What happens when you crave a lot of alone time, and your partner needs a lot of friends around? Dr. NerdLove investigates.
My friend April – (AKA Reverse Cowgirl) came to me the other day with a problem she’d been having with her boyfriend. She’d been starting to wonder whether she and her boyfriend of three+ years were just fundamentally incompatible because of all the ways that they just never seemed to managed to click.
“For instance,” she said, “we’ll be talking about some cool event that we just read about and say ‘hey, let’s make a date out of this!’ And so I’ll start making plans for a romantic picnic for two around it… and he invites a half dozen of his closest friends.”
“And then we get into fights because I’m upset that he never seems to enjoy things that are just the two of us as much as when he’s with our friends and he’s telling me that he feels like I’m antisocial most of the time and he enjoys things more when I’m there with him in the group… and I’m left wondering if it’s just that I’m an introvert and he’s an extrovert and that means we’re just never going to work!”
April’s hardly alone with this concern. In fact, it’s an incredibly common question (especially amongst the geekier set, who frequently trend to the introverted): can introverts and extroverts actually date without making each other miserable?
This is What An Introvert Looks Like/ This Is What An Extrovert Looks Like
There are three keys to a successful relationship between an introvert and an extrovert.
The first key is to discard any ideas you may have about what all introverts or extroverts are like and focus on the individual.
For example: I’m an extrovert. But you might never realize it if you don’t catch me at the right moment. After all, I often go out to meals by myself, sitting quite happily at my table in the restaurant with a book. I’ll cheerfully go to movies on my own. I work as a writer – a solitary profession by every stretch of the imagination. I have no problem spending evenings on the couch, marathoning The Last of Us1 or seeing what my Renegade Fem-Shepp is getting up to in a Mass Effect replay.
My wife, on the other hand, is an introvert. Anyone who’s ever met her will start laughing their head off at this. After all, she’s the one who will cheerfully talk your ear off, telling long and involved stories like how she almost met Jared Padelicki.
She networks the way that other people breathe and can connect with people almost instantly. At a party, she’ll be the one in the corner, having a long and intense conversation about Torchwood or getting somebody to tell her his life story. Not behavior you would typically expect from an introvert.
I’m an extrovert… but I’m one who’s just very good at being alone for extended periods of time. In my case, it was born from necessity; growing up, most of my interests were either solitary (like reading) or uncommon (anime, comic books, computers) in my immediate social circle and I didn’t have anyone to share them with. Moving to areas where I didn’t have an immediate social circle meant that I had to learn how to be on my own until I found a new group of friends. But while I’m good at being alone, I can only go for so long before I desperately need to socialize; I alternate between getting literally twitchy with nervous energy and spates of depression when I’m stuck on my own. Most of my favorite activities involves getting together with groups of friends and hanging out, whether recording podcasts, at parties or having folks over to watch Archer and Venture Brothers.
My wife, on the other hand, grew up in Dog’s Ass, Nowhere. When your nearest neighbors could be a mile away and your community is teeny-tiny, you learn how form connections with other people very quickly. But while she’s chatty and outgoing, she’s also the first one to be ready to leave the party. She’s the one who loves to spend all day at home when I have to get out for a few hours and be around people.
Neither of us is what typically comes to mind when you think of an extrovert or an introvert… and that’s the whole point.
When Stereotypes Collide
I bring this up because it’s very easy to fall back into stereotypes about introverts and extroverts. Everybody has ideas of what makes an introvert or an extrovert, or what they’re like… and they don’t necessarily match up with the reality. Not every extrovert is a social butterfly who needs constant stimulation and is afraid of being alone with his thoughts. Not every introvert is a social maladjust who is completely disconnected from the mainstream.
Being an introvert or an extrovert isn’t about being gregarious and fearless or being shy and withdrawn. It’s about where you draw your energy from. Extroverts get charged up by being around people – hanging out with others is how we recharge our mental and emotional batteries. It feels the most comfortable for us, even if we’re not necessarily trying to be the life of the party and the center of attention; the guy hanging at the edges of the conversation who isn’t participating much may very well be a shy extrovert… he’s enjoying the company even if he’s not taking an active part.
An introvert, on the other hand, gets her energy from being more solitary; they get their charge from quiet and contemplative activities. Large groups and incredibly active socializing – at parties, for example – can be draining for them. They’re most comfortable when they’re interacting with people in one-on-one settings rather than trying to take part in some grand gathering. Introverts actively enjoy having some alone-time to just chill out.
The problems arise when people don’t stop to consider the lens through which they view one another. It’s a quirk of the human condition – we tend to assume how we feel and see the world is the default and thus attribute the same views and attitudes to others unless explicitly taught otherwise… and sometimes not even then.
Because introverts are often more solitary or more comfortable in smaller groups, they’re seen as shy, stuck up or even reclusive. Well meaning extroverts may see introverts as being desperately lonely or in need of someone to break them out of their shell like a manic-pixie social worker when in reality, they’re just fine thank you. Meanwhile, because extroverts prefer group activities and enjoy the company of others, they can often seem flighty or even insecure to introverts; many people assume that extroverts are inherently less intellectual or even actively avoid being alone with their thoughts.
Even the people they’re dating often have a hard time not slipping into viewing their behavior through those pesky lenses. Take April and her boyfriend – he assumes that April is antisocial because she doesn’t necessarily want to go out with a bunch of their friends, while April assumes that he doesn’t see her as special when he wants to spend time with her and other people… and while they’re not necessarily wrong, they’re both filtering the other’s behavior through their own presuppositions.
This is where the second key comes in: learning to see things the way your partner sees them.
To continue using April as an example: she feels as though her boyfriend doesn’t appreciate her or care as much about her because it seems as though he doesn’t enjoy being with her as much as he does hanging out with his buddies. But from his perspective, having her with him is what makes those group activities so much more enjoyable; they’re just not the same when she’s not around… in fact, in many ways, he’s lonelier without her, even though he’s surrounded by people.
He, on the other hand needs to recognize that April’s not standoffish or withdrawn when she doesn’t want to spend her free time with a dozen people, it’s that she finds spending time with them exhausting. It’s like exercise; just because a person enjoys running or weight-lifting doesn’t mean that they can do it every single day. They need time off to recharge and recover. April may be willing to hang with a group when she’s had time to relax and build back those energy reserves, but too much stimulus is going to leave her feeling wiped out… and she’d really rather be spending that energy with her boyfriend.
(Also, he desperately needs to pull his head out of his ass and realize that inviting other people on date night is a fucking dumb thing to do… but that’s another matter entirely).
Being willing to consider how your partner sees the world means not judging, criticizing or dismissing his or her choices; telling an introvert he’s antisocial for wanting to stay home is only going to cause a fight. Telling an extrovert that the party she wants to go to will be stupid or that the last thing you want is to listen to a bunch of chattering magpies gossip about their boyfriends is going to make sure that you’re going to be getting the cold shoulder (and sleeping on the couch) for the next week or two.
It also means that you’re going to have to communicate. Using your words is a critical part of any relationship, but even more so if you have conflicting interests. If your introverted girlfriend is the yin to your extroverted yang then you’re going to need to make doubly sure that the two of you are checking in with one another and making sure that your needs are getting met.
Which brings us to the third key for a successful relationship between extroverts and introverts:
Compromise, Compromise, Compromise
Every relationship needs it’s balance; too much seclusion will make an extrovert get twitchy while too much socializing will exhaust the introvert. Both parties need to be willing to find the happy medium to equalize their social needs.
For some, this means designating specific days for particular types of activities. You may agree that Friday night is your “in night”, where you gorge on homemade junk-food and cuddle up on the couch to burn through those episodes of The Vampire Diaries that’ve been getting backed up in the DVR while Saturday nights are for getting together with friends at your favorite bar.
For others it means finding ways that both of you can have your needs met at the same time. An extrovert, for example, who craves time with his friends but doesn’t want to exclude or exhaust his introverted partner may decide that rather than going to a party, he’ll throw a dinner party at home; something small, intimate and comfortable but still helping fulfill his need for interaction. Meanwhile an introvert may go with her extroverted boyfriend to a party but make a point of finding a quiet corner to hang out in or spend time with just one or two people while her boyfriend makes the rounds; at a designated time, they check in with one another and see how they’re feeling. If she’s hit her limit for the day, then they may duck out early, or he may take her home and come back for a while longer.
Another possibility is to embrace the idea of being alone within a crowd. Sometimes the best thing that a cross-mindset couple can do get lost in a world of their own, a little bubble of “us” even in a sea of other people. One of the joys of going 6th Street in Austin, Bourbon Street in New Orleans or any entertainment or bar district is the people -watching. Finding an out-of-the-way corner and watching the parade of humanity go by without being in it can make for an amazing date for introverts and extroverts – the introverts aren’t over-stimulated while the extroverts get more mingling and and hobnobbing than if they were at home or at a park.
Regardless of how you do it, just remember that you need to be considerate of your partner’s needs; just because you think it’s reasonable to go out every night (or to stay in all weekend) doesn’t mean that they’re going to be comfortable. Being willing to make sacrifices for your partner, even if it means stretching the limits of your personal comfort a little, is important. As long as you try to understand their mindset and being willing to adapt and find your balance together, you’ll find that extroverts and introverts not only can date and marry but may very well be exactly what the other needs.
- … and if I never have to run through a room full of clickers with nothing in my inventory but a smoke bomb and a fucking cinderblock again it’ll be too soon. [↩]
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove
Photo: Flickr/Stavros Charakopoulos