Originally published on Mic.com
Kirstin* and her boyfriend Eric had already had two busy weekends in a row when Eric surprised Kirstin with the news they’d be going to his coworker’s home to hang out later that night. On the way, he also revealed that his coworker had two children under the age of 5. Kirstin was not happy.
“I was exhausted, I’m not a fan of children and I was pretty bad company… it was a stressful night,” Kirstin, 27, told Mic.
If you’re an introvert like Kristin, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement. Last-minute plans to spend time with people you don’t know? Not exactly a fun Friday night. But if you’re an extrovert, you probably see Eric’s side: What’s so bad about spending an evening catching up with pleasant people?
While such an argument might be minor for most couples, for Kirstin and Eric it was very much a real dilemma. For introvert/extrovert couples, questions of how much space each person needs and even what to do on a Saturday night are all the more heightened — and they might have trouble coming to understand each other’s point of view.
It’s not just about being “shy” or not: As first theorized in the 1920s by psychiatrist Carl Jung, extroverts are believed to gather energy through social interactions, whereas introverts feel drained by too much socializing and gather energy through solitude.
Studies have suggested that introvert and extrovert brains are actually different. Introverts have been found to have greater complexity in brain regions associated with abstract thought and decision making, while extroverts’ brains respond with more enjoyment to novel, potentially risky experiences, like gambling. In general, it seems introverts are wired to process stimuli internally, while extroverts associate rewarding feelings with external stimuli.
As a result, introverts become overstimulated and overwhelmed by too much socialization, whereas extroverts are energized by the same conditions, Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength and assistant professor of psychology at Davis and Elkins College, told Mic.
“That common idea that introverts are refueled by pulling away and extroverts are refueled by seeking out people and activities – it all comes down to how we process information,” said Helgoe, who is also an introvert married to an extrovert.
He says to-may-to, she says to-mah-to: When one person likes bar-hopping and the other prefers Netflix and chill, that can be an obvious issue in relationships, especially when it comes to socializing.
Riley, 23, told Mic that early on in her relationship with her introvert boyfriend, Ben, she would get upset that he didn’t want to go to her family’s large weekly dinners, taking it as evidence that he didn’t care about getting to know her family.
“I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t take an hour out of his week to become close to my family, and it honestly hurt my feelings,” Riley said.
However, from an introvert’s perspective mingling with a large group of people is stressful, and they can end up resenting their partner for “forcing” them to attend.
Jordi, 20, told Mic that her extrovert boyfriend would invite her to parties with friends she didn’t know, then get confused when she’d sit by herself at the end of the couch.
“Small talk with strangers just isn’t my idea of fun. I prefer deep, relaxed conversations with smaller groups over food; on the other hand, to him, no conversation is small talk, and no one is a stranger for very long,” Jordi said. “Then I would feel guilty because he’d come over and keep me company rather than spend time with the friends he hadn’t seen in a while.”
Having polar opposite views about how to spend your free time can obviously be a deal breaker – if couples are unwilling to understand their partner’s motivations. Helgoe said when an introvert seeks out solitude, it can be interpreted by an extrovert as a desire to get away from the relationship.
Rather, the introvert should help the extrovert understand that “It’s not that I want to get away from you, it’s that I want to get toward time with me,” Helgoe said.
That communication is key, of course. Even talking through these issues can be difficult, though.
“Why aren’t you telling me what you’re thinking?” Differing communication styles can also cause tension in introvert/extrovert relationships. An introvert will often pull inward during a conversation, contemplating what the extrovert is saying before contributing. After a long day, an introvert may not want to talk at all, while an extrovert will enjoy discussing the details of their own day.
During a fight, the extrovert will prefer to “think out loud” and seek reassurance by hearing their partner’s thoughts, while the introvert will think through their opinions before speaking. So couples must also navigate being with someone who doesn’t talk through problems in the same way.
Jordi said her boyfriend can tell when she’s upset but she often isn’t ready to talk about it, even though his natural instinct is to start talking it through instantly. “I tell him that there’s something on my mind but I’m not quite done processing it and I’ll let him know when I am. He tells me to not think about it, just to tell him, otherwise thoughts of what could be upsetting me swirl around in his head and he freaks out.”
Which is, again, where the need for communication comes in. (Sensing a theme?) A talkative extrovert may be reassured with a simple cue that the introvert heard what they said and is thinking about it; an introvert may need to understand that the extrovert is just trying to facilitate communication, not dominate the conversation, Helgoe said.
Why “mixed” couples might have the advantage: Helgoe admitted that, yes, “mixed” relationships between introverts and extroverts can be difficult. But they also experience greater opportunities for growth and better skills in negotiating and compromising. An introvert encourages an extrovert to pay attention to their inner life, while an extrovert pulls an introvert out of their shell.
“The advantage of being an introvert/extrovert couple is that it stretches us and requires us to talk about things and know our own minds,” Helgoe said. “In a way, it’s an ongoing therapy process.”
That’s certainly true for Sarah, 35, and her husband Cullen, 34. If Sarah were married to a fellow introvert, she fully expects that she’d be ordering her groceries on Amazon so she never had to leave the house. Cullen helps her put herself out there – not always an easy thing for introverts to do, even when they get lonely, she said.
At the same time, Sarah teaches Cullen the benefits of an introverted mindset, where solitude is relaxing and you don’t need to party in order to have a good time
“I’m comfortable in silence now, comfortable being alone with myself, and before I didn’t have that. I needed activity to feel ‘a part’ of the world around me. She’s shown me that just simply isn’t necessary,” Cullen told Mic. “I think it’s interesting to be able to see what makes the grass greener on the other side.”
At the end of the day, introverts and extroverts can live in harmony. They just need to negotiate exactly how much time they’ll spend at that party on Saturday night.