Thursday, June 10, 2010

What’s Your Type?: Personality system helps couples understand each other

In any long-term relationship, most couples can remember disagreeing about something seemingly insignificant. Maybe one of them was having a bad day. Perhaps it was the result of miscommunication. But oftentimes a minor spat can spiral into a major conflict without deeper exploration.

For Vicki Reitenauer, it happened in the kitchen. She and her wife, Carol Gabrielli, share an interest in cooking, but they don’t always adhere to the same standards.

“I’ll chop the peppers, and then she’ll come back and re-chop them at the size that she wants,” Reitenauer recalls. Before long, she’d find herself feeling: “Wow, you’re betraying me on some fundamental level. You’re abandoning me.”

The couple, who met at college in 1985 and have been together since 1997, eventually figured out what was causing such an extreme reaction. They accomplished this by studying the Enneagram, a personality system that details nine universal perspectives on seeing the world. For example, “The Protector” tends to be a bossy person who confronts injustice, while “The Mediator” would rather avoid drama. “The Performer” enjoys the spotlight, while “The Observer” prefers privacy. In essence, each personality type has a specific “lens” through which it filters the world, and the Enneagram aims to bring everything into focus.

Gabrielli discovered that her Enneagram type is “The Perfectionist.” This means that she consistently fixates on errors, which can lead to anger and resentment. “I think things through with great rigor,” Gabrielli says before jokingly busting into an exaggerated German accent: “It’s about discipline and consequence!”

Reitenauer, meanwhile, identifies as “The Romantic,” an idealistic type who frequently notices what’s missing. “I believe in feeling things deeply. I’m drawn to the highest highs and the lowest lows.”

By learning more about their distinct points of view, the couple were able to develop a keen awareness that not everyone perceives those chopped veggies in the same way. As a result, they stopped taking everything so personally.

“Because of who Carol is, there is this sense of doing everything in the right way,” Reitenauer says. “But that intersects with my deep shame around being exposed for being wrong. That would be a driver for conflict in our relationship.”

The goal, she explains, is for people to express affection in a way that will resonate with their partner.

“The Enneagram has helped me to recognize how Carol shows love to me,” Reitenauer says. “Sometimes in a couple, either person can be acting in ways that they believe are loving and which are expressions of love. But the other person can’t see it, because it’s not what that person typically has recognized as love.”

Israel Sostrin and Susan Schmitt have also experienced how the Enneagram can help couples understand each other better. As the busy parents of an infant daughter, they have a strong desire to connect during their limited free time—albeit with different approaches.

Sostrin’s personality type is “The Giver,” so he instinctually places the needs of others ahead of his own and can suffer from “a lack of awareness of myself and my basic needs.” He prefers to connect on an emotional level.

Schmitt, however, finds connection intellectually. As “The Epicure,” she can easily get lost in thought. Schmitt describes the optimistic mindset of people who share her personality type: “If something’s not working out, we move on. We tend to have a lot of great ideas but not necessarily always follow through.”

Schmitt says the Enneagram is a powerful method to help get to the heart of the matter “more quickly and gracefully. It gave us a tool to look inside so we don’t have to blame the other person. It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the nature of who we are.”

According to Sostrin, the Enneagram gave him an eye-opening awareness of his “blind spots.” He adds that frustration subsided once he accepted that he and his wife have inherently distinct outlooks: “You wouldn’t expect a raccoon to act like a giraffe.”

Couples will have the opportunity to learn more about the Enneagram at an upcoming workshop. Cathy Hitchcock, who has 25 years of experience as a psychotherapist, will be facilitating the session along with mentor and spiritual counselor Dale Rhodes. Both are certified professional trainers of the Enneagram.

“So much about where growth happens is just awareness. People can spend a really long time in therapy to develop awareness that can come quite quickly with the Enneagram,” Hitchcock says. “To me, the Enneagram is a system of self-understanding and understanding others in your life. It seems like automatically what comes with that is compassion—compassion for each other and compassion for ourselves.”

Gabrielli agrees. These days, she can more readily sense when her perfectionism is getting the best of her.

“I value any tool that helps me see how I’m wired,” she says. “Once one practices the Enneagram more and more, he or she can not only see the train coming, but hear the whistle of it and get off the track, so that you’re not just standing there and getting run over by the moment.”

“Introduction to the Enneagram for Couples” features guidance on identifying the couple’s types, as well as professional videos of experienced students speaking about their personality style and how it affects relationships, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 19 at HealthQuest, 1330 S.E. 39th Ave. in Portland. Admission is $180 a couple, which includes all materials and two books. Register here.