment just planted. In the second, the extrovert can either let the introvert stew in his or her own anger and hope for the best, or drag out information, whatever it takes.

The third scenario is that the introvert and extrovert have already discussed their different styles and figured out how to best manage inevitable conflict.

Kristen admits she has a tendency to be passive aggressive. In past relationships, "If something was bothering me or making me upset with the person I was dating, I would bottle it up and not say anything until the issue was forced, and then I would explode."

Now she's married to an extreme extrovert who brings up things without hesitation, and doesn't let Kristen get away with shutting down when he can tell she's upset. He will, she says, keep after her, dragging her out of her "silent, angry corner" to talk. And she really likes this: "This is the most healthy, honest, open, and functional relationship I’ve ever had." It's also getting easier for her to bring up problems herself, and all this is spilling over to other relationships as well.

That's one way of handling it: The introvert can give the extrovert permission to drag things out of them, by saying, "I have a tendency to shut down when I'm upset, and I know that doesn't do us any good. So be nice about it, but it's OK for you to drag me out of my silent, angry corner* when necessary."

Other introverts, however, need time to process a problem or squabble before they can talk it through. Nancy, for example, says that if her extroverted wife says something that upsets her, "I withdraw. It's almost like it puts a lock on my mouth." She gets overwhelmed, she says, and will say "bad things" if she tries to deal with it too quickly. "For me to have a productive conversation, I have to calm down," she says, and her wife knows to let her retreat to her silent, angry corner for a while to get her head sorted out before pursuing any further discussion. After a bit, they can have truly productive and loving conversations. (But no consoling hugs please, Nancy says. She's not so good with the hugs, although "that's really hard for her.")

That's another way of handling it: The introvert can explain the need for a time-out between a conflict arising and further discussion, by saying, "I can get overwhelmed by conflict and shut down. If you give me a little time to process, it will be a lot easier to talk stuff through."

Note that if you are the kind of introvert who needs a time out, I think it's your job to then speak up when you're ready to talk further. Don't convince yourself that if you don't bring up again, it's gone away, and don't make your partner chase you down, especially if he or she was the one to bring the issue up in the first place. Bringing things up can be tough; no fair making your partner do it twice for one discussion.

So, what do you need to tell your partner about working through conflict with you? And what do you need to know about how your partner deals with conflict? Some extroverts are kind of noisy about conflict, but that doesn't mean they're as angry or upset as they sound—they're just...noisy. Maybe they need to dump all their feelings at once, before you go off to process. Let them. Maybe you need to talk about how you can take equal responsibility for bringing up difficult issues. 

Sure, couples tend to figure this stuff out on their own—eventually. But why wait? This conversation, during a calm and loving time, will clear the way for more effective future conflict management. Knowing and articulating the way you are most comfortable handling problems lessens the likelihood that conflict will escalate for reasons that have nothing to do with the problem at hand and everything to do with different personalities.

* I just love that phrase, don't you?

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. And come join me and a bunch of cool introverts on my Facebook page.