The Introvert-Extrovert Dilemma

He wants to party, she wants to read. Fear not: You can still have fun.

Introvert Extrovert Dilemma

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filed under Advice, Fighting

Ever since the 2012 publication of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a great deal of attention has been paid to the topic of people who turn inward more readily than outward. As a person who has tried to describe what it feels like to prefer my own company to that of groups of others, I was heartened by the recognition—but felt uncomfortable, naturally, being the focus of the conversation.

In fact, since my first inclination is always to resist attention, I taught myself long ago how to look like a typical, run-of-the-mill extrovert. It didn’t change who I am, but being an introvert with good social skills, as I describe it, helps reduce the number of times people tell me to smile, or ask me what’s wrong, or say things like, “Cat got your tongue?” as they did when I was growing up.

For most adult introverts like me, our friends and family usually understand that we’re quiet by nature and that staying home and reading a book, or going to a quiet movie, is our idea of a good time. Emphasis on usually. If you’re an introvert who’s been in a relationship a long time, you and your extrovert partner may have already come to an “agree to disagree” referendum and figured out a way to make your differences work. But it’s not always an easy balance to achieve and some relationships don’t survive the chasm. Others relationships are so new that neither party yet realizes the impact their differences could have.

As a culture, whether we like it or not, we are accustomed to going out in the world for social situations where we meet new people, celebrate old friends, or throw parties to mark any major life event. Many of us met our partners in a social situation—a bar, a party, a baseball game. If you’re an introvert, and you’re in one of those locations, my best guess is that you weren’t thrilled to be there in the first place. But if you happen to meet someone attractive, you’re probably going to give it a go, even if you’re a recluse. After all, you’re out for “fun”—and the very extroverted chemicals that start flowing through our veins when we meet someone we’re attracted to tend to grease the wheels. That’s the easy part.

The tough part is when you’ve been dating for a while and you’ve reached that perennial moment when he says, “What do you want to do tonight?” and the only answer that comes to mind is, “Stay home and not talk to anyone except you.” Instead, you give him some room and say, “I don’t know, how about you?” Your heart starts to pound and your palms begin to sweat. “Well, Jim and Sandy are having a last-minute barbecue beer bash,” he says. “Let’s do that.” You like Jim and Sandy, but you’ve been talking to people all day at work and the idea of having to make conversation with a whole new group is painful. But he is so enthusiastic about going that you can’t imagine spoiling his fun.

Most of us have been on one side or the other of this dilemma. If you’re the outgoing one, you’ve given in to your partner’s desire for a quiet evening at home and often ended up feeling resentful about watching On Demand instead of trying Jim’s new homemade microbrew. If you’re the introvert, you’ve agreed to the party and ultimately survived it, but you’re so tired of making small talk by the end of the night that you want to scream.

However you work out these social events, if you’re in a long-term relationship, they’re going to be an issue. Best-case scenario, you’re not too far apart on the Introvert/extrovert spectrum, but it seems that opposites really do attract, so sooner or later you have to earn to manage your different temperaments. Here are some ways to do that.

  1. Really hear what the other person needs. When you’re at odds about whether to attend a large function or stay home and watch a movie, dig a little deeper to measure the need below both activities. If you work on these issues early in your relationship and tell the truth instead of blindsiding your partner with a deluge after a string of resentments, listening and hearing will be easier. If your wife’s been working long hours, really needs a night out with friends, and she wants you by her side, that’s different than her wanting you to go out three times a week. The acknowledgment of who your partner is and what they need will go a long way toward helping you come to a mutual solution.
  1. Compromise together. Go to the wedding together on Saturday, whether you really want to or not. Don’t hold it against your partner and do your best to find a way to get what you need, as well. This might mean finding your favorite introvert friend during the reception and sitting with him or her. But the next day, say no to the Superbowl party. The compromise comes in doing the extroverted activity one day, the introverted activity the next.  
  1. Compromise apart. If you’re both telling the truth and you know that neither is going to hold it against the other, head off in separate directions and let it go. A co-worker of mine and his wife do this often. The husband is much more outgoing than the wife, so she joins him in after-work gatherings about once every three times. It’s always great to see her and it’s clear that when she’s there, she wants to be.  When he comes alone, he doesn’t have to worry that she feels out of place or exhausted. He can enjoy himself knowing that she’s home catching up on Homeland and eating popcorn in silence.
  1. Don’t try to change your partner.  We’ve all been in relationships with people we believe we can change. We may have even done it often enough that we realize how futile that is. It doesn’t mean that we can’t alter our attitudes over time or grow in new ways, but trying to make an extrovert into an introvert, or vice versa, is pointless and disrespectful. In truth, one of the things you like best about your extrovert partner is that she is fun and easy-going. And she loves you because you’re quiet and reflective. Trying to impose a new temperament on someone is like pressuring them to have blue eyes instead of brown.
  1. Develop a list of go-to activities that are fun for both of you. This may take a while, but as you begin to notice events that seem workable for both personality types, keep track of them. Maybe going to a dark club and listening to jazz works if it’s just the two of you. The extrovert gets to enjoy the social setting and the introvert enjoys the opportunity to reconnect one-on-one. The same can be said of a wine-tasting trip, dinner with couples who share your introvert/extrovert mix, and even something as simple as bowling. Look for activities that elicit a “that was fun” response from both of you and these can go on the list when your extrovert half says, “What do you want to do tonight?”
  1. Your best bet: Appreciate what you have. You like your extrovert partner’s energy and you love his approach to the world. Meanwhile, he thinks you are the smartest person he’s ever met and he loves that you are so well-read. Enjoy your differences, learn how to be generous grown-ups, and let your partner be who they are. The details can be worked out and you’ll be glad for the problem-solving skills this helps you develop. But the bigger picture is essentially what it is. Know that this is how love works, and be grateful for how you complement each other.

Writer Ginny McReynolds is a retired community college English instructor in Northern California. She blogs at Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Half of Life.

Recommended Reading: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.

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