We Seek Wholeness in Ourselves When we Choose our Mate
The adage “opposites attract” is often true before marriage and well into the first few years of a relationship. However, as I have seen in many years of providing marriage counseling, the powerful attraction that once drew you to your mate can fade over time. If personality differences are misunderstood, then the initial attraction will turn to ”opposites repel,” leading to negative feelings for the person you were deeply drawn to when dating.
Using the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory in Couples Counseling
I sometimes have my couple clients take a True-False test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a questionnaire based on the work of Carl Jung that assesses different psychological types according to four pairs of preferences: extraversion vs. introversion, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perception. We all use all four functions, but some are more dominant than others.
The MBTI is used by, for example, vocational counselors to help people select occupations that best suit their temperaments. It has also been widely used by employers and managers to appreciate differences in workers with the aim of functioning better in teams, thus avoiding misunderstanding and increasing efficiency by reducing personality conflicts.
Decision making in marriage can be challenging when partners are opposite on some personality traits. When I was ready to buy my new car I decided what I wanted, test drove it and did some quick online research to see what the inventory was, and at what price. I went to our local dealership and was quoted a price that seemed fair. I was prepared to purchase the car then and there, but since we believe that big purchases should always be discussed and agreed on, I took my decision to my partner for the final green light. He immediately jumped into the decision-making by polling every dealer within 100 miles of us and reading every consumer report written on the car.
My psychological preference is Feeling and my husband is Thinking. Both approaches have to do with decision making, and each is valid. Feeling types seek harmony with people. Thinking types seek objective clarity. Because I felt that the car salesman was honest and nice, I trusted his price quote. I didn’t want there to be discomfort or tension.
When all was said and done, he came to me with the exact price I was quoted, saying it was a good price, giving his approval. Because we respected each other’s differences, we came to an agreement.
When Jeff and Lynn came to marriage therapy they were stuck in gridlock about how to spend time in their retirement. Jeff wanted to spend time at home, tinkering with projects in the garage and watching old home movies—something he wasn’t able to do when he worked six days a week. Jeff is a typical Introvert, someone who needs alone time to recharge his batteries and who is drained by too much socializing. Lynn, in contrast, was bored with staying home and wanted to travel and see the many sights that they hadn’t had time or money for before retirement. Lynn is an Extrovert, someone who gains energy from social contact and feels drained without it. These differences made even smaller decisions difficult for Lynn and Jeff. For instance, Lynn wanted to entertain friends and loved putting on big dinner parties, but that made Jeff uncomfortable. He much preferred to have one couple over and play Pictionary. Lynn was furious at Jeff for what she considered to be thwarting her dreams. Jeff felt overwhelmed and withdrew from her when their discussions turned to these issues.
We seek what we want to complete us when we choose a mate. This is largely unconscious. When Jeff first met Lynn he was mesmerized by her vitality and adventurous spirit. He loved how she could talk to anyone. He was invigorated by her constant energy. Lynn was in love with Jeff’s calm and his ability to love the simple things in life. They were attracted to the very traits that were undeveloped in themselves.
Life transitions such as retirement often bring out differences in how a couple will make decisions. When life is routine, these personality difference can be dealt with, even masked. But with challenges such as the birth of a child or a move, the traits that you loved in your partner become the very things that drive you crazy.
The MBTI is a valuable test to help couples understand why they sometimes fight about the same things over and over again. I like it because unlike many psychological tests, the MBTI is non-pathologizing. There are no good or bad traits. Every one of the sixteen types indicates a difference in how one gathers information, organizes their life, how they like to spend their time, and how they think (or feel) through the various decisions that confront them.
After giving Jeff and Lynn the MBTI I was able to help them understand Jeff’s introversion and Lynn’s extroversion. Neither of them was wrong; they just needed to understand and appreciate their differences. We worked with ways they could get their individual needs met, and still find things to do together in retirement. They began to keep a list of activities they each wanted to do and then found ways to compromise about how to going about doing them together, honoring each other’s interests and dreams. This was immensely reassuring. Once you realize that your partner is not wrong, or odd, you can start talking compromise.
Despite my husband and I having opposite types for Feeling and Thinking, we can come to the exact same decision, as with buying the car, but we do it differently. Understanding each other saves a lot of time in the long run!
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Vincent H. says
Great piece and I also agree that it is VERY important to know one’s MBTI, especially when it comes to marriage and career.
I am very fortunate that my wife and I are both INFP’s and my best male friend is also an INFP There’s just a delightful simpatico especially in a world where INFP’s make up less than 3% of the American population.
On the marriage front we are so very much alike in terms of how we perceive the world and how we move in it that our activities and interests are very similar and we’ve never had to haggle and bargain over issues like vacations and choices of friends. However I should also add that we have been together for forty-five years (since age seventeen), therefore our formative years and experience have shaped us in a very similar fashion.
Career wise, as an INFP male I have almost nothing “in common” with the 75% ESTJ’s that predominate in American culture and esp. the American sports centric, outward directed, goal driven “guy culture”. I have learned to adapt, (like creating an extroverted and affable persona to help bridge the gap). If you’re in the people business as I am as a professional person, you have to be extroverted, to be able to reach out, to form relationships. Regarding practical functioning, I’ve had to bring more structure and discipline to what was a formerly high “P”, bringing more “J” to meet deadlines and commitments.
My wife is also scores high on the introvert scale, but she manages the anxiety many introverts face by being in a position of control. For example, she’s been an airline flight attendant and a server in a high end restaurant, and has probably had a transactional exchange (verbal and/or otherwise) with over one million people.
By being in control of pretty much most of those contacts, she is comfortable; but left to her own natural flow; she is very much an “I”, content to hang out with her cats, produce art and not have a high degree of social contact.
Dr. Susan says
Vincent– I have often given the Myers-Brigss Type Test to couples in counseling when there are clear differences in personality styles. It shows them that there is no ‘right’ way to be, and to respect and understand differences, even appreciate how we can balance each other out and learn from our different styles. Susan