Through the years, I have done a lot of marital counseling. Couples usually seek help because of frequent conflicts, emotional distance or to recover from one member’s affair. They may disagree on finances, parenting decisions, or decision making. Sometimes they schedule an appointment more as a preventative, because they see the potential of a serious difficulty. Sometimes, they have already separated, and are on the verge of divorce.
While the specifics will differ from couple to couple, one pattern seems to be quite consistent. Over-and-over, I have seen this pattern emerge, often in the first counseling session. As we talk about the nature of their communications and their conflicts, I see that one of them is an Internalizer and the other is an Externalizer.
These terms refer to their personality styles, their emotional vulnerabilities and their reactions to conflict. The traits seem to be consistent over time, and the pattern holds true in about 95% of couples.
The personalities have nothing to do with being an introvert and an extrovert. An Internalizer can be an extrovert or an introvert, as can an Externalizer.
An internalizer reacts to hurt by withdrawing. He gets quiet or distances when he is hurt. He tends to not talk about his feelings. The more he is hurt, the more distant he becomes. Occasionally, however, he will react with an outburst of anger, and it is often intense.
Internalizers hate conflict. Arguments, relationship or emotional discussions make them nervous. Because of their anxiety, they often have trouble thinking what they want to say. Their minds go blank during a discussion. Their most feared words are “We need to talk.” They may not get anxious about other issues, but relationship issues do trigger anxiety.
Internalizers are most sensitive to being criticized or feeling inadequate. They are vulnerable to feeling that they have messed up, or that they can’t meet the partner’s expectations. They perceive the partner as being hard to please.
The Externalizer reacts to hurt by getting angry, irritated or frustrated. Her hurt tends to turn into anger fairly quickly. She may try to talk about her hurt, but it often comes out more as frustration or anger.
While Externalizers don’t like conflict, they really hate non-resolution of problems. They want to address issues. They need to talk about the problem and the feelings it creates. They want to feel heard and understood. They get more upset when their partner avoids talking about the issues.
Externalizers are most sensitive to feeling rejected, unimportant or unloved. They tend to feel that the partner doesn’t care about them or their opinions. They see the partner as distant, detached or uninvolved. They often feel alone in the relationship.
You can probably imagine how these opposite personality traits could cause difficulties. When the Externalizer feels unimportant, she reacts with frustration or anger. The Internalizer perceives her anger as criticism, which he is sensitive to. He reacts by withdrawing. When he withdraws, she feels that he doesn’t care about her or love her, which makes her angrier. The vicious cycle continues.
These two personalities can learn to live together in harmony, but they have to understand what is happening. Each person has to understand his own tendencies, as well as his partners. Understanding that your partner is different from you and thinks differently can help. Trying to express hurt, rather than anger or withdrawal, can make a huge difference.