“I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.” -Audrey Hepburn
Sam and Heather arrive in marriage counseling discouraged, frustrated, and at wits’ end with one another. Heather feels like Sam has abandoned her, preferring to spend time with his friends than to be home. Sam feels like Heather doesn’t love him any more. He complains that she never talks to him about what she is feeling, and that she spends hours reading books or on the computer. They used to be happy. They wonder out loud about what has gone wrong.
Although there could certainly be many reasons for this couple’s problems, as I got to know them better, it became obvious to me–and to them–that most of their problems stemmed from a crucial difference between them. Sam is a classic extrovert and Heather an introvert. Can their marriage still work out?
Common Myths About Extroverts and Introverts
Originally coined by Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, these words have become part of everyday language and, unfortunately, have become quite lost in translation. Most people think that all extroverts are outgoing and all introverts are shy. The truth is more complicated.
Myth #1: You are either an extrovert or an introvert. Reality: Most people lean in one direction or the other, but other folks are almost half and half (sometimes called omniverts). Like any psychological tendency, a person can be mildly extroverted or extremely so.
Myth#2: Introverts are shy, anti-social hermits. Extroverts are friendly, outgoing and the life of the party. Reality: Many famous actors and comedians are self-reported introverts. Think of Steve Martin, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks. Clearly these introverted celebrities have extraordinary social skills and know how to be the life of the party. Conversely, extroverts can be socially awkward and don’t require center stage to be happy.
Myth #3: Introverts always want to be alone, and extroverts always want to be with others. Reality: most everyone wants and flourishes in a life with a balance of time spent with others and time spent alone.
Myth #4: You can change what type you are if you really want to. Reality: We now know that this is one of the aspects of a person’s temperament that has inborn tendencies. What people can learn is to develop better social skills such as healthy communication, listening, empathy, and self-disclosure. These skills are helpful to both introverts and extroverts.
Myth #5: It is better to be one type rather than the other. Reality: Each type has strengths and weaknesses, and can be found in all lines of work.When you understand the types, you can more readily appreciate differences between you and people closest to you in your life such as partners, children, friends and co-workers.
The Psychological Distinction Between Extroversion and Introversion
Now that you understand that everyone spends time “extroverting” and “introverting,” what is the real difference? Here is what Jung really meant and what tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Gray-Wheelwright, and Keirsey Temperament Sorter are measuring. (Note: All these tests measure other dimensions as well such as Thinking vs. Feeling, not covered in this blog).
1. What is your natural preference for where to direct your time, attention and energy? Think about choices you make effortlessly, that feel comfortable and natural–not what you think you are supposed to do. Do you like to spend time in the outer world of people and things (extravert), or in your inner world of ideas and images (introvert)? Do you often think while you speak (extravert) or typically think before you speak (introvert)?
2. What kinds of activities provide you with energy, helping you to recharge your battery? Imagine you have a job where you work with lots of people or you have just been at a social gathering, do you feel energized (extravert) or do you need to spend quiet alone time to feel refreshed (introvert)? Conversely, when you spend time all alone, do you get bored and drained (extrovert) or do you feel refreshed and ready to be with people again (introvert)?
How Does Knowing This Help Your Marriage?
Let’s go back to Sam and Heather…By learning and swapping stories about their differences, Sam and Heather realized that they had been drawn together originally because of the very differences that were now causing them trouble. Heather had fallen in love with Sam’s openness, and appreciated that he encouraged her to make new friends and do things that she had never done before. Being with Heather, Sam had learned to reflect more about his ideas and behavior which had kept him out of trouble on a number of occasions.
Once they both realized that their partner’s behavior was a natural reflection of personality, they stopped taking each other’s differences so personally. They also stopped being so judgmental and critical of the other. They gave each other more space to engage in the activities that they now understood were healthy outlets, albeit different. They also began to think of other family members in a more forgiving light, realizing they had been making judgments without taking into account how introverts and extroverts were hiding in their midst.