Christi Taylor-Jones Psychotherapy Web Site

February 2, 2017




The Role of Personality Type in Marital Conflict

Susan complains that she and her husband don’t communicate. He says he communicates just fine; she just doesn’t listen. She feels frustrated. He feels unheard. Maybe therapy will help. Maybe the therapist can give them“tools” to help them better communicate.

Included in the therapist’s tool box are exercises aimed at improving communication, listening, reflecting back and making “I statements” like “I feel….” or “It’s my experience that….” Such tools are all well and good, but they often fail to address an important underlying problem, personality styles.

Borrowing from philosophers and observers of behavior as far back as the ancient Greeks, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung formed a theory of personality based on what he called personality types. A person’s type (or typology) is inborn, although somewhat effected by their environment. Type differences form a pair of opposites so that one cannot develop both pairs at the same time. The psychological energy goes primarily into one or the other. For example, we have an inclination toward either introversion or extraversion. That does not mean that extraverts are incapable of introversion, nor introverts incapable of extraverting, but one is dominant.

He also found that people have a proclivity toward one or the other perceiving functions, that is a lens through which they take in information from the world, both the inner and outer world. These functions he named sensation and intuition. Sensation types are more attuned to the concrete world of the senses (hearing, tasting, smelling, seeing) while intuitives pick things up in ways that defy objective data. They perceive things intuitively.

In addition, people make judgments (about the information they perceive) on the basis of either thinking (logic) or feeling (value). The Thinking Type makes decisions on the impersonal basis of logic and analysis, whereas the feeling type makes decisions based more on shared values and relationship.

Jung observed that one’s type was not solitary but rather worked in combination. Although one attitude (introversion or extraversion) predominated, it was tied to a function (thinking, feeling, perceiving and intuition). Thus, a person can be an introverted thinking or extraverted sensation or any other combination of attitude and function. He also claimed that because we do not just have one attitude or one function, that we must also have a secondary or auxillary function; that is, another combination. That means that a person may be an introverted thinking with extraverted sensation or extraverted intuition with introverted feeling and so on. The personality is thus effected by both the dominant and secondary functions.

Moreover, because there are four functions (thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition) and we have all four but to lesser degrees of development, it makes sense that the function opposite the dominant function would be the least developed. So, for an introverted intuitive, the inferior or least developed function would be extraverted sensation. He called this the inferior function.

So how does all this apply to couple communication problems? Returning to the case of Susan and her husband, let’s imagine that Susan is an extraverted intuitive with introverted thinking (on the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory this is called an ENTP). Her husband is the exact opposite. He is an introverted sensation type with extraverted feeling (an ISFJ). That means she’s an extravert, he’s an introvert; she perceives things intuitively, he on the basis of objects reality. She makes judgments on the basis of logic (thinking) while he makes judgments on the the basis of feeling (relationship and values). As you can see, they view the world through very different lenses. She is an extravert, who is stimulated by things, people and events in the outer world and gains energy from them, while he is an introvert who is more oriented to his inner world and tends to reflect before acting. He is overwhelmed by too much outer stimulation and refuels by going inward or being alone.

Although we are often attracted to our opposite and may even enjoy what they bring to the relationship that we lack, we may find that over time those differences become annoying. This may happen early on or later, after we’re married, whenever consensus and the need for commonality becomes important. At that point conflict may arise. The feeling person may then see the thinking person as insensitive and uncaring. The sensation person experiences his intuitive partner as out of touch with reality. And so on. The extravert may want to go out more; the introvert to hang out at home more, or want their partner to be home more.


What couples with very different typologies conclude is that they have unreconcilable differences. And this is sometimes the case. But not always. Type differences are exacerbated by the idea that the other person is “doing this TO me,” rather than that the other person is doing this because they are being who they are. That is, they take things personally that aren’t inherently personal. The second problem is that each partner things they are “right” and the other person is “wrong.” their way of seeing the world is the right way. In short, they really don’t know who their partner is. Or they don’t accept that they are different.

To the degree that each partner has developed some sense of themselves, that is, they have a strong enough ego to tolerate differences the marriage is salvageable. To the degree that a person cannot tolerate without judgment the other person’s natural personality tendencies, the marriage is going to suffer.

This does not mean that each person will need to make some accommodations, but before doing that they need to understand how their typological differences impact the relationship. There may be other problems besides personality styles that create difficulties in the relationship, and those can be addressed separately. There may still be unreconcilable differences in the coupling that make the relationship untenable, but differences in typology can often be worked through. Over time we tend to develop other functions due to what Jung called the drive toward “wholeness.” Generally our inferior function remains problematic in some ways, but the other three functions can develop as we age, perhaps speeded up through work with an analyst.

Typology is only one aspect of a person and only one aspect of their personality. We still bring our complexes, our shadow tendencies and other conscious and unconscious issues to our relationship with other people. The hope, however, is that the more we know ourselves, the more adept we are at understanding and communicating with other people

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