When a Personality Test Says Your Marriage is “Volatile”

I grew up on Myers-Briggs, proud of my status as an INFJ: thoughtful, deep, empathetic, goal-oriented. It was a pleasant discovery to find my husband was an INTJ; we had so much in common. Big ideas! Need for quiet! Thoughtful and driven! Yet, I would melt into a puddle of tears that he couldn’t understand.

I apologized for my tears for a lot of years. Then I realized, that along with lament, tears are gifts. They mean I see. They mean I’ve shown up. That I care. They do not make me weak, after all. Even so, there’s a nagging feeling that somehow my big feeling-ness means I’ve got it all wrong, especially when you couple it with my Ph.D., so I melt into a pool of self-doubt: am I the big thinker or just an emotional mess?

Over the last few years, I’ve delved into the Enneagram, and have discussed with friends ad nauseam over Voxer the merits and drawbacks to being a 4 (that’s the special snowflake artist type for those unfamiliar with the Enneagram). If Myers-Briggs put me in a lovely little box I could be proud of and present to others — “here is my amazing self, take and see” — then the Enneagram has been the first tool to tell me that maybe, just maybe, my “gift to the world” can be a bit “too much.” That my greatest strength can actually also make me obsessive and prone to navel-gazing. It’s what the Enneagram is best at — showing us the shadowside and paths for growth. Of course this is also something my husband has told me all along. When it’s him who preempts my epiphanic moment, I get all ruffled. Later, we learn, lo and behold, that per the Enneagram we’re a “volatile combination.” 

His number on the Enneagram (8, the Challenger) and mine (4, Individualist) are “inherently volatile.” The Enneagram Institute says:

Both Enneagram Fours and Eights are intense and have strong emotional responses; both seek to get a reaction from the other, and both can be dominating of their environments—Eights are socially dominant, Fours are emotionally dominant. Both types bring passion, intensity, energy, and deep (often unconscious) feelings to all aspects of the relationship. They are attracted to each other’s storminess, the other’s vulnerability, and the other’s “hidden” qualities: neither is what they seem to be on the surface. Both types are also highly intuitive—Fours by being self-aware and knowledgeable about how they are feeling, and Eights with their intuition about external phenomena, often with an extremely accurate insight about the potentials and possibilities exhibited by others.

This is what has lead us to conclude that he builds systems and knows what needs doing to help an organization flourish, while I get my fingernails dirty in the mess of people’s emotional and spiritual states. We’re yin to each other’s yang, when we’re in step with the other.

He constructs cathedrals of ideas and puts those ideas into action. I help bring the warmth and learn how to be present emotionally with and for others. He relies on me for emotional knowledge and support and thinking outside of the box. I rely on him for vision, direction, and follow-through. We have towering conversations, we’re both convinced we’re entirely right, and we have to work hard to love the ordinary right in front of us. But put us on the path with a common mission and we’re gold. 

That’s on the good days of course. The bad days look like us digging our heels in, being short-sighted and convinced of our infallibility, our taking out our frustration on the other.

But I’m learning to not apologize for volatility either, like I’m not apologizing for my tears. We may not be a placid pair; we have our good days and our bad days, like any other couple. For a long while, I thought that volatility was something to be avoided. It meant that we were ill-suited for each other, that we should have picked other people, that we’d somehow made a terrible mistake in our youthful idealism. I thought that peace meant a lack of conflict, where you somehow magically finished each other’s sentences and ordered the same thing at lunch; where sex, love, money, and parenting were easy, natural things. Like in all the fairy tales I grew up on.

Volatility is not a deal breaker. In fact, the Enneagram has given me a vocabulary to see what feels to me as anger is also a way my husband connects with others: he’s wanting to see if they’ll accept him, if they’ll push back or still love him even if he’s angry. It’s shown me that behind anger is a vulnerable, sensitive soul and part of my job as his wife is to help him articulate his own sensitivity. He helps me to not wallow in my special snowflake feelings, to allow me to see that sometimes “good enough” is still good, and that I don’t have to be best damn special snowflake there ever was and measure myself by the wheel of productivity and originality (the fallout of being a 4-wing-3).

Turns out it doesn’t matter your Myers-Briggs or Enneagram number. Not really anyway. Marriage vows are more than personality type. Our personalities are malleable and sanctifying things: they grow, shift, change, blossom. What matters is that we keep showing up for the other. We choose — every day — to believe we’re on the same team and not combatants in the ring for the prize of who’s right. We choose to believe we’re in process and that God will finish the work he’s started in us. We choose to be all in, even when we’d rather just dig in our heels. We choose to be generous with grace, repent and forgive, and then repent and forgive again (and again and again and again). It’s how we work past “volatile” and choose each other, every day, till death do us part.

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I highly recommend Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile’s book, The Road Back to You. Here’s my short review and be sure to check out the podcast.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales

Writer and Editor at aahales.com
Ashley Hales holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. But she spends most of her time chasing around her four children and helping her husband plant a church. She writes at AAHales.com and loves to make friends on Twitter.
Ashley Hales

Latest posts by Ashley Hales (see all)

  • Ah yes, that last paragraph – yes! Thanks Ashley

    • Thanks Debby for being here as always. I’m holding tightly to that last paragraph too.

  • Jo-Ann Sassone

    You’re almost my emotional doppelganger! I’m an ISFJ and Enneagram 4 (but with a wing-5). I think there’s something validating when inventories like these really capture who we are and how we operate in the world. Thanks for sharing your insights about the intersection of personality and commitment in a marriage; a place that sometimes leads to suffering because of our differences but also provides an unparalleled opportunity for growth.

  • Ashley, this is perfect. I am the jealous, not special enough feeling INFJ/4 who admires you and appreciates your original snowflakeness and am grateful to hear I for one am not alone (as I always imagine I am), but that maybe we can be restored and experience connection in our relationships after all. (How’s that for a run-on?) Miss you this Redbud weekend. ❤

    • p.s. also a 3 wing. Exhausting, yes?

      • Totally. I feel schizophrenic sometimes. LOL. Love your run-on and that you get the weird 4w3 combo. Missed seeing you and all the Buds. I can’t wait to hear details.

  • Lois

    Volatility is not a crime?! love it

    • Ha! Thanks, Lois. It’s good to remember, huh? 😉

  • Heather

    My husband and I are the same combination. He is an enneagram type 8 (with a 9w) and I am a type 4 (with a 5w). Sometimes our volatility is off the charts. I feel like we constantly argue because we do not agree upon anything, and each of us is fiercely defending our positions. I have a hard time seeing the gifts of volatility in these moments. Like the enneagram says, it often feels like we “cannot stop hurting each other.” Did you even feel this way in your marriage? How did you move past it?