Conflict and the Thinker/Feeler Struggle in Relationships

hands tugging on ropeThe thinking/feeling dichotomy was first connected to individual differences in psychological types (personalities) by Carl Jung. It is used in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’s personality typology and addresses natural differences in how individuals make decisions and experience emotions.

It is also the cause of a great deal of tension and conflict for couples that naturally differ on this dichotomy.

The terms used for descriptive purposes here can be misleading. For instance, someone with a feeling response orientation is not inherently more able to feel or less able to think than someone with a thinking response orientation; and someone with a thinking orientation is not inherently more able to think or less able to feel than someone with a feeling orientation (Reinhold, 2007).

These terms are used to address fundamental differences in the perceptual and experiential processes automatically triggered when thinking- and feeling-response-oriented individuals are sorting out and expressing what they are thinking and feeling. (Please note that this interpretation differs significantly from those of Carl Jung and the authors of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.)

Although human beings are aware that people differ in how they come to conclusions and experience and express emotions, few understand that these differences in self-expression are driven by innately different perceptual and experiential frames of reference. Of particular note is a fundamental difference in the experience of emotions when conflicts arise—a difference of such magnitude that role-reversal comprehension is not possible. These differences are a constant in interactions between thinking and feeling individuals, easily confirmed by observation of one’s personal and professional relationships.

Those with thinking response orientation:

  • Process thoughts and experience emotions with an objective, fact-based frame of reference.
  • Base decisions on objective criteria of cause and effect.
  • Automatically seek a logical explanation for what is happening when conflicts arise.
  • Have a self-grounded sense of logical consistency in thought, action, and emotion.
  • Interpret anything expressed or done that does not make logical sense as automatically invalid.

Those with feeling response orientation:

  • Are wired to facilitate harmony in human relationships.
  • Have a natural sensitivity to issues of fairness and inclusion.
  • Are tuned in to the tone of communication. If it is not said nicely, it is not nice.
  • Are susceptible to feeling guilty or bad out of proportion to objective reality when conflicts arise.
  • Have a susceptibility to feeling hurt and rejected when responded to in an emotionally neutral or blunt manner.

Thinking/Feeling Couples

The usual cause of difficulty for couples that differ on this dichotomy comes from a fundamental difference in how they experience and express emotions. The moment harmony is disrupted, most feeling-response-oriented individuals feel bad, as if they have done something wrong. Knowing they have not, in fact, done something wrong does not usually help. They feel bad anyway.

When these feelings are triggered, they may immediately apologize, hoping to restore harmony and neutralize the guilt they are experiencing, or they may get upset with their partner for doing something that caused them to feel that way. Neither of these responses makes much sense to a thinking-response-oriented individual.

Why would a person feel guilty and bad simply because someone disagreed with them; much less suggest that the other is at fault for causing them to feel that way? From the thinking-oriented perspective these responses do not make logical sense and are therefore invalid.

Choice is not an option here. Very much like the degree to which someone is left-handed, right-handed, or ambidextrous, the manner in which feeling- and thinking-oriented individuals experience and express thoughts and feelings is natural and normal—just different.

The Challenge in Communication

In essence, two naturally disparate perceptual frames of reference for making sense out of the same reality have been activated. The feeling partner seeks validation for how they are feeling about the situation, while the thinking partner seeks validation for why they think their partner’s feelings do not make logical sense. Neither can provide a response that meets the other’s criterion for being heard.

Without intention or awareness, the explanations that each provide for justifying their own natural and normal responses de facto invalidate the natural and normal responses of their partner. Issues of little import can trigger emotionally charged exchanges that leave both parties psychologically battered, blaming each other for the damage done, while the issues themselves remain unresolved. The conflict resolution challenge is significantly magnified when the couple also differs on the extroversion-introversion dichotomy.

Conflict Resolution Approach

I have been using a natural differences questionnaire based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator with all couples and families since 2000. Information on natural differences has proven to be consistently accurate.

In fact, the accuracy of the information above is such that most thinking-response-oriented partners have been able to accept its validity. Feeling-response-oriented partners have usually been more ambivalent. Although the information provides concrete validation regarding their emotional sensitivity and reactivity, it does not provide them with much relief from the feelings that get triggered when conflicts arise.

If they accept the premise that natural and normal differences in response orientations are at play, they have to acknowledge that their partner

  1. cannot experientially relate to how they are feeling when conflicts arise and, therefore,
  2. is not at fault for the feelings their comments can trigger.

The inequity inherent to this difference in experiencing emotion is such that some feeling-response-oriented partners have great difficulty accepting it. Fortunately, once most thinking-oriented partners have a logical explanation for their partner’s feel-based responses, they have been able to soften their responses in general and become more considerate and accommodating when conflicts arise. This change has helped many feeling partners contain the resentment they automatically experience during conflict.

The intensity of the explosive exchanges that some thinking/feeling couples are dealing with is such that adherence to a timeout rule is an absolute necessity if they hope to replace their destructive conflict resolution process with a healthier one. It is understandable why some feeling-response-oriented partners have a hard time adhering to this time out rule. After all, extroverted/feeling-oriented individuals have a particularly difficult time letting go before their partner has acknowledged the validity of how they are feeling.

The fact remains that once an issue has become emotionally charged and abusive, the possibility of a meaningful resolution no longer exists. Partners with strong extroversion, intuition, and feeling-response orientations may have a particularly difficult time accommodating this timeout rule.

The level of psychic distress (disruption of self) that some experience is so extreme that efforts by their partner to withdraw may trigger desperate, even violent behaviors to prevent their partner’s exit before a resettling response has been provided. However, a way must be found to contain these emotions if they hope to replace their destructive process with a healthier one.

Consequently, depending on the perceived volatility of the conflicted exchange, the person calling for a timeout may:

  1. Agree to a future time to reconvene and try again, before their next counseling appointment.
  2. Wait until their next counseling session to address the issue.
  3. Contact the counselor to see if an earlier date can be scheduled to meet.

The timeout is almost always called for by the thinking partner and resented by the feeling partner.

Tip for thinkers: Seek to understand and accommodate your partner’s areas of sensitivity rather than attempt to help them understand why they should not feel that way.

Tip for feelers: Use logic-based constructs when explaining why they are upset. Example: “Even though you do not understand why I get upset when you say that, the fact remains that every time you say that I get upset. Given the predictability of my response, why do you keep saying that?”

Once most couples realize that natural differences are at play, and that neither is intentionally responding the way they do in order to get his or her own way, they are able to accommodate and compromise in areas that had not been possible before.

Reference:
Reinhold, Ross. (21 March, 2007). E-mail correspondence.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mike Jackson, MFT, therapist in South Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 18 comments
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  • evan

    evan

    February 20th, 2014 at 8:01 AM

    I didn’t realize that there was such a deep way to look at the many different ways that couples can process their emotions, thoughts and feelings!

  • Mary S

    Mary S

    February 20th, 2014 at 2:34 PM

    This theory may apply to some T’s and F’s, but it oversimplifies and ignores the vast variation within T’s and within F’s; this vast variation within one dichotomy is why there are four dichotomies in the Jung/Myers-Briggs classifications, not just one. (And I think that viewing these differences as dichotomies is one weakness of the theories. It ain’t that simple.)

  • Andrew

    Andrew

    February 20th, 2014 at 10:41 PM

    … I really appreciate this rationale from Michael. It expresses my own experiences as an extraverted feeling intuitive – (FN) – in relating to my wife of fifty years, who, conflicted or otherwise as a classic, talented, introverted thinking sensaid, (T’S’) deals with the tensions (me) in precisely the ways that Michael describes! And my response to ‘hang on’ and attempt to immediately resolve the ‘crisis’ makes things worse. I regularly experience, for apparently no reason as far as she is aware, the pain which is so well described in this piece. The realisation that I am now holding is that it is me who has been in the grip of the complex all these years, not my wife! Thank you Michael

  • Mike Jackson

    Mike Jackson

    June 13th, 2018 at 1:52 PM

    Sorry to be so late in responding! If I did not make it clear in my article, these differences are natural and normal. Being more extroverted you will naturally have difficulty letting go until you get a response that helps you resettle internally. Mary S’s comments above are correct in the sense that an in-depth understanding of how you process thoughts and experience emotions requires an understanding of your four letter MBTI type code. The key to it all will be found in your temperament (NF). Go to my website, NaturalPersonalityInstitute.com, and then to the bottom of the home page and double-click where it says ‘Click here to access info on temperaments’ and read the section on the NF Temperament. Knowing your wife’s core temperament can also help to better understand how she will tend to, in general terms, take in and respond regarding thoughts and feelings. Again my apologies for not responding much sooner, Mike

  • Pauline

    Pauline

    February 21st, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    It may not be a simple solution, but this is definitely at play in my own marriage. But it is a little reversed because I am the thinker and my husband is more of the feeler and this causes huge conflicts with us at times. I want to be more rational and more practical while everything that he says and does is ruled by his heart. I am all for being in tune with your feelings but that shouldn’t rule out what you know is rationally right. See here is the conflict and we are not even working on something together, I am just trying to explain the differences that we experience!

  • hudson

    hudson

    February 24th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    A timeout rule for couples?
    I like it.
    There have been many arguments in my relationship that looking back on I can see how they could have been diffused just a little if either of us would have agreed to step away from the situation for even five minutes before speaking and discussing any further.

  • nugat

    nugat

    September 3rd, 2014 at 2:30 AM

    This is so spot on, it hurts.

    One thing different in our relationship (I: intovert thinker, she: extrovert feeler) is that she doesn’t think she did something bad or feels hurt, but instead immediately feels pissed off and starts dishing out further aggressive and inflammatory statements.
    Only the timeout rule worked for me in these situations and I’m beginning to grow quite weary of it.

    Thank you.

  • gooder

    gooder

    January 25th, 2016 at 10:18 PM

    This is so accurate. I hate to admit it but I am the EF and he is the IT. I really resonate with the last section ereferring to the psycvic distress. I can get so overwhelmed that I get to a vicious point like described.like Nugat said sometimes I even surpass upset and head straight to anger. I believe that could be in combination with my GAD. This article was very eye opening, I came across it after realizing that he was a logicalperson, while I’m emotional. I hope to take away from this article and instill what I have learned on my own relationship – as it is desperately needed.

  • Mike Jackson

    Mike Jackson

    February 10th, 2016 at 9:41 AM

    Understanding this is a normal Feelings-oriented reaction can be helpful. With that being said, it is also true that understanding this does not often give Feeling oriented individuals much relief from the feelings that get triggered in these exchanges with Thinking oriented. There is an article on my website, NaturalPersonalityInstitute called Conflict Resolution: A New Model that you might find of some use, Mike

  • Linda

    Linda

    July 4th, 2016 at 1:25 PM

    Thank you. The article was, in my estimation, well written and made no attempt to take sides with either the thinker or the feeler. While most of us would agree that no solution in couples work is simple, this article at provides a starting point. for both to understand the negative reactions and feelings they are experiencing. That being said, it would seem to be the imperative for both the thinker and the feeler in any couples relationship to then pursue further information on their own. Thank you again for writing such an interesting and helpful article.

  • Mike Jackson

    Mike Jackson

    June 13th, 2018 at 2:06 PM

    Hi Linda.
    Sorry to be so late in responding. You can get additional information from my website, NaturalPersonalityInstitute.com. If you do not already know your MBTI four-letter code, download the short version type questionnaire from my website and fill it in. You will then have a four letter code to work with. There are two very important, interconnected pieces of info in that code, 1. Your core temperament (NF, NT, SJ or SP) and 2. Your MBTI personality type which is actually the manner in which you will tend to express your temperament. For instance, my MBTI code is INFP. My temperament, the foundation for experiencing thoughts and expressing emotions is NF and the manner in which I tend to express my NF core is through introspection as events play out rather than in a structured fashion. Hope this helps, Mike

  • pamala

    pamala

    June 13th, 2018 at 3:00 PM

    Hi Mike,
    I am familiar with the MBTI; can you suggest a site someone can use to take the MBTI?

  • Mog

    Mog

    September 3rd, 2017 at 10:28 AM

    I think I am mainly introvert but also quite extrovert. However I think my ‘feeling’ side causes me to overthink and worry about being too introvert or prevent me from enjoy social events because I ‘feel’ too much. Even after a social event I am over feeling. I think I need to think about this, it confusing my husband. I / he never know if I am having a good / bad time.

  • Jeff

    Jeff

    September 22nd, 2017 at 11:54 AM

    Without hurting any feeling, I’d like to ask, is there a certain “type” that is more prone to depression? What about suicide? Thank you. ~Jeff

  • Cleo

    Cleo

    May 12th, 2018 at 4:51 AM

    I can’t help but to think that this is too simplistic, and the tone I pick up is one that slightly blames the feeler for having feelings, which is what my thinking partner attempts to do because he see me as having a problem because I have feelings. If we disagrees, his argument that never changes is that he has come to the logical solution and if I try to point out that his logic is illogical in some situations, he gives me the silent treatment until he believes I see things his way. As the feeler in the relationship, I find myself stepping back each time and becoming more and more detached from him. He sees it as I’m coming to my senses, but what I am coming to is the realization that I will always be wrong and never be right as long as I am myself. He doesn’t realize I am checking out of the relationship. Then he can logically deal with that, which I’m sure he will.

  • Pamala

    Pamala

    June 12th, 2018 at 3:51 PM

    cleo I understand. The article also sounded like the feeling person is at the greatest loss, but I believe “thinkers” are more the norm than feeling types. I hate being a feeling type. I wish I did not feel panic when a thinker tells me they need to leave or be left alone after a conflict. I absolutely panic. embarrassing to say the least. I need to find a way to take care of myself and my feelings; I am always looking for validation; I just want to validate myself and take care of my feelings and not need or want anyone to have to understand…..now that’s logic for me!

  • Mike Jackson

    Mike Jackson

    June 13th, 2018 at 3:33 PM

    Hi Pamala:
    Go to my website,NaturalPersonalityInstitute.com. On the far right side of the bar near the top of the homepage is a short form version of the MBTI you can download and fill in. You will then have a four letters MBTI type code. That code will identify your core temperament (NF, NT, SJ or SP) and the manner in which you express your temperament in action. For instance, my MBTI type code is INFP. My temperament is NF and my mode of expression my temperament in action is through introspection while responding as events play out rather than in a structured manner.
    Once you have identified your two letter temperament type go to the last click on option near the bottom of my homepage and read the general info for individuals with your temperament core. Then go back to the homepage and click on the second click on the option that takes you to the 16 possible MBTI types and go over the one that has general info for individuals with your four letters core. I hope this info increases your self-understanding and acceptance. If you have an NF core it may not provide much relief from the feelings that get activated. If your partner is receptive, sharing this info may help him better understand and accommodate your natural sensitivities, Mike

  • Mike Jackson

    Mike Jackson

    June 13th, 2018 at 2:22 PM

    Hi Cleo
    The article was intended to clarify natural differences, differences that are normal but often misunderstood. There is no fault associated with these differences just challenges when one or both of a couple are unable to acknowledge their differences as normal.

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