As I read aloud from the book, I could tell that my girlfriend was increasingly upset by what she was listening to. It was nearly a decade ago and my then-girlfriend and I had been learning more about ourselves by working our way through a personality system called ANSIR. I was reading a section of a book which discussed a long-term pairing of her type and my type.
“Then we don’t have any chance, do we?” she said with tears in her eyes once I finished.
I was at a stage in our relationship when I thought we probably should split up. For me, the book was just pointing out obvious problems between us that needed work. In a way, I was letting this book guide us toward the breakup that I thought I wanted and that I thought was right.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation lately and about a lot of the discussions she and I had during that period. Was I right in believing that our personality differences were driving our problems? Was she right in concluding we had no chance because of what the book said about our core differences?
For the last few months, I’ve been reading and listening to everything I can find about the Enneagram personality system — and what I’ve read convinces me that she and I were both wrong. Our problems weren’t because we had personality differences. Instead, our problems were because we both had issues that kept us from being emotionally healthy people — and our unresolved issues were causing personality differences to surface and clash rather than functioning in ways that could have allowed us to complement each other as we could have if we had been emotionally healthy.
I’ve always been driven to understand the women I was romantically involved with. I care deeply about emotions and how people connect with each other and how they push each other away because of emotional issues. I always wanted to understand whoever I loved — and I still do — because how can you possibly express love properly to someone whose motivations and needs you don’t even understand?
Over the years, I’ve used a number of personality systems. A psychiatrist introduced me to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) while I was still in college and I found it very useful. (I’m an INFP, although the T/F function is very close.) I later discovered the now-defunct ANSIR personality typing system and loved it because it seemed to peg me more more correctly than any system I’d ever tried. (On ANSIR, I was a visionary/visionary/idealist.) I’m not a fan of systems that use the “Big Five personality traits” at the core. They might have statistical validity in studies, but I don’t find them useful in predicting or understanding behavior. I’ve also taken many other tests, including the DISC personality system that’s popular in the corporate world.
My reading and thinking about personality types led me to see people as puzzle pieces that fit together differently based on their types. I’m oversimplifying, but Type A and Type B should fit together for romance or work, for instance, although Type A and Type Z might not.
But I recently had an insight that completely destroys that notion — or at least makes it seem like only one part of the puzzle. It’s based on something I’ve learned through the Enneagram system.
While most systems seem to say, “This is what you tend to be,” the Enneagram says, “These are your core fears and motivations. When you’re emotionally healthy, this is what you tend to be, but when you’re emotionally unhealthy, this other thing is what you tend to be.”
When my ex-girlfriend and I were looking at our personality types in the ANSIR system, I was looking at type being somewhat deterministic: “Because I am this type and you are that type, we’re not going to work.” Looking back on it — and seeing us through the lens of the Enneagram — I see it entirely differently. At the core, our types weren’t incompatible. We were both simply in a very emotionally unhealthy place.
If you’re familiar with the Enneagram and know me at all, you won’t be surprised to know that I’m a Type 4, which is called the Individualist or the Romantic. Enneagram teacher Helen Palmer says the Type 4 is the most complex of all the types. (Some might simply call us weird and incomprehensible.)
If you’re interested, take a look at the description of Type 4. That link is a description by Riso and Hudson at the Enneagram Institute, which calls us “The Sensitive, Introspective Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental.”
(Because the Enneagram is a system based on oral tradition going back decades and possibly a hundred years or more, there’s not one authoritative source. There are different schools of thought that see things slightly differently, but the basics are all the same.)
This is already way too long without getting into the specifics of what makes a Type 4 different and how the type fits into the overall system, but I want to point out something interesting. In the description of the type above, there’s a section toward the bottom which tells what a Type 4 is like on nine different levels of emotional health.
As I look through those levels, I realize that I’ve seen myself as emotionally healthy as a level 2 or 3, but I’ve also been as emotionally unhealthy as a level 7.
When my type is functioning as high as level 2, he can be, “Self-aware, introspective, on the ‘search for self,’ aware of feelings and inner impulses. Sensitive and intuitive both to self and others: gentle, tactful, compassionate.”
But when someone of my type is as unhealthy as a level 7, here’s what it says: “When dreams fail, become self-inhibiting and angry at self, depressed and alienated from self and others, blocked and emotionally paralyzed. Ashamed of self, fatigued and unable to function.”
I know what each of those feels like and I recognize the other steps along the way described by the different levels. When I’m functioning at the higher levels, I like myself better and I’m more creative and productive. I have more to offer to others. But when I am miserable and unhappy, I can fall to the horrible ways of level 7 — the anger, depression, alienation, shame and fatigue. I recognize every bit of that.
I’ve also realized through studying the Enneagram that I tend to be attracted to women who are Type 3, Type 4 or Type 5, which is interesting because 3 and 5 are considered the “wings” of the Type 4, meaning one or both of those types has a strong influence on the person. Types 2, 3 and 4 are part of the “feeling triad,” and those people are the most strongly emotional of all the types. Type 5 is in the “thinking triad” and they tend to be far less emotional.
When I look at my attractions more closely, I see that I can initially be attracted to the brilliantly rational Type 5, but I tend to quickly lose interest because I don’t perceive that their emotional experience as running deep enough for me. With women who are Type 4, I can recognize a kindred soul, but I end up feeling as though most of them are too deep in their emotions to ever be part of something concrete and real — and I’m painfully aware that I need someone as a partner who is more grounded to help pull me from my world of emotions and find ways to accomplish things based on the creativity that my type brings.
And that brings me to Type 3.
The Type 3 and the Type 4 are both in the “feeling triad,” but we process feelings in very different ways. We both experience deep and complex emotions, but the Type 4 internalizes all feelings — and the Type 3 has a strong tendency to repress those same feelings. This confuses people around a Type 3, because that person can be very oriented toward success and achievement — because of having been taught that was the way to be loved and accepted — but if the mask ever slips, people will be subjected to a torrent of emotion from the Type 3 which they had no idea existed in the person. This can leave the Type 3 looking somewhat bi-polar to those who don’t understand what’s going on — and it can leave the Type 3 very confused at times.
The Type 3 is called the Achiever. He or she is a “Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptable, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious,” according to the Riso-Hudson description of Type 3. As I’ve read books and articles about the Enneagram (and listened to recorded teachings by Enneagram experts), I’ve realized that the women I fall for most are in this type.
I fall for a Type 3 because I see what she can be at her healthiest, but I’ve realized the relationships have tended to fall apart when they’re at their most unhealthy.
At a level 2 of emotional health, the Riso-Hudson description says one of those Type 3 women would be “self-assured, energetic, and competent with high self-esteem: they believe in themselves and their own value. Adaptable, desirable, charming, and gracious.” That’s what I’ve seen in such women at their best — and it’s what I’ve wanted from them.
But at a level 7 of emotional health — equivalent to the unhealthy level I’ve seen from myself — one of those Type 3 women would be very different: “Fearing failure and humiliation, they can be exploitative and opportunistic, covetous of the success of others, and willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to preserve the illusion of their superiority.” And without being specific about any particular woman or about which levels I’ve experienced with different ones, I’ve experienced some of those unhealthy things with Type 3s.
It would be very easy for me to point to unhealthy emotional development in a woman I’ve loved and say, “See? Your issues are responsible for the failure of our relationship,” but it’s almost always more complicated than that.
Years ago, I was talking with a psychologist and I discussed the new boyfriend of a very unhealthy Type 3 with whom I’d had a bad breakup. I told her that I wished I could know what he was like. She said she didn’t know anything about him specifically, but she could tell me with certainty that he was dysfunctional and emotionally unhealthy.
“Someone who is emotionally unhealthy wouldn’t be attracted to [my ex] at this point,” my psychologist said gently. “The fact that he wants her tells me he has serious issues, even though we have no idea what they are.”
She went on to point out that the issues that I was trying to work through at the time were the dysfunctions in me that made me attracted to an equally dysfunctional woman.
I did a lot of work on myself during that period and I grew a lot. I’ve continued to grow — to the point that I wouldn’t have been attracted to someone as disturbed as my ex was at the time. (She might be perfectly healthy by now. I have absolutely no way of knowing.)
But I’ve learned a couple of things relevant to this whole notion of relationships and mental health.
First, some of us were damaged in ways that are very deep and that damage has helped to mold our personalities in ways that are both good and bad.
In Helen Palmer’s book, “The Enneagram,” she said that a Type 4 is typically shaped “from a history of abandonment — or at least the perception of abandonment — if it wasn’t literally that one of the parents left. There’s a great deal of charge, of concern, about the possibility of re-abandonment. And so when a friendship develops, there’s always this edge of concern on the part of the Four, ‘How long will this last? Is this permanent or will I be abandoned and left alone again?'”
And she’s right when it comes to me. I’m terrified of being abandoned. I can fear that so much that I push someone away — in the unconscious fear that since I’m going to be abandoned anyway, I might as well get it over with.
So some of us have been deeply damaged by things that we experienced — programming, if you like — and we’re going to have to live with the consequences of what we’ve been through. A part of this is recognizing that we can’t magically make that damage go away.
The second thing is that since people tend to attract others who are roughly as healthy — or unhealthy — as they are in the emotional sense, it’s tremendously important that both people recognize this — and that both people are committed to continuing to grow and heal.
These insights lead to two inescapable conclusions:
— If two people are at different levels of emotional health, they will not have a healthy relationship and probably won’t even be attracted to one another.
— If only one person (or worse, neither) is willing to work hard to grow and get more emotionally healthy — as individuals and as a couple — a relationship is already dead, even if the people stay together and pretend to be happy together. They are living a lie.
When I was trying to figure out what to do with the relationship I started talking above, I made the mistake of thinking that she and I were just too different in some core ways. I was wrong. We were both simply emotionally unhealthy — and we weren’t growing well enough to save our relationship, because we didn’t understand what was going on.
(Although she started counseling while we dated, she later admitted to me that she used to “fake progress” for me, because she knew I wanted her to get more healthy and she couldn’t figure out how. I was clueless enough to believe all the problems were with her, but my own attraction to her as she was should have been proof that I was equally dysfunctional at the time.)
We like to blame the other person when our relationships fail. It’s easy for us to see their faults. As I’ve been struggling — for weeks — to figure out how to explain some of this, I ran across something from a counselor who writes about personality disorders and works with clients trying to overcome such issues.
“Before you start deciding what’s wrong with your partner, figure out what’s wrong with you for choosing him or her,” Shari Schreiber wrote. That strikes me as very insightful.
At this point, I’m not concerned with finding a woman who is some magical perfect fit for me. Instead, I’m concerned with finding somebody who recognizes her own issues and accepts mine — someone who’s just as committed to growing and learning as I am, someone who doesn’t see getting married as the end of growth together, but as the beginning.
Finding the right fit — right personality, right goals, right values — isn’t easy, but settling for the wrong person and settling into a long-term emotionally unhealthy marriage would be far worse than being alone.
Note: I haven’t even scratched the surface of explaining the Enneagram system and why it’s a powerful tool for understanding and change. There are many good resources, but if you’d like a good one-page summary, try this one. I have a lot more to say about this subject, but it seems to be too personal and complicated for me to write effectively about it, so this is going to have to do for now.