"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"
"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here."
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
"Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here," exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.
--Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
I've read a fair number of online resources that try to guide the various Myers-Briggs personality types on matters of relationships and romance. Especially regarding the particular pitfalls and difficulties with them. You probably are landing here if you are INTP and have found those basic discussions not entirely helpful or insightful.
The general view of INTPs in relationships goes something like this. INTPs tend not to show emotion or value emotion. Since they aren't in touch with their partners' emotions, they don't give enough emotional reassurance, leaving their partners feeling unloved. The root of the problem, then, would appear to be that the supposed avoidance of emotions by INTPs is fundamentally at odds with love and its expression.
But, my friends, that's not nearly good enough, is it? Or especially accurate. I doubt it was written by an INTP, that's for sure. As I said in my earlier articles, INTPs are highly emotional. And passionate. Some other mechanism or friction must be responsible for turning our Harlequin romances into SpongeBob SquarePants episodes.
So what is really going on behind the scenes that rots the plumbing of our romantic relationships?
When I tackle a problem, I always look for the fuel. The core, fundamental reason it happens. In this case, how do our cognitive differences from other personality types create conflict and discontent on both sides of the equation? That's our challenge for today. So, I poked, I pondered, I pried, (and then ran out of P-verbs), and what I found hiding down under the folds of OUR robes are two naughty children. Most of the time, they make us proud. Sometimes, they're ugly little bastards. And they take delightful pleasure in screwing up our romantic lives.
Let me introduce them.
Evil Twin #1: hyperMindfulness
There are good traits and bad traits in humans. Helpful and hurtful. But even great traits often come with a price. (And some of bad ones probably come with a benefit.) For example, extreme height comes in very handy if you want to be a professional basketball player. It helps you to excel in the game. You dunk that ball hard and pretty. And it even lets you be a human crane when someone can't reach the teapot on the high cabinet.
Being uber-tall, however, also means that you'll have to duck through every doorway you pass your entire life. And collect head bruises when you don't. The same trait that allows you to excel in one context becomes a handicap in another. An INTP trait that I'm going to call "Mindfulness" is very much like that. (Note: The word "mindfulness" is a much-used term in Buddhism, psychology, and other philosophies. Although my use of the word is almost entirely consistent with those uses, I want to make clear that I am using the word in my own way and do not intend to rely on those other definitions.)
We are the encyclopedia writers (see Chapter 1)--the theorists and students of intricacy. How do we do it? It all starts with a strong drive to perceive the world, analyze our observations, gain understanding, then store the results. It is a conscious, directed process. It is not breezy or hit-or-miss. It's lights on, not lights off. It is Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a focused mental state in which we are primed and prepared for input and analysis. It has a few particular attributes: (1) you must be aware that you are perceiving (seeing, hearing, tasting…i.e., taking in information), (2) you must be aware that you are thinking about your observations and patterning them, and (3) you must have the goal of remembering and integrating new information. Of course, all people experience mindfulness, regardless of type. INTPs, however, don't commonly leave it. We usually have to consciously decide to rest, to succumb to exhaustion, or to (temporarily) immerse in a feeling moment.
Mindfulness is good, right? I think so. So why does it turn naughty? How does it misbehave?
Do you remember being a kid giddy with excitement about something you wanted? I mean pure, over the top excitement. Non-rational excitement. I remember being six years old and desperate for a Spiderman web shooter that strapped to your wrist. I think you even had to mail order the thing. I dreamed about all the amazing tasks I would be able to accomplish with my righteous Spiderman skilz. Point, bend wrist, then thwap! I hounded my parents until I could have it. (No, it wasn't expensive.)
Were you ever hyped about something like that? I'm sure. Here's the question--how long did it last?
I quickly discovered the limitations of my spring-loaded, plastic toy. The poor design. The fragility. The string that really didn't let the dart fly very well. The clear fact was that I was not going to be doing any of those amazing things I imagined. Another personality type might have haven been undeterred by the reality. They might just PRETEND. Not only did my careful (and natural) deconstruction of the object eliminate my ability to enjoy the toy, I felt embarrassed for being excited in the first place. I should have known better. I shouldn't have been such a sucker. My lesson, I hoped, would be useful in avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
Put another way, have you ever seen a painted masterpiece in a museum? Okay, how about a paint-by-numbers kit? What would happen if you overlay one over the other? The now deconstructed masterpiece doesn't feel so magical anymore, does it? Mindfulness can be the magic-killer. And that's when our first evil twin is born. When Mindfulness becomes hyperMindfulness, or Mindfulness gone too far. Here's a more painful, but pertinent question. Think about some of the times that SOMEONE ELSE brought you something that they were giddy with excitement about.
You just felt a sinking feeling, didn't you?
What did you do? Well, you deconstructed/analyzed the thing and deflated all the excitement for the other person. You killed it. You turned the smile upside down. I know I've done it.
Mindfulness went too far. Clueless hyperMindfulness barged in and sat right on the birthday cake. If we are experienced with this sort of "mistake," we might even try hard not to speak our mind when we want to deconstruct. We try not to let the analysis slip out. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t. But man, are we bad at faking excitement. Usually, the best we can do is say nothing. We can't whip up emotions we aren't feeling.
In relationships, we need to get competent at keeping Mindfulness from progressing to hyperMindfulness. Sometimes, the most important thing is not objective truth. Sometimes the feelings of the other person need to supersede. We get emotional thrills out of logical truth, even when it comes from someone disagreeing with us. We are energized when someone cares enough to gain knowledge with us. Most everyone else, however, wants something very different. They want approval, praise, or their own flavor of understanding. Often, they want to share an emotional experience. And they want it at the expense of truth, if necessary. That fuel doesn’t resonate with us, but it's very important to them.
More on hyperMindfulness and fighting it later.
Evil Twin #2: The Persistent Reaction
hyperMindfulness doesn't play alone. It has a sibling that multiplies the destruction when the two get together. As usual, we'll dig at identifying it through an analogy. (I love analogies in case you haven't noticed by now.)
Imagine you're five years old, and someone has decided they're going to introduce you to a wonderful thing called baseball. They explain, "I'm going to throw you this ball, and you're supposed to catch it."
You nod. They wind up. They throw.
And you catch the ball with your face.
Tears, apologies, and cold compresses ensue. But what do you do the next time a ball is thrown at you? Maybe run. Maybe dodge it. Maybe reposition yourself for a catch with your hands, but protect your face at the same time. One thing for sure is that you're never going to just stand there and watch the ball hit your nose again. You won't do that on the next throw. You won't do it a year later. You won't do it twelve years later. You have a Persistent Reaction to a ball thrown at you.
Now, let's flip the tables from a negative to positive lesson. An ice cream truck frequents your neighborhood. You like getting ice cream. It rocks. As an INTP, you probably take note of when the truck tends to come. You note how much things cost. You note how much you need to have in hand to get what you want. You bug your mom in advance. You make sure you have pockets for the money. All of these observations go into a construct that allows you to be fully prepared for when the truck shows up.
Those structures burn in for INTPs. You don't even have to try to remember them. Everything about your brain and personality is driven to deconstruct, analyze, and store information in order to maximize your success. And once you have a piece of information, you generally don't forget it. Ever. On the other hand, your scatter-brained neighbor can't seem to get his act together to score the ice cream. No matter how much emotion he pours into wanting it, he forgets to take care of some part of the equation and royally screws it up.
The Persistent Reaction is a direct outgrowth of our encyclopedia creation. While Mindfulness is about writing the encyclopedia, Persistent Reaction is about making good use of the pages once written. Learning only has meaning if you hold onto the lesson, and we excel at integration and recall. When A happens, we know that we maximize the opportunities if we do B. If A1 happens, then we do B1. If A1-4c-16A222F happens…well, you know. It's all in there, linked together in our brains.
A transient reaction, however, is based on the moment it happens and no more. It comes. It goes. It is not ascribed with any special meaning. Most people classify emotions as transient reactions. You've probably heard things like this: I was mad, but I got over it; I was just in a mood; just ignore it; it didn't mean anything. I figure that most people live alongside a massive trashcan where many of the day's experiences get tossed and forgotten. Seen one way, that can be very wasteful. So many lost opportunities to learn. However, seen another way, life can stay very fresh each day. Even common events remain a surprise, because even if it happened before, it isn't remembered. Sometimes I envy that kind of brain.
So, now let's place ourselves in one of those romantic relationships we're hoping to excel in. We are Mindful. Very Mindful. We are learning and deconstructing and reassembling our understanding of the person, of ourselves, and of the relationship.
That's good. That's what we do. We are great at setting aside our emotions to address problems "safely" and rationally.
But then, there's friction. Normal friction. It's unavoidable. Now what?
Our partner will tend to have a transient reaction--it lives and dies in the moment. It might carry forward, but only partially and imperfectly, which can be hard for us in its own way. If we are going to carry forward anger or happiness, we will have a consistent, rational reason for it. We will feel doubly violated if we get criticized for something that makes no sense. To be attacked is one thing, but to be attacked with no valid basis adds deep insult to injury.
For us, relationships go into the encyclopedia also. We try to learn and understand. We begin to form Persistent Reactions based on what we are observing. Something may happen once. Something might happen twice. After that, there is a strong likelihood that it will happen three times, six times, twelve times. It will happen forever.
So what does that kind of pattern-forming and permanence mean for relationships? Well, relationships are notorious for ruts filled with repeated (and petty) friction. Everyone gets annoyed with their partner. Especially for persistent things. However, when a person with transient reactions hit those rough patches, the imperfect carry-over makes it a very organic process. They might go ballistic. They may be mildly annoyed. They might not even notice or care. You can't predict the reaction. You can't navigate a pattern. Persistent Reaction, on the other hand, is fundamentally different than transient reaction. As INTPs, we're not just reacting to the current iteration of the problem at hand. With the encyclopedia as our guide, we are also fighting every recorded fight we ever had on that topic. We are also fighting every fight we can predict ever having in the future. And that makes the battle huge for us. Everything is on the table, and the stakes are high. To the other person, the weight we bring to the situation may seem like a gross overreaction. Our emotions won't seem to be in line with the importance of the issue. But that's because they aren't. We are fighting every fight at once. They are fighting one by itself.
The Bottom Line
hyperMindfulness and the Persistent Reaction…let me boil down these hombres to a very simple sauce for disaster.
With hyperMindfulness, we piss people off. With Persistent Reaction, we get pissed off.
With hyperMindfulness, people leave us. With Persistent Reaction, we leave them.
Spirals and Relationship Self-Cannibalism
So what happens precisely in relationships in the face of Persistent Reactions? Well, relationships are littered with the threat of spirals, which are a cross between self-fulfilling prophesies and the law of cause-and-effect. Here's an example. Let's say one person gets irritated by something the other one did. A guy asks his INTP girlfriend a series of amorphous, meandering questions, and as each one takes more energy to answer, she begins to feel drained. Having to stop and devote enough brain power to fully answer his questions just becomes too much. She maxes out.
Especially if he has a habit of asking tortured questions (cue Persistent Reaction). She subtly locks down and withdraws. It's her defensive reaction to protect her energy and mental integrity.
When the guy perceives the change in her, he has his own reaction. Why is she refusing to answer his questions? She must be hiding something. He asks more questions in a more accusatory manner.
How does she then react? Her belief that he is intentionally violating her has just been confirmed. He has ignored her "clear" signals and intensified the attack. Now she's indignant, not just annoyed. Which he, in turn, interprets as further secret-keeping and a blossoming life-or-death battle of trust. He insinuates that she has done something wrong. He criticizes her reticence and evasions. She perceives a declaration of total war. Her anger detonates.
You see the spiral of reactions/counter-reactions all based on incorrect interpretations and assumptions? We do that all the time as humans. We misinterpret and thereby create the next turn of the spiral.
One big danger of Persistent Reaction is that it tends to make us the first ones to be annoyed. We can start these spirals, because today is not just today. Today is the sum of our life's observations along with all of our future predictions. As we strive so hard to deconstruct and understand, bumps in the road can make us irritated. In chronically troubled situations, we can become almost constantly irritated. It is Persistent Reaction injecting bad vibrations into the relationship and revving up a rash of conflict spirals. The relationship quickly erodes into dysfunction.
Sending the Twins to Bed Without Supper
We need some practical advice to help lasso the twins when they get out of hand. If nothing else, I'm doing these articles to help INTPs be happier and more effective in the world we have to live in. So what kind of discipline do we need when the hooligans act up?
The beginning of relationships, even for INTPs, is largely emotional in nature. Mindfulness can be there, sort of, but it's totally corrupted. The desperate hope to find a kindred spirit, someone to finally understand us, fans the desire and the pounding heart and the dwelling thoughts. We immerse in the moment, and it takes us.
But after the initial fuel is expended, the deeper, enduring desires begin to emerge. Eventually, we want to see the hoped-for connection actually happen and come to fruition. This maturation of the relationship is where Mindfulness comes forward again and operates normally. And where we have Mindfulness, the twins can show up.
Remind yourself that although the reason we want a relationship is to share Mindfulness with another, the experience of a great relationship is always emotional. When our INTP-nature finds a connection with someone, it's a rush of euphoria. However, the euphoria isn't the sensation of raw mental connection. Euphoria is the emotional result spurred by the connection. Romantic relationships must have this kind of continuous emotional content to stay strong. Therefore, we must train ourselves to slip into emotional, experiential states even when the reason (or fuel) isn't perfect for us. A moment can be beautiful without logical nirvana. A landscape can be stunning. A summer night. Looking into someone's eyes and thinking, oh my God. We must practice how to have emotional immersion for other reasons. Seek emotion for emotion's sake. By doing so, you will feed the relationship for both of you. Maybe it's going out to dinner, or intimacy, or travel. Maybe it's just taking a nap together on a winter day.
Combating Persistent Reaction is harder. The unfortunate fact is that unless you are paired with another rational, a linear progression of shared thought and study will never be sufficient fuel for a relationship. You'll want that, but your partner won't. Compromise will be necessary. If your partner is wise, he or she will understand your INTP fuel. And if you're wise, you'll understand your partner's fuel. A solid relationship will be an exchanges of fuels. One gallon for me. One gallon for you. Much of our nature is directed toward a linear progression of knowledge, like a road. But beware. A road has to lead somewhere. It could very well lead away from the relationship if you follow it blindly.
One last point. If you are the partner of an INTP reading this article in the hope of connecting better with him or her, one concrete thing you can do is try to come along with us on one of our linear adventures. Learn something together. Progress. Grow towards a clear goal. We gobble that stuff up. It makes us really happy. Even if it might not look like we do on the outside. We might seem serious and focused, but inside, we're flying.
I love the twins. They are part of what makes INTPs who they are. But learning and advancement don't always equate with happiness. In fact, the opposite tends to be true. The more you know, the more you find inelegant realities. The more the magic drains away.
We can train ourselves to step away from our core rational nature and immerse in feeling, but don't be concerned if you find it to be like scuba diving. You'll only have so much air in the tank, and once you're out of air, you'll have to resurface back to rationality. But that's okay. You will still have achieved something good and important.
Keep manufacturing that emotional fuel. Without it, we will never be able to stay happy in a relationship.