Is Your Introvert, Extrovert Difference Flying Under the Radar?

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This week, I have on my mind the topic of Introversion and Extroversion as they appear in the lives of many couples.  My goal in marriage counseling is to help couples with this difference to understand, navigate and optimize it.   What brought it to the forefront of my mind, like most things I write about here, was this week’s session with a couple who were having difficulties with this difference.  I’d like to share with you some insights to help you minimize the downside and optimize the upside of this difference.


Research shows that the characteristics of introversion and extroversion are what we would call hardwired.  They do not come about through socialization, but rather through genetics.  They come about through “nature,” not “nurture.”  Introversion and extroversion have to do with the amount of stimulation which is optimal for each person’s particular well being.  Introverts thrive on less stimulation and extroverts on more.  By stimulation we mean primarily the volume of sensory input, like visual, auditory, tactile, etc., but also pace of input such as moving through space fast or slowly, or listening to content delivered at a fast clip or at a more leisurely pace.  The volume and pace of sensory input for an introvert would be low/slow enough for that individual to take it in, mull it over, possibly to let it “sit inside” awhile, and then to respond to it.  Its as though introverts don’t respond until they have fully experienced and thought something through; then they deliver their response in a neatly prepared package.  Introverts usually know a few people very well and often have known their friends over a long period of time.  Introverts, especially as children, are slow to warm up to new situations.  They need time to observe and familiarize themselves before they are ready to participate.


On the other hand, extroverts thrive on more stimulation: input that is more visually complex, louder, and more tactile.  They find a faster pace and a larger crowd exciting rather than overwhelming, for example.  Extroverts are known for thinking “out loud.”  They realize what they think about something as they hear themselves talking it out.  (Don’t take what an extrovert seems to be concluding on any given topic until they are finished!  Even then, you might ask!)  Extroverts often have many, many acquaintances and include among those they consider friends people they know only superficially.  You might say that introverts go DEEP and extroverts go WIDE.  Extroverts usually feel comfortable jumping right in to new situations and may themselves be the instigators/initiators.


Under stress each individual resorts to the characteristics of their wiring to cope and manage to bring themselves back to optimal well being.  When introverts cross the stimulation threshold and become overstimulated they need to spend time by themselves to restore their energies.  If they are not able to do this, their attention and engagement will involuntarily begin to shut down.  Extroverts find just the opposite kind of situation stressful.  If there is not enough stimulation, e.g. no one to hang out with, things “too quiet,” or nothing going on, an extrovert will become restless and antsy, and likely go looking for something or someone to liven things up.  Extroverts restore their energy in this way.


Couples can inadvertently build resentments towards one another if they do not know that their partner’s need for time alone or time together comes in part for their hard wiring.  If they do not realize this they are apt to interpret the mismatch between them under stress as either purposely intrusive or purposely neglectful.  When introversion and extroversion are in play, neither of these is true.  When you can realize that your partner’s behavior is entirely about THEM, not about YOU, you are able to work with the differences more deliberately.  Working deliberately with introversion and extroversion differences allows couples to make room on purpose for the differences rather than trying to make them go away through either ignoring or criticism.


Some ways to make room for introversion are to plan for that spouse’s time alone before and after big events and activities and to pace the frequency with which those are scheduled.  Some ways to make room for extroversion are to welcome that spouse’s time spent with others and in events outside the home and for the extroverted spouse to rely on others, in addition to their spouse for companionship.  In this way, the introvert will be fueled up enough to engage in more extroverted activities intermittent with time alone, and the extrovert to have the companionship and activity level they need for optimal well being without either neglecting or pressure their spouse over it.  When couples can be deliberate about working with this difference they can achieve a balance, both between them and within themselves individually.


If you suspect that you and your partner suffer from reactions/resentments that may stem from a difference in introversion and extroversion, either known to you as such, or perhaps flying under the radar of awareness, please given me a call at Marriage Like New: Therapy for Couples, 512-659-8600.  I would love to help you get back to the love and chemistry that drew you together in the first place, by understanding your differences and how to optimize them both separately and together.  Couples therapy can be the difference that makes a difference.  Chances are, if one of you is introverted and the other extroverted, this difference was part of the initial chemistry that drew you together in the first place!  Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy that again, and this time with your eyes wide open!