Trust Issues With My Wife Who Doesn’t Follow Through: Can Understanding Personality Types Help?

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Reader’s Question

I have trust issues with my wife of 26 years. It came to a head this summer when I found out she did not have an important discussion with her sister about the cost of moving their aging mother into a care facility. The mother isn’t wealthy and I wanted to be sure that when the money ran out, the sister was willing to share half the cost. My wife had previously agreed to have this conversation.

There have been other issues over the years. For example, she wanted to buy an expensive car and I was concerned about maintenance costs. I did research and found maintenance could be done by most auto shops, avoiding the high cost of dealer repairs. She agreed to use such shops, but never did, preferring to take the car to the dealer. I knew about it, but we’re in a position to afford it and it was important to her, so I didn’t complain.

There are household chores — if I do some of her chores because she is busy, she quickly forgets they are her responsibility and leaves them to me. I must either keep doing them, or keep reminding her — and often she doesn’t get them done. I want to be helpful and not be a nag, but I feel like a sap when I end up doing the work.

I truly love this woman, but I know I’m not the most important thing in her life — her work, family and outside activities take precedent. Despite the fact that I know she loves me, if push came to shove, I know she would pick work or family over me — she has already demonstrated that. I also know from previous therapy that I probably invest too much of my identity in our relationship. As a result, I’ve tried to develop more outside interests of my own.

I also have trust issues in dealing with other people. That’s probably why I adopted a profession where skepticism is part of the job requirement. I’ve also struggled with depression since I was a teenager.

Here’s the question: I want to remain married to this woman, but I feel I have lost all trust in her and that makes me feel much less close to her. I feel a gap between us. We’ve talked about these issues and she pledges to do better, but she doesn’t. I know she loves me and she wants to do these things, but it’s just not who she is. How can I recapture that closeness and accept that she won’t fulfill her commitments?

Psychologist’s Reply

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You sound as if your wife’s behavior has left you feeling hurt, angry, and betrayed. Without meeting the two of you, I cannot comment on whether you are indeed being taken for granted or ‘blown off’ by her. My hope for you is that you can take care of yourself by being your own best advocate with regard to what is important to you and by deciding what you are able to give without feeling burdened or resentful. With that said, I will describe some personality differences that could perhaps apply to you and your wife. If behavior is understood in terms of someone’s natural personality or preferences rather than as motivated by love or the lack thereof, it can be easier to overlook or even forgive.

I wonder what each of you would score on a personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Some psychologists use the MBTI as a way to test and better understand a person’s “normal” personality traits. In other words, it is not a psychological test that is looking for problems or pathology. According to the MBTI, there are four dichotomies or continuums onto which people can map their personalities: Extraversion/Introversion (E/I), Sensing/Intuition (S/N), Thinking/Feeling (T/S), and Judging/Perceiving (J/P). No personality test can explain or describe a person fully, of course. But the MBTI offers a way of thinking about personality in terms of various preferences. You can be far to one end of a continuum, and in that case the traits or preferences would be strong. Or, you could be close to the middle on a continuum, in which case you could find traits of both ‘sides’ that would fit for you. The four dichotomies each explain a different aspect of personality, and each preference has associated strengths and weaknesses.

Extraversion/Introversion describes the way that people “recharge,” in other words, where they draw energy. Extraverts prefer to be with other people and feel more energized when they have the opportunity to do so. Introverts, in contrast, usually need time by themselves to feel energized or recharged. In MBTI terminology, an introvert is not necessarily shy or awkward, and an extravert is not necessarily outgoing. They merely have preferences regarding how much or little they need to be in the company of others. In addition, introverts tend to process information internally before communicating or deciding, and extraverts tend to process information externally, or “think out loud.” So, an extravert might prefer to talk through a problem out loud with someone to arrive at a solution, and an introvert might prefer to think to him or herself and come to a fairly well-formed conclusion before sharing it with others. Introverts and extraverts can have fulfilling relationships, but can also find each other to have different levels of need for socializing with others. If your wife is an extravert and you are an introvert, for example, she might want (or need) time at work, with friends, and with others in general to feel fulfilled and energized.

The Sensing/Intuition continuum attempts to explain what information people attend to or notice in the world. Someone whose score would be categorized as an “S” would more naturally attend to what is noticed through the five senses: concrete information that can be touched, heard, seen, smelled, or tasted. A person who would be categorized as an “N” (i.e. a “Perceiver”) would be more apt to see the big picture, ideas, or patterns when faced with a situation. Within MBTI terminology, “Intuition” does not mean a sixth sense. An example of this dichotomy would be if two people were to consider buying an old house. The person who was an “S” would notice the cracks in the walls, the scuffed floor, and the fact that there were new copper pipes in the plumbing. The “N” person might feel more inclined to pay attention to the possibilities or ideas that the house would represent, such as an opportunity to be in a particular school district, how the house would look if cosmetically updated, and the fact that the house reminds him or her of a childhood home. As you can see, if two people saw the same house in these two very different lights, they each could wonder where the other was coming from. This happens frequently when people on either end of the dichotomies are in relationship with each other.

Thinking versus Feeling is about how people make decisions, whether it is based on objective data or facts (Thinking) or based on values (Feeling). I can use your story as an example of this (although of course I have no idea what you or your wife would score on the MBTI). Based on a cost analysis, you asked your wife to speak to her sister about housing your mother-in-law and sharing the cost. You might have recommended that conversation based on the objective fact that if you shared the housing bill it would cost X, and if you did not share it, it would cost Y. Your wife, if she were an “F,” would make a decision about whether to speak to her sister about this based not on the facts or data (e.g. the money) but based on her values, whatever those might be. She might value harmony between herself and her sibling, or she might value helping at any cost. Either of these could have deterred her from asking her sister to split the cost evenly. Again, this is only an illustration of the T/F dichotomy; it may or may not apply in your situation.

Finally, the last dichotomy, Judging versus Perceiving (J vs. P) attempts to characterize the way people approach situations in the world. People who score more highly on the “Judging” end of the continuum tend to prefer to make plans ahead of time, prefer to stick to the plan that is made, and are more detail oriented. People who score high on the “Perceiving” end prefer to leave things open-ended, want to make decisions spontaneously instead of ahead of time, and are likely to be comfortable making last-minute changes and going with the flow.

These are very positive qualities, but often when someone naturally follows through, thinks ahead, gets things done, and can be counted on, he or she can find him or herself wishing others would at times take a turn being “the responsible one.” Or, like in your case, you might want your partner to carry through on plans or preferences that are discussed. If your wife were a “P,” she would be more likely to act spontaneously in the moment than behave in a pre-planned way. When others do not meet these expectations, it is human nature to be disappointed or irritated. Your wife has at times in your life together (maybe many times) agreed with a plan and not followed through, attempted to pick up a bit more responsibility around the home but then again left it to you, etc.

I hope it is helpful to consider the lifelong differences that you and your wife have experienced from the frame of personality differences. However, even so, if you have found yourself feeling angry, resentful and unable to trust her, it could be that the feelings that have built up over the years are too deep to be resolved by simply taking a different perspective. When deeply held pain and resentment is coming between two partners, marriage counseling can be a place to process feelings together and find new ways to relate. A meeting with a mental health professional could provide you with some ideas to regain trust based on a fuller picture than you have been able to share here.

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