Here are two true things about the Myers-Briggs personality test: 1) A number of social scientists dismiss it as a theory with little basis in science. And 2) when you take the test and give real, honest answers, not the kind you think a prospective boss or date would want to hear, the results make a lot of sense.
In a nutshell, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) is Isabel Briggs Myers’s and Katharine Briggs’s application of Carl Jung’s theory of personality types, based on how people prefer to interact with the world, take in information, and make decisions. The combinations of those four pairs of preferences—extraversion/introversion (E/I), sensing/intuition (S/N), thinking/feeling (T/F), and judging/perceiving (J/P)—result in the 16 types (ESTJ, INFP, etc.).
“If you’re accurately typed, it doesn’t put you in a box, it’s just a blueprint,” says Amy Miller, MSW, LCSW, who uses MBTI sometimes in her individual and couples counseling practice in St. Louis. “The MBTI is designed to measure your clarity of preference.”
Doubters say there’s no proof that MBTI is actually useful in the workplace (where it’s most popular). You can get different results when you take the test over again, experts assert. Plus, some descriptions of the types —”The Logician,” “The Entertainer,” “The Virtuoso”—sound more like the names of tarot cards or astrological signs than a psychological tool. But some therapists who have seen it in action say those arguments have nothing to do with how much it might help clients see themselves and their partners.
“It’s almost like when you get a diagnosis: If you have symptoms of something and then you have a real reason why you’re experiencing that, there’s almost a sense of relief, ‘Oh, that’s why I think of it this way, or do it that way, or feel this way,’ ” says therapist Susan Pease Gadoua, LCSW, co-author of The New “I Do.” She doesn’t use MBTI, but she thinks this kind of self-awareness has purpose. “People can have more compassion for themselves and for the other person.”
What does all this mean for your own relationships and the personality of your real or ideal partner? Rather than go through each of the 16 MB types, which really would read like an astrological chart, Miller took us through each of the four dichotomies. This way, whether you’re absolutely sure you’re an ESFP dating an INTJ or you just have a hunch about your intuition preference (see what we did there?), this can be useful knowledge. At the very least, it’s another fun way of armchair analyzing yourself and your friends.
Extraverts and Introverts
The dichotomy people are most familiar with doesn’t measure whether people can socialize well or tolerate alone time, it’s whether they’re more energized by external interactions or their inner world. Once people recognize which they are, Miller says, conflicts in a mixed E and I couple don’t have to be a big deal.
“If you have an introverted preference, you and your extraverted partner might need to take separate cars to a party because they might want to stay all night and party, and you might be ready to go at 10 p.m.,” Miller says. “Both of you came in at half battery life. You’re an introvert, and you’re now at zero. Your partner, meanwhile, is having the time of their life, and they’re at 100-percent battery life.”
Gadoua believes that this kind of compromise is much more effective than expecting your spouse to change to suit your needs. “When I work with couples, I’m actually pointing out to them that instead of trying to convince their partner to be more like them, each person’s responsibility is to meet the person in the middle, hear them, and acknowledge them.”
Sensing and Intuition
In MBTI terms, this is about whether you’re more inclined to take in information with your five senses in a linear, literal manner (Sensing) or you’d rather deal with abstract concepts and ideas, using broad strokes, figures of speech, and nonlinear styles (Intuition). Miller has seen these opposing preferences cause the most conflict when it comes to romantic relationships because they communicate so differently, it’s almost like they have different native languages.
“If you can imagine someone with an intuiting preference and someone with a sensing preference trying to have a conversation about their relationship, the person with the sensing preference might get stuck on a detail, and the intuition preference person would say, ‘That’s not what I’m talking about; you’re worried about the wrong things,'” Miller says.
S and N couples aren’t a lost cause, as long as they’re willing to recognize each other’s language barriers. “If you have a clear understanding of that, you just have to know that your person prefers this other way of communicating and make an effort to make things make sense to them,” Miller says.
Thinking and Feeling
More misunderstandings arise from this area, which measures how people like to make decisions. “People with a feelings preference make their decisions around values, empathy, intimacy, other people,” Miller says. “People with a thinking preference step back from their feelings and look at things through the lens of distance and objectivity. To someone with a feelings preference, someone with a thinking preference can feel cold, when actually they’re just logical. And to someone with a thinking preference, someone with a feeling preference looks wishy-washy or too tender-hearted.”
Being able to identify your partner’s preference might help you not take their approach personally. At the same time, Gadoua warns that the conversation shouldn’t end there.
“People can absolutely hide behind a label and use it as a reason why they don’t have to change,” she says. “I think that does a real disservice in relationships. When you can use it to understand yourself and your mate, and you’re willing to make some changes, you can have a fulfilling relationship. But if you’re using it as, ‘Oh well, too bad; this is just who I am,’ then that’s not participating in a mature way in a relationship.”
Judging and Perceiving
The official MB language is a little misleading in this category, as it’s really more about how you prefer to conduct your life in the outside world, not how you judge or perceive others. Judging types like to plan and structure their lives, get everywhere on time, and keep their spaces orderly and functional. Perceivers are more fluid in time and space, which means they might be messy and won’t complete tasks until the last minute when they get a burst of energy. This can be a recipe for frustration in a relationship between a J and a P.
“The J will be like, ‘How can you not notice that this sh*t needs to be done?’ And the P would say, ‘Well, I noticed, but it didn’t seem urgent,'” says Miller, who happens to be a J married to a P. “The only thing that really bothers me about it is sometimes I have to lie to my husband about what time our daughter’s doctor’s appointments are, just to make sure we’re out the door and I’m not mad and anxious.”
If you are not currently in a relationship, Gadoua doesn’t believe anyone can purposely seek out the personality type that is just like theirs to find perfect harmony. “We are unconsciously drawn to something that feels familiar, which might be the opposite and it might be the same type,” she says. “If you have a parent who is the opposite, which is often the case, you’re probably going to gravitate toward someone like that. I think that trying to manipulate who you’re attracted to wouldn’t work.”
And besides, how boring would that be?
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Her work has appeared on Refinery29, Yahoo, MTV News, and Glamour.com. The views expressed herein are her own and are meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.