The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a personality type classification questionnaire based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types. For the past several decades, it has been the most frequently referenced resource on the subject of personality.
I have used a short-form version of the MBTI with most people I’ve worked with in the therapy room since 2000, including more than 500 couples. Many of those couples were seeking answers to a common question: “Are our personality types compatible?”
Before we delve into whether the MBTI is a predictor of compatibility, though, it is important to understand what it is designed to measure.
In the early 1900s, Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, concluded that natural differences in psychological types exist. He believed these differences were present at birth, identifiable at an early age, and did not change much across time. Jung further believed that an individual’s type orientation is determined by the degree to which he or she is, naturally and normally:
- More Extroverted or Introverted
- More Sensing (literal) or iNtuitive (possibilities oriented)
- More Thinking-oriented or Feeling-oriented when drawing conclusions and experiencing emotions
- More Judging (structured) or Perceiving (open-ended)
The MBTI was designed to help identify an individual’s natural response orientation on each of these four dichotomies. It also identifies characteristics and traits known to be common for each of the sixteen types that can be derived from different combinations of response orientations on these dichotomies.
The MBTI assigns a letter, highlighted in bold above, for the response orientation at opposite poles of each dichotomy. (N is used for iNtuition because I was used for Introversion.) A four-letter code is then used to identify each of the sixteen possible psychological (personality) types. For example, because I score toward the Introversion, iNtuition, Feeling, and Perceiving poles, the four-letter code that applies to my personality type is INFP.
The more pronounced your response process is toward one pole on a dichotomy, the more likely traits and characteristics associated with that pole will fit for you. However, many people find that some do not fit at all. For this reason, while the MBTI may provide insight into the nature of one’s personality, it cannot be described as unfailingly accurate.
The terms used for the dichotomy opposites on the MBTI have specific meanings that are sometimes misunderstood. For example, extroverts may view introverts as quiet, shy, withdrawn, possibly depressed or antisocial, withholding, self-centered, or uninvolved. Introverts may view extroverts as talkative, sociable, friendly, noisy, needy, intrusive, or either unable or unwilling to listen. Such assumptions are often inaccurate, of course.
Extroverts tend to be more energized when interacting with others, while introverts draw energy from more introspective, reflective processes. Each type has its strengths.
Let’s take a closer look at the other three dichotomies.
Sensing-oriented people naturally process information based on what is literally happening within the context of past experience, while intuition-oriented people naturally process information from a possible meanings plane—from consideration of alternative possibilities for what is literally happening.
Thinking-oriented people have feelings, and feeling-oriented folks can think. It’s just that thinking-oriented people naturally assess what is happening from a logical assessment of cause and effect, expressing their conclusions in an objective manner. Feeling-oriented people naturally add an additional consideration for how others might feel in making decisions and expressing them.
Individuals with a judging orientation naturally plan future events in advance, while perceiving-oriented people naturally respond more as events play out.
Implications for Relationships
The stronger an individual’s natural response orientation toward one pole of a dichotomy, the greater the likelihood he or she will have difficulty experientially comprehending the natural response process of someone who responds from that dichotomy’s opposite pole. This has particular relevance when addressing the issue of relationship compatibility.
Understanding the nature of personality differences, and acceptance of those differences, is key to lasting harmony.
Contemporary models for understanding individual differences in human behavior are built on an assumption of choice—a belief that human beings can alter their response patterns if they want to. Consequently, when a couple is dealing with a difference of opinion in an area where natural differences are at play, each may believe the other could understand his or her perspective if he or she really wanted to, when that may not be so. The assumption of choice in comprehension can lead to debilitating and perhaps relationship-threatening debates over who is right and who is wrong.
MBTI-based information has been instrumental in my work in helping couples and families resolve their differences. This experience has provided a solid base of empirical evidence to support Jung’s belief that differences are natural and normal and not subject to an option to alter. Understanding the nature of personality differences, and acceptance of those differences, is key to lasting harmony.
With regard to MBTI type orientations and their implications for relationships, I have observed the following:
- Most people I have worked with in therapy have found the general information on traits and characteristics associated with their own type, as well as for the types of significant others, to be accurate.
- This information has consistently facilitated greater self-understanding and self-acceptance, as well as understanding and acceptance of the nature of significant others.
- When the primary issue for a couple was a breakdown in communication, information and education on natural differences was much more helpful in brokering a mutually satisfactory resolution than any conflict resolution model I’ve been trained to use.
- While some pairings of personality types have proved more problematic than others and required more time to resolve, I have yet to work with a couple whose combination of types was inherently incompatible. The degree to which one partner accepted personality differences, however, did factor into outcomes.
In cases where couples were unable to resolve differences, at least one of the following factors has usually been present:
- One half of the couple had already mentally and emotionally disconnected from the relationship. His or her reasons for attending counseling varied, but relationship recovery was not one of them.
- The build-up of resentment was such that understanding the role that natural differences played was not sufficient to facilitate healing.
- The couple, without intention or awareness, repeated relationship-defeating dynamics carried over from before the relationship existed, patterns of responding that an understanding of natural differences was unable to alter.
- With some couples, one or the other partner was not able to comprehend and/or accommodate natural differences in his or her partner’s nature.
- Infidelity. For some couples, the occurrence was situational and nonrecurring, while for others it was chronic. Some in each category stayed together, while others did not.
A Note of Caution
While the characteristics and traits associated with individual differences in MBTI-based types tend to be accurate, the MBTI is broad in nature, addressing response dynamics known to be common among individuals with each type profile. A comprehensive understanding of oneself, separate from others, is far too complex to be captured by a measure with such a design.
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