The Introversy Continues

Jonathan Rauch comments on reader feedback about introvert dating and poses a new question

In 2003, The Atlantic published a short essay by correspondent Jonathan Rauch on the trials of introversion in an extroverts' world. The reaction was overwhelming. Rauch was inundated with more enthusiastic mail about the piece than for anything else he'd ever written. Given the number of heartfelt and articulate responses he had already been receiving, Rauch decided to ask readers a follow-up question: "In looking for a mate," he asked, "are introverts better off pairing up with extroverts or with fellow introverts?" We posted the question in January, alongside an interview with him about the piece, and the responses poured in.

We've posted some excerpts here, along with a brief introduction by Rauch and an invitation for responses to his next introverts-related question.

Here at The Atlantic Online, we're out to start an introversy. That's a controversy among introverts. So we asked Atlantic Online readers whether introverts are better off pairing up with extroverts or with fellow introverts.

We didn't quite get a consensus. At least one introvert married an extrovert and went almost nuts. That marriage didn't last. A gay introvert writes wondering how to find introverted same-sex singles, since dating extroverts hasn't worked out.

More often, though, the "yin-yang," introvert-extrovert pairing seems to work surprisingly well—if both partners understand the other's needs. So the answer, perhaps, is: It depends ... but with some effort, an intro-extro relationship can attain an extra richness.

One reader writes, "One of the greatest compliments I have ever given anyone I dated is that being with him was like being alone." That reminds me of something an introverted friend once told me, when I asked him how he kept his sanity living in close quarters with his extroverted wife. His reply: "We've learned to be alone together."

And now, another introversy:

What, if anything, should parents and friends do to help introverted teenagers? [Share your thoughts by email to Selected responses will be displayed.]

—Jonathan Rauch

In looking for a mate, are introverts better off pairing up with extroverts or with fellow introverts?

Read below for excerpts from reader responses...

I believe introverts and extroverts can pair well—though only when both have extremely tolerant and generous personalities. If either party is the least bit selfish or self-absorbed you have a severe problem brewing.

The sex of the introvert is highly important.... As your article states—male introverts are more readily tolerated. Those of us female introverts (being naturally more reflective and intelligent than average) are more threatening to 90% of the American male population. A female introvert, if paired with an extroverted male, must find herself in love with an extremely caring and generous man who is overwhelmingly pleased to see her openly happy. This extroverted man will be one in about 250,000 (from my estimates) and will do whatever it takes to accomplish accommodating his wife/girlfriend's introversion. In my own situation, this exquisite man tries his damnedest to understand and modify his actions when they cause me grave discomfort. I of course understand that he does not usually understand me and I am sure to openly communicate my feelings with him.

I think, as an introvert, that the companionship of an extrovert can be very beneficial. The extroverted partner is like a shield for the introvert in social settings. I caution, however, that the "social" needs of the introvert can become burdensome for the extrovert. The burden is borne by requiring the extroverted partner to carry the load, provide the motivation and energy to engage in the social scene. The intro-extrovert relationship can be a palliative for the introvert, but an absolute chore for the extrovert who must often carry the full load of managing social arrangements and engagements. In the end, as a result of the effort required, the introvert may deprive the extrovert of the oft-needed joy of the social life the extrovert needs to thrive.

Been there done that.

My husband and I are perhaps the most vivid examples of the introvert-extrovert yin/yang pairing. I am, thankfully, an extrovert to the extreme. Not only do I enjoy socializing with people, I am energized by such interaction, and thrive on it. I look forward to meetings with potential clients at which I am to market myself and my law firm like a child awaiting Christmas. I've always attributed the energy boost I receive from meeting new people to the satisifaction of my desperate desire to be liked, by everyone, no matter how short our acquaintance. I've thought of this trait as a personality defect that I use to my professional advantage. Now, I know better. It is just my extroversion at work.

On the other hand, my poor husband is a classic, closet introvert. Jonathan Rauch's article highlighted the most important phenomenon associated with introverts—it is not that they cannot socialize in groups, it is just that it exhausts them to their core to do so. This is why they are so misunderstood, and, usually, grumpy. People meeting my husband in a social setting at first do not realize he is such an introvert—he can be witty, extremely bright and engaging in short bursts. However, we have never, ever, in eleven years of dating and two years of marriage, attended a party or event in which he did not want to leave before I was ready to go. He just cannot sustain that level of interaction for more than a couple hours, even then needing several breaks to recharge. Our close friends used to just consider him a grump, writing him off with a "well, that's just Jim," but in truth, he is merely an undiagnosed introvert. (Not to worry, I've already sent them the guidebook on "Caring for Your Introvert.")

Recognizing our introvert/extrovert dichotomy, my husband has identified the introvert/extrovert anthem, a song by bluegrass artist Jesse Winchester, called "Every Word You Say." It is truly the introvert's ode to his extrovert partner, and we could not resist dancing to this song at our wedding in May 2004. It was us! The version we played at our wedding was performed by Jerry Garcia, in one of his side bands, Legion of Mary. There can be no better expression of the dynamic shared by the introvert/extrovert couple, and I urge everyone reading this to track down Jerry Garcia's exquisite version. For now, the lyrics must suffice:

I'm no good company, I guess that's true
I like my silence, like I love you
But if you feel like talking, talk away
I'm gonna hang on every word you say

The odd thing is that I'm an extrovert with lots of introvert friends. There seem to be two kinds of introverts—ones who are made jittery by the presence of other human beings, and ones who are petulant about the existence of other human beings. The first are easy to deal with, the second are not. The second don't tend to understand extroverts or anyone else that well because they do not value or want connection with other people. The first type value it very much, but only when they feel relaxed enough to open up.

Some extrovert-introvert pairs can make beautiful music together because what one wants to give or receive in any social interaction matches up perfectly with the other person's wishes. But for a pushy extrovert who wants to turn everyone into the life of the party, and for a petulant, impatient introvert who just wishes the rest of humanity didn't exist, things can get much dicier.

I have a whole website dedicated to these issues.

The customary thing is to pair extro and intro according to traditional Myers-Briggs, but there are some pretty odd combinations from a superficial glance. John and Jacqueline Kennedy are the perfect example. She was very introverted. He, very extroverted.

Why do all the "men are from mars" type books assume that women are extroverts and men introverts? I have two X chromsomes and still need a "cave" to retreat to now and again. And why is it assumed that misunderstandings between heterosexual couples are caused by gender-related differences? Maybe, just maybe, it's more to do with variances in personality. With the difficulties that crop up when two people have a relationship. Maybe you can back me up on this, but I haven't noticed that same-sex couples are in accord with each other all the time.

Perhaps we should write a book called "Introverts are from Saturn, Extroverts are from Jupiter".

I just married an extrovert a few months ago. I have always treasured any alone time that I can get, and it takes a all of my energy to "act" like an extrovert for more than a few hours. He has to have people in the house every waking moment, and I get my fill after about two hours and want to just hide in another room and accomplish things other than visiting. I guess it comes down to finding balance in all things, because he does bring more living and memories and relationships to my life, but it also wears me out. I don't think it's healthy for him to have zero alone time to reflect on his life and thoughts, so I'm still working on the compromise part of our social life. If both of us were introverts, maybe we would be really miserable and depressed and have no enjoyment out of life whatsoever, so as long as we both can balance things out, its a great combination.

I was painfully shy and introverted as a youngster and as a young woman. I married an extrovert who was always student body president or spokesman for a singing group or whatever—the consummate politician and schmoozer. But after we had been married a few years, I became the extrovert and he became the introvert. Go figure. We were married for forty years. He died a year ago, and I am finding myself reverting to something in between extrovert and introvert but leaning to introvert.

I'm a female introvert. One problem with an extroverted spouse (I should know, I had one!) is that this person is always wanting to go to parties, to social events, out to dinner with other couples, to family get-togethers. Either the introverted spouse has to go too and be miserable (hearing: "What's the matter, why aren't you having a good time?"), or the introverted spouse stays home, making the extroverted spouse irritated ("Can't you at least come to one of these things?"), and leading other attendees to assume something is wrong with your marriage.

One of the greatest compliments I have ever given anyone I dated is that being with him was like being alone. Being an introvert himself, he took this as the huge compliment it was. Can you imagine saying this to an extrovert?

On the "is it harder for a woman to be introverted," I suspect yes. Women are expected to be warm, nurturing, "people" persons, willing to talk and listen to others for hours. As a female in management, I have been criticized for not being like this at work. As Mr. Rauch said, one becomes very good at putting on the social act, but it takes energy. I need hours and hours alone to recover.

I was married to an extrovert. His social acumen was enticing because he was so charming. Everybody liked him, he had no enemies, he always said the perfect thing at the perfect time. It didn't work out. Remarrying another introvert last August is the best thing that ever happened to me. I don't have to apologize or figure out some way to get out of going to social gatherings because he gets it. We can be together happily, just reading next to each other. Life is good.

As a female, I've always felt pressured to be more socially adept and I resented it. In large part, I married my first husband thinking that some of his extroversion would rub off on me. It took me too long to figure out that what I was was good enough.