“I REALLY WANT TO GO to our neighborhood Christmas get-together,” Therese told her husband, Heath. “I think it’s important for us to get to know our neighbors.”
Heath looked up from his book. “Why? We don’t do anything with those people all year long. I’d rather stay home.”
“We don’t do anything with them because you never want to.” Therese loved hanging out with people, but Heath, after working long hours at his job, preferred staying in. Frustrated, Therese stared at her husband and wondered, Why can’t you be more like me?
As a counselor and life coach, I’ve encountered many people struggling in their marriages with similar situations. We think if our spouses would be more like us, life would be better.
From “I do” to “I don’t”
When we meet our future spouses, our differences often draw us together. She’s loud, and he’s quiet. She’s dramatic, and he’s dependable. He loves adventure, and she loves an evening on the couch watching a good movie. Perhaps we love these differences when we say, “I do,” but over time, we may unintentionally start saying, “I don’t.”
I don’t . . .
- Understand why he acts this way.
- Know how to love her well right now.
- Think he’s happy, even though I’m trying hard.
This disconnect can happen for many reasons, but one of the most prevalent I’ve seen in my work is that each spouse has a different personality type. A people person is married to a private person. The life of the party is married to a wallflower.
When I look at the Creation story in Genesis, I see many complementary pairings—day and night, land and sea, masculine and feminine. I believe God made another complementary pairing—intro-vert and extrovert.
You may have married someone you wish were like you. But you can actually become a more powerful team by understanding and embracing your spouse’s differences. Here are five strategies to help you appreciate your differences and leverage them to build a stronger marriage.
Strategy No. 1: Understand what makes your spouse different
THE FIRST STEP to embracing the differences in your relationship is overcoming myths and misunderstandings about what it means to be an introvert or extrovert. It’s not about how much someone likes small talk. Instead, our brains and nervous systems determine whether we are introverts or extroverts.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that help shape our responses and behavior. Extroverts feel their best with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which acts like caffeine. It revs us up and is released when we have a lot coming at us from the outside, like at a dinner party. In contrast, introverts feel best with a different neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which works more like herbal tea. The chemical is released when we do things like turn inward, focus on a project or have meaningful conversations.
Nervous systems. In general, extroverts expend energy and introverts conserve it. The autonomic nervous system includes two divisions: sympathetic and parasympathetic. While we all use both, Dr. Marti Olsen Laney says in The Introvert Advantage, “Extroverts are linked with the dopa-mine/adrenaline, energy-spending, sympathetic nervous system, [and] introverts are connected with the acetylcholine, energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system.
”Brain pathways. An extrovert’s primary pathway for processing is shorter, more straightforward and externally focused. Extroverts rely more on short-term memory, the here and now. An introvert’s primary pathway for processing is longer, more complex and internally focused. It draws more from long-term memory, taking into consideration the past, present and future. Because of the way they process, introverts often need longer to respond.
These biological differences matter, because without understanding the wiring of introverts and extroverts, we can easily assume that our spouses act in the ways they do simply out of preference or stubbornness rather than because God intentionally designed them to be that way.
Strategy No. 2: Learn what happiness means to your spouse
EXTROVERT DAVE married introvert Sarah. Sarah loves Christmas, so Dave planned a surprise holiday party. He worked on it for weeks and invited all of Sarah’s friends and acquaintances.
After the party, Sarah walked into the kitchen and said, “I’m exhausted.”
Dave hoped to hear, “That was so fun. You’re amazing!” Disappointed, he said, “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you.”
Sarah felt misunderstood; Dave felt unappreciated. No one was happy.
For introvert-extrovert couples, having a happy marriage may mean two very different things since the ways they experience happiness is different.
Extroverts, who rely more on dopamine to energize them, usually experience happiness as enthusiasm and excitement. While introverts, who rely more on acetylcholine to relax them, often experience happiness as calm and contentment.
If Dave and Sarah had known the difference between introvert and extrovert happiness, they could have avoided misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Dave might have considered, How can I help Sarah experience more calm and contentment during this crazy holiday season? Then, instead of planning a surprise party, he could have taken Sarah out for a quiet dinner for two or given her time alone to enjoy wrapping Christmas presents and getting into the Christmas spirit.
To understand your spouse’s version of happiness, ask, “What does happiness actually feel like to you?” As your spouse describes the experience of happiness, encourage him or her to use synonyms, such as calm, exciting or any other happiness words your spouse can think of. Then share your happiness words as well.
Strategy No. 3: Adjust your love-language volume
MICHELLE, who is an extrovert, and John, who is an introvert, work together in a family-owned business. They’ve made it through a challenging year, and Michelle wanted John to know how much she appreciated his hard work and commitment.
On the next team Zoom call, she publicly praised John, and then asked him to say a few words. Put on the spot, John felt awkward and couldn’t wait to get off the call. Michelle spoke his love language, words of affirmation, but she spoke it in a volume that was hard for him to receive. He wished that Michelle had expressed her affirmation privately or in a handwritten note.
Many couples who try to make their marriages happier turn to the five love languages Dr. Gary Chapman identified—words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch and gifts. But some-times extroverts can unintentionally “shout” their love at their introvert spouse, as Michelle did with John. Though she expressed love in his language, it would have been better if she had toned it down so he could accept it.
Once you know your spouse’s love language, ask yourself, What volume will work best?
Strategy No. 4: Pay attention to your different energy needs
AS AN EXTROVERT, Paul likes to have activities most evenings. Amanda, an introvert who inter-acts all day with their two kids, hits her social limit by the time Paul gets home from work. When she tells Paul, “I need a break from the kids,” he interprets that as a desire to get out of the house. So he tells Amanda, “We’re having dinner with the Smiths Friday night!” She feels guilty for needing time alone, so she replies, “Great!” Over time, Amanda is headed for burnout and resentment.
Because of the way they’re wired, extroverts are more energized by external stimulation (what’s happening around them), while introverts are more energized by internal stimulation (what’s happening within them). Extroverts become drained when they don’t have enough going on, and introverts become drained when too much is happening.
Introvert-extrovert couples need to be strategic about getting both of their energy needs met. A starting place can be an energy audit. Individually, write down everything you do for a day or a week. Put a plus sign by what energizes you, a minus sign by what drains you and a question mark if you’re not sure. Then take time to go through your lists together.
The goal isn’t for you both to eliminate all your minuses; those are part of life. It’s seeing whether you can make some changes that will help each of you get your energy needs met. If you’re an extrovert, that may mean you both go out Friday night, but then you take the kids to the park Saturday afternoon so your introvert spouse can enjoy a nap. Both of your energy needs are equally valid; they’re just different.
Strategy No. 5: Embrace the power of those differences
A TURNING POINT in introvert-extrovert marriages happens when you can see as strengths what you typically view as your spouse’s weaknesses or struggles. For example, if you wish your spouse were more outgoing, remind yourself how his or her calm, steady presence brings peace to your home. When you’re caught in critical thoughts, ask yourself, What’s the hidden strength in this? and How was I drawn to this quality when we were dating?
God placed you with your opposite to make you stronger. When you stop focusing on your differences and allow them to motivate you instead, you’ll find you can accomplish more as a team than individually.
My husband, Mark, and I have gone on a breakfast date once a week for nearly 20 years. Early in our marriage we tried to communicate but kept ending up disconnected. Our culture portrays love as a feeling, but in many ways it’s a skill. And, like all skills, it takes practice.
Mark and I needed uninterrupted, face-to-face time with each other. Scheduling time together allowed us to shift from reacting to responding in our relationship. Gradually, we learned to have conversations rooted more in curiosity than criticism, and the skills we developed eventually spilled over into other areas of our life.
From a brain-science perspective, when we sit across from someone and deeply focus on that person, we activate our mirror neurons. These neurons allow us to “sync up” to another person in God-designed ways that deepen our empathy and understanding. Intentional time with each other is one of the most transformational tools in any relationship. And when you’re together, one of the most powerful questions you can ask is, “How can I love you well right now?”
When you begin to appreciate your differences as a couple, you are also better able to extend patience and understanding to each other. Ultimately, embracing your differences will help you see your spouse’s personality not as an obstacle but as a God-given gift that makes you a more powerful team. As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 4:9, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.”