My friend Ted is a musician. He’s kind of quiet with a great sense of humor. He enjoys getting together with friends, but not too many at a time, and his fuse is pretty short when it comes to being with large groups of people. He’s the guy that disappears from a party all of a sudden. One minute he’s here, the next minute he’s outta here. Ted doesn’t dislike people at all, but his tolerance for being around them is pretty limited, and when he maxes out, he’s done, and then he’s gone.
Suzanne’s a high school teacher and a real firecracker. She’s loud, energetic, fun-loving, opinionated, (and not afraid to express her opinions), and she’s a talker. And she’s married to Ted.
You’d think that a pair like that would be a match made in somewhere other than heaven, and if you did, you’d be right. Ted and Suzanne have been married for 16 years and except for the first several months, things have been shall we say … intense. A typical introvert, Ted tends to seek solitude and time for introspection when his battery needs recharging. When he’s under stress, he values no one’s company more than his own and finds clarity, comfort, and relief in being solitary. Yet he’s not a loner or a hermit. Once Ted is refueled, he’s ready to re-engage and connect with other people. But not until then.
Suzanne, on the other hand, gets recharged by being with people. When she’s stressed out, her initial impulse is always to get with people; preferably in person, but if that’s not possible, then at least by phone. Emails and texts don’t do it. She wants connection.
“I fell in love with Ted because we had such great connections. We used to talk for hours about the most personal and meaningful things in our lives. I loved his depth and his capacity for listening and understanding; I thought that it would never end. Boy was I wrong. I don’t know what happened but over time it seemed that Ted became increasingly more distant and less emotionally available. He reacted to my efforts to engage him and draw him out with resistance and resentment. He became passive-aggressive and that drives me nuts! It seems that the harder I try to express my frustration and my need for more closeness, the more he withdraws. I’ve even thought about divorce but I cling to the hope that he might change and go back to being the old Ted that I fell in love with. I know he’s still in there somewhere but I just don’t know how to reach him and bring him out.”
Ted has his own version of the story.
“When I met Suzanne, I was in a very down place in my life. Gloria, my girlfriend of four years, and I had recently broken up. Not surprisingly, she had some of the same complaints about me that Suzanne has. ‘He’s detached, distant, aloof and withheld.’ She used to tell me all the time how frustrating and painful it was to be with someone who didn’t share himself and spent so much time isolated. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Gloria, I really did, but she was just too much for me. What to her was a reasonable expectation of connection time, to me was overwhelming.
I wasn’t surprised when Gloria called it off between us, but I really did love her and was hoping that somehow things would work out. I wasn’t hurting as much as she was but after she left, I fell apart. The hole in my life that she filled was empty again and I really took a dive emotionally. I went into a deep depression and got in touch with a fear that there might be something really wrong with me. What kind of a jerk pushes away a woman that he loves without even making an effort to get her back? I swore to myself that if I was ever fortunate enough to find someone that I loved and loved me I wouldn’t make that same mistake again.
So when Suzanne and I met, we both fell hard for each other and I was so grateful and relieved to have been given another chance to do it right this time. The first year that we were together was incredible. It didn’t take any effort on my part to choose to spend time with her. I loved being back in a relationship. I felt like a man who had been dying of thirst and was finally drinking from a stream of cool, fresh water. I thought that it would never end.
But it did. Shortly after our first wedding anniversary, I started feeling some of those old urges to seek out more solitary time. It didn’t happen overnight, it was a gradual process, but Suzanne noticed it right away. And when she did, she tried to re-engage me by turning the heat up and I felt really pressured. Needless to say, this didn’t help. Things just got worse. The harder she pushed, the more I withdrew. She felt like I was punishing her but I really wasn’t. I felt like I was running for my life. We got into a vicious cycle that didn’t let up until as a last-ditch effort we got into marriage counseling. That was the turning point. We’re not completely out of the woods yet but we’re on our way and we both have learned a lot more about ourselves and each other in the process.”
Introverts (like Ted) and extroverts (like Suzanne) have opposite—we prefer to call it “complementary”—means of dealing with stress and meeting their emotional needs. Introverts tend to be self-reflective and seek out spaces where they can access their inner experiences freely. Extroverts, on the other hand, are predisposed to seek out others with whom they can engage and find the answers to their questions in the dialogue that the interactive process provides. It might seem counter-intuitive for these two very different personality types to get together, but it actually makes perfect sense from a relationship standpoint.
Left to their own devices or paired with a partner whose inclination is the same as theirs, each of their lives would be unbalanced in one direction or the other. Two extroverts would run the risk of burning out without sufficient down-time for rest and reflection. Things could also get heated between the two of them as their tendencies might cause them to run the risk of overloading their system possibly amplifying rather than reducing the stress level of their lives.
The potential danger of a relationship with two introverts is pretty obvious. Insufficient stimulation and inadequate external input. The net result of this is that the relationship and the passion level could flatline. More marriages die as a result of neglect than unresolved differences, so a two-introvert relationship carries its own set of risks as well.
This does not by any means suggest that marriages shared by two similar types are doomed. We have known a great many couples that are in two-introvert or two-extrovert marriages that are ecstatically happy. All relationships have their unique challenges, and the predispositions that both partners bring are not the most important variable in the process. The great challenge of all committed partnerships is to commit to the fulfillment of the relationship and the needs of one’s partner without losing or neglecting one’s own needs in the process.
As many of us have found out, this is quite a bit easier said than done. It is, however do-able, given a commitment to do the work. Both introverts and extroverts are challenged to reframe their view of their partner from judgment and resentment for not being more like they would like them to be, to gratitude for the value that they do bring into their lives. As this process evolves, appreciation replaces criticism and acceptance replaces judgment. It does take work and it does take time, but as countless couples know from their experience, the payoffs more than justify the effort.