Subtypes in Relationship
By Peter O'Hanrahan
Our primary subtype has a powerful effect on our relationships. We bring all three of our instincts into our relationships, yet one of these is central. Over the past 30 years of Enneagram work, many people have found that subtype in a primary relationship is more important than personality type itself when it comes to daily life. There are many decisions and habits in living together that are shaped by our instincts and emotions. How do we manage our time and attention, and how does this fit with our partner’s subtype? What are our expectations, personal habits, and rhythms of coming and going? Who cooks and cleans? Who initiates physical contact and how much? How do we include friends and family, or not?
I am not suggesting that the basic Enneagram type is unimportant. As we travel the path of intimacy we follow the basic needs and longings of our deepest selves, we rely on the strengths and capacities of our type structure, and we are confronted with the issues and limitations of our defense systems. But in living together on a daily basis, much of our relating is heavily influenced by our subtypes. This is the realm of instinct and emotion, ruled by our mammalian limbic system, not entirely a function of our rational mind. Understanding subtypes is a way of bringing this to our conscious attention and having a language which describes it. Fortunately, there are practices to develop new skills and mediate subtype differences and similarities in relationship. We can appreciate the different subtype priorities which need attention in order to establish security and rapport for each partner. We can track rhythms of contact and withdrawal without taking it all so personally. We can find ways to balance all three instincts, each of which plays an important role in home and family life.
I’ll focus on intimate partners for the most part, but there are plenty of insights for our relationships with family members, long term friends, and colleagues at work. We all know about cooperating and clashing on the emotional/instinctual field of relating. Whether you are new to subtypes or an old hand, you will find your experience reflected and informed by this material – at least in part. It won’t all fit, but take what is useful to explore your subtype issues in relationship. We can find ourselves in all three subtypes, depending on our circumstances and our path of development, so we may have all three subtype styles at different moments. Still, most people have found (or will find) that one of their instincts is predominant, and they can see how their subtype affects relationships.
I feel well informed about subtype patterns through 30 years of personal experience and counseling practice with the Enneagram. I have learned about each of the 27 subtypes embodied by friends, colleagues, and students in countless workshops, private sessions, and spirited discussions in locations around the world. Helen Palmer has been a consistent mentor, challenging us to discover how the activity of the subtype expresses and obscures the passion (lower emotion) of each personality type.
In particular, I have the benefit of suggestions from 150 colleagues at the 2005 conference of the Association of Enneagram Teachers in the Narrative Tradition (AETNT). At this annual meeting, Terry Saracino and I made a short presentation on subtypes in relationship followed by subtype groups which reported back lists of valuable observations. This chapter is informed by these reports as well as those from other AET conferences and years of subtype workshops with Narrative Tradition panels. Although the Enneagram lends itself to many interesting theories, teaching or writing about the system is most accurate when it reflects the personal experience of those who live there, those who know the type and subtype from the inside out.
Same subtypes, different subtypes
The first thing that needs to be said is that all subtype combinations work! Just as all type combinations can work. So there is no easy answer to the question of “What types or subtypes together make the best relationship?” This is probably all for the best, although it does mean that we can’t make a big profit in the matchmaking business. (Forget about computer generated, Enneagram dating guides). If you have loved more than one person in your life, more than one type, you know the truth of this: having a successful relationship is more a function of self awareness and inner work. The Enneagram subtypes help us understand what we’re working with in ourselves and the people we love.
Let’s explore the ways that subtypes converge and diverge in relationship. We all know what it’s like to experience a feeling of connection and “sympatico” with people of the same subtype. This person has a similar world view, similar areas of interest and activity. There is often a quicker, better rapport based on a shared language and subtype style of relating. For example, a “Warmth Six” may have an easier connection with a Self Pres One or Nine than with a Social Six or a One-to-one Six. The Self Pres types can relate more to the same issues, the same anxieties, and the same security operations. In a parallel way, a “Strength/Beauty Six” will often prefer the “intensity” of a One-to-one Two or Five, people who offer a more direct, personally intense connection than the other subtypes of Six. (This assumes that the One-to-ones can negotiate their natural competitiveness!) When Social types connect, we easily fall into synchronistic patterns based on our shared outlook and rules for group interaction. A reminder here that the Social subtype is really the “Social Structure” subtype, and sometimes the “Anti-social” subtype. It’s not about who has the most friends or is most active in their community.
Each subtype has an inherently different set of personal boundaries. We often use the terms “warm, cool, or hot” to describe subtype styles in relationship. Self Pres people have a warm quality about them; the One-to-ones run hot; and we Socials are accused of being cool (I hope not cold!). This is not meant to put us in a box. As a “cool” social type, I feel that I can be warm and hot too. But I know how my style contrasts with the others, and their way is often challenging to my comfort zone. Can I maintain that direct eye contact with a One-to-one type and raise the energy level? Am I willing to pursue a conversation with a Self Pres type about family matters or home projects? I might want to adapt or I might resist, depending on the situation and my internal state.
In spite of having an easier rapport with people of the same subtype, we value the people in our lives who have different subtypes. Love, attraction and friendship do not stay within the boundaries of subtype. The point is to recognize both advantages and challenges that accompany subtype issues and styles.
Is it easier if we share the same subtype with our partner? In many ways the answer is “yes.” But easy is not always the best in the long run. For one thing, we can miss out on aspects of relating that other subtypes bring. Probably the biggest danger of having the same subtype lies in how we reinforce each other’s habits and beliefs. We can end up in long term collusion patterns which lead to deficits in other areas of instinctual life, and we may not develop our full capacities under the influence of largely unconscious agreements about what is possible, or what is permissible. For example, two Self Pres people might find themselves supporting one another’s shopping habits, eating habits, and comfortable home activities while dispersing attention away from sexual intimacy. Two Social people together may lose essential, personal priorities due to excessive group activities and social conformity, or conversely, they may reinforce each other’s anti-social behavior. And it’s not uncommon to see two One-to-one types set up a “cult of two” while retreating from friends, family, and the outside world.
When people in a primary relationship have different subtypes, they can bring different resources to their relationship, complementing one another with their strengths and expansiveness in their favored territory. For example, a traditional pairing is illustrated by the One-to-one (or Social) spouse who is out in the world doing all the things that they like, yet at the same time happy to come home to their Self Pres partner who is keeping the household and children well organized and cared for. Or perhaps the Self Pres spouse leads in working and making money, or taking care of the family business, while the One-to-one partner keeps the home fires burning. Granted, in modern life this separation of roles is not as common as it used to be. But it’s often true that each person has areas where they have their greatest strengths, and long term couples usually organize themselves in a way that reflects this. (Even partners with the same subtype will tend to differentiate roles and take the lead in different domains). Gender and culture enter the picture here as well, so we can’t say that it all happens because of subtype, but it’s an important piece.
In time, however, partners may feel a need to branch out and participate in other instinctual arenas. Then the deal is off! How couples negotiate these developmental changes and life transitions is vital to the continuing relationship. Sometimes new arrangements work, sometimes not. One partner may not be happy with the other’s change in direction and focus. A Self Pres wife (or husband) may decide it’s time to jettison the role of householder and venture out to the world beyond the home, schools, and neighborhood. It’s not only the Self Pres folks. Many of us at midlife have the experience of children leaving home (a major project coming to a close) and how this shifts the dynamic between us and our partners. Another example occurs when a One-to-one spouse suddenly realizes that their world has shrunk to the confines of the primary relationship, and other important needs for participation and friendship are not being met. A common belief of One-to-ones is that their intimate relationship should, or will, supply all the necessary love and attention to be happy in life. What will happen when they no longer feel this way? How will the partner feel, whatever their subtype, when all that intense, one to one focus is no longer aimed solely at them? There may be a feeling of abandonment, or a feeling of relief , or both.
These changes can lead to profound shifts in identity as people leave behind their earlier roles, projects, and attachments. These transitions and re-negotiations have a better chance of working out if we put the Enneagram to work, using both type and subtype to understand the needs of both partners.
With cross-type couples, there are more varied resources and there are also predictable conflicts. As David Daniels M.D. reports from his extensive therapy practice, even small differences in subtype focus can gradually erode a relationship over the long haul. It’s not uncommon for couples who genuinely love one another to show up in the therapist’s office with their marriages in great difficulty due to subtype miscommunications. We’re not necessarily talking major dysfunction or people not loving one another, but rather how different style and approach can lead to major gaps between partners. Conflicts are rooted in dissimilar patterns based on neurobiology - it’s in our bodies and nervous systems.
In my work with couples over the years I have heard many poignant stories of subtype misunderstandings. For example, a Self Pres husband works long and hard on building a new addition to the house. Evenings after work and weekends are devoted to the project. Meanwhile, his One-to-one type wife feels abandoned and increasingly resentful. Finally, she “hits the roof” and confronts her husband, saying “you never have time for me, you don’t seem to care.” The husband is completely surprised, actually in shock. He responds “But I’ve been doing all this for you, and for us.” From his perspective, this is how he shows his love, building a more beautiful home where he and his wife will live happily ever after. Fortunately in this instance, these two were able to work out a solution. The husband came to understand his wife’s need for times of one on one relating, times when no project work was scheduled. In the process he had to deal with his own discomfort about just being there, not being physically active (except for some fun ways in the bedroom), but with practice he found that he liked it. And his wife was able to forgive him, for the most part, by understanding his real love for her as demonstrated through his busy Self Pres style. This story illustrates how even with the best of intentions, our subtype style and major projects can lead us away from intimacy.
In another example, a Self Pres wife finds it difficult to keep up with all her Social type husband’s friends and social activities. She finally blows up at him when, with little advance notice, he once again invites friends to stay at their house for a weekend. She feels both invaded and discounted. Her home is her place of refuge from a busy life, a place she depends on for privacy and rest. “How can he be so insensitive to her needs?” He feels misunderstood and threatened. “His friends are important, and it’s not that big a deal, they can look after themselves and won’t get in the way. Is she trying to control him and limit his life?” At this point both partners are very riled up. The specific issue of the friends coming to stay is now less important than the strong emotions generated by the lack of mutual empathy. Is the problem that he is socially excessive and inconsiderate, or that she takes on too much work and responsibility for providing meals, company, and a polished home environment? By calming down and talking it over, and by remembering the subtype differences, this couple found the necessary compromises. Each person felt heard, and the problem became a practical one, not something that wreaked havoc on their sense of well being and connection.
Reviewing the nine descriptive terms within each subtype category:
One way to enter a discussion of subtype relationship issues is to re-visit the nine words or phrases linked to each of the subtype categories, regardless of personality type. These sets form a composite style, although some of the titles may have more personal resonance. This is most obvious with One-to-one subtypes - all of the terms can be seen as directly related to intimacy. The qualities represented by union, jealousy, seduction, strength, fascination, etc. are shared by all One-to-one types, although in different proportions. For the Self Pres types, appetite, anxiety, privilege, security, etc. will come together in a different flavor of relational style, in both positive and negative aspects. And for the Social types, participation, non-adaptability, duty, and friendship all combine in ways that influence their approach to intimacy, even though it may seem that these issues are not so linked to intimacy per se.
Self Preservation Subtypes in relationship
Most Self Preservation subtypes share a relational style that is characterized by warmth (the Point Six word) and the need to achieve a basic feeling of security (Point Three) through affection and nurture. This does not only depend on the interpersonal aspects of relating, the “you and me.” It also includes the physical environment and cooperating around self preservation tasks and activities. “Is the home secure, are there enough supplies, how can we support one another’s self care and comfort?” Self Pres types tend to relate side by side rather than face to face, a kind of “being here together” that is quite different from the intensity of the One-to-one style or the circular attention of the Social types. Self Pres types like to do things together, accomplish tasks, enjoy life together. Of course they can shift their attentional style to a one on one focus when necessary. In fact, they may demonstrate talent and gracefulness when using their other instincts in relationship when they get to them, since these are not as implicated in their type structure and defenses. In other words, Self Pres types might find expressing their social instinct, or their one-to-one instinct, fairly simple and uncomplicated, once they get there. The main challenge may be getting there.
With Self Pres types in relationship there is a quality of blending into a field of instinctual activity with others. They connect through the basic activities of life, including family, home, food, and work. In villages, towns, and cities around the world these networks address the security needs, the material supplies, and the physical infrastructure of the community.
Self Pres people both focus on family relationships and demonstrate a “family style” of relating to the larger community. However, there are big differences in where the boundaries are set. Some Self Pres types (Nines in particular) seem naturally inclusive - we’re all part of the human family; while others (often Sixes or Eights) may send a message that if you’re not part of their extended family, you don’t count. Not much fun if you’re on the outside! In times and places when material resources are scarce, or perceived as scarce, other families and clans may be seen as competitors or even enemies.
For those who are included, there are expectations of loyalty and mutual support that don’t depend on liking people as individuals but because they are part of the family or tribe. All of us who have extended families know something about this. We don’t always like or appreciate a sibling, a relative, or the person they have married, but we have a relationship with them anyway. The good part of this is that family ties offer a kind of security beyond personality, like and dislike. The bad part is that we can get stuck in relationships with family members who are irritating or worse. This is more of an issue for Self Pres types since family bonds are so important to feeling secure in the world.
On a personal level, Self Pres people may have trouble establishing a sense of identity which is separate from their family. After all, this is the ground of security and belonging to which they are attuned. “Without family you will be alone in the world. How would you survive?” But does the family in turn control your life, your decisions about where to live, whom to marry? For much of our human history, and even now in many parts of the world, having the approval and support of one’s family was indeed vital to physical security and survival. Individual choice or personal development was not, or is not, anywhere near the top of the priority list. People make compromises and sacrifice at least part of their individuality (although not always aware that they are doing so). In many parts of the world marriage partners are still chosen by families.
Self Pres types usually bring these basic values to their primary relationships, expecting the partner to share their assumptions and priorities about the importance of the family, the need to make decisions together, the boundaries between who’s in and who’s out. This can lead to difficulty in allowing the partner to do things by themselves, outside the context of family and marriage.
What one person experiences as confining may be affirming and strengthening to someone else. On the continuum from immersion in family to leading a more separate, individual life, it would be wrong to judge one side over the other. What we can do is explore how this works for each of us. How close or how distant are we with our own family - current nuclear family, extended family, or family of origin? How much do we blend with the family agenda and how much do we keep our own agenda? How does the family affect our primary relationship? For the Self Pres person on the path of individuation, these questions are central.
In our modern society, there is a trend for people to live apart from their families of origin, moving away to school, a job, or simply to a new life in a new city. Not everyone finds it easy to re-create a family, and for the first time in human history we have large numbers of people living alone in their own house or apartment. This brings new problems as well as new freedoms. In my counseling practice over the years I have talked with many people suffering from loneliness. They have engaged the work of individuation, making their own way in the world, but at a price. Some Self Pres people do seem to thrive on their own, with the space to pursue their own interests. They stay connected to others in their neighborhood and community; they share meals and activities on a regular basis. Others become isolated within a small world ruled by comfort-making rituals and habits.
Pets offer a partial solution to the problem of loneliness, yet at the same time may de-motivate people from reaching out to form close ties with other people. After all, who can match the unconditional love of an animal companion? We often see Self Pres types who have given up on human relationships in favor of their animal companions. Or it becomes a major distraction, leaving them less time for people. In fairness, animal lovers say that their creature companions help them meet people and expand their social network in addition to their intrinsic warmth and affection.
Families are defined in many different ways. For some it’s limited to the couple relationship, only the “two of us,” with a focus on comfort and security. When children are present, the circle grows larger. And with an extended family, the circle can become very large indeed with relatives, in-laws and friends constantly flowing in and out of homes and gatherings in a spirit of warmth and vitality (and sometimes drama, conflict and chaos).
Traditionally in the world of Self Preservation subtypes, marriage leads to new family alliances. Weddings are a big deal, involving many near and far relatives. The newly weds may find themselves somewhat in the background or taken over by the family festivities, even though the ceremony honors the one-to-one relationship. (Not limited to the Self Pres couple of course). The movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” is a classic example of this all encompassing, family style. The wedding itself is a wonderful celebration of family relationships and material abundance. The movie ends with the new couple, plus child, walking down the sidewalk in their neighborhood to pre-school, with lots of neighbors out and about to greet along the way. This archetype of the happy couple in a friendly neighborhood is honored in communities all around the world. It can lead to a wonderful and meaningful life, or it can lead to unfulfilled expectations and disappointment if the couple is unable to preserve their primary bond.
Self Preservation subtypes will benefit by paying attention to how “satisfactory survival” (Point Eight) and “appetite” (Point Nine) affect their marriage and important relationships. On the positive side they are well equipped to enjoy the abundance of what life has to offer and can share this experience with their partner. “Let’s have lots of good food, a comfortable home, and fun experiences in the world.” But appetite can easily get in the way of intimacy: over consumption of food or drink is an obvious problem, or simply too much time spent on shopping, cooking, eating, etc. When these daily habits link up with the defense systems of the personality type, they create major obstacles to keeping attention on our primary relationship. It’s just too easy to avoid showing up for the necessary work of intimacy, either through comfort making activities or “urgent” tasks related to security issues.
Anxiety (the Point One term) related to security issues plays a big role, although what form “security” takes will vary according to personality type. Self Pres people do not have a monopoly on anxiety, but it often shows up as a chronic, body-based issue for them. It may be obvious, or it may stay just below the surface sometimes leading to an overly controlled style. The partner may get the message, “I’ve got to take care of the house or business or kids, I have no time to slow down and relate.” It can infiltrate the relationship in non-verbal but tangible ways. The partner senses the anxiety but may not know how to respond.
Is it OK to expect our partner to alleviate our anxiety? Of course the answer is “yes,” that’s part of what people do in a loving relationship. But the partner can’t do it all, or can’t do it all the time. The best way to approach this is to notice the anxiety, identify the source, and to communicate directly and ask for help. Self Pres people tend to get angry or scared if a different subtype partner doesn’t share their alarm and concern, but that is unreasonable and usually unproductive. The partner often has a different view, a different experience, but can offer empathy and provide practical help if the message comes as a request rather than a demand. However, they may not be willing to spend all evening, or all weekend, on what seem like vitally important activities to the Self Pres subtype, such as family gatherings, house work, financial planning, etc. And perhaps there is a more direct way to provide support.
What will it take to feel secure (the Point Three word), how much supplies do you need, when is enough, enough? When anxiety derives from experiences in early childhood related to deficits in nurture and safety, it can’t be resolved through self preservation activities, however productive. It’s important that Self Pres people ask directly for warm and reassuring contact to reduce anxiety and increase their feeling of security rather than trying to route it through tasks. Sometimes a good hug is better than hours of cooking or housekeeping!
At Point Two we see the word “privilege” which is a kind of entitlement around self preservation needs. This can show up for all Self Pres people in having difficulty in knowing how much to assert oneself; with internal anxiety, it’s easy to over assert or under assert, hard to be appropriate to the situation. Either side of this behavior can create trouble for the partner and friends. When a Self Pres person is being grabby in the style of “me first” or it’s co-dependent counterpart, “not me, you go first,” it can be seen as either selfish or confusing. The partner may respond with feeling: “Aren’t we in this together, don’t we share resources, can’t we trust each other?”
The self preservation instinct at Point Three is called “Security,” already mentioned as a key word. At Point Four we find “Dauntlessness” and personal creativity which are qualities that all Self Pres people can bring to work and personal life. Point Five brings us the terms “Home” or “Castle Defender” which refer to the importance of having a safe refuge and retreat. “Warmth” at Point Six and “Family” at Point Seven round out this instinctual map. (For Eight, Nine, and One, I have already discussed satisfactory survival, appetite, and anxiety).
All of these self preserving qualities can provide safety, nurture, and abundance for the Self Pres types, their families and partners. The issue is whether time and attention is available for one’s primary relationship and not completely used up in the service of these compelling security-making operations. As a Self Pres type, will you be able to shift your focus to your partner? It takes energy, determination, and focus. Or will work, home and family keep you so busy that you put her or him at the bottom of your priority list? What is the right balance?
The way these self preservation issues are expressed in daily life are influenced by the personality types. Where are the boundaries set? For a Self Pres Five home may be so important as a refuge that it’s hard to invite other people in, or hard to “come out and play.” Their significant others may get bored and frustrated with a lack of activity. In contrast, Self Pres Sevens tend to over-extend and bring too much activity into the home and family space, dispersing attention away from their partner. Sevens and Nines in particular may include people in their circle without sufficient discernment; they can project family-style affiliation or assume mutuality even if the other people do not have the capacity or the inclination to reciprocate. These varied styles, while all reflecting a focus on self preservation, will affect relationships in very different ways.
Counter-instinctual Issues in Relationship
We think of Self Pres people as warm, conserving, home and family oriented, and this is generally true. But there are the seemingly “anti-preservation” tendencies in people too. Sometimes things flip to their opposite, creating a paradox. At Point Four for example, we see the terms “dauntless/reckless.” While the Fours take the lead with this, other Self Pres types can surprise and alarm their friends and partners with new projects or new investments that involve big risks. And partners have reason to be alarmed when such decisions are driven by unconscious pressure or anxiety. Self Pres people can have serious blind spots, jeopardizing financial security with the lure of a big win, or leaving a secure home or work situation in order to find something more attractive and compelling elsewhere. One person’s bold initiative may be another person’s nightmare. If communication is good, big decisions like these will involve both partners, serious consideration of the pro’s and con’s, and attention to the social and one-to-one instincts (and how these will be affected).
There are other examples which illustrate self preservation contradictions. Self Pres Threes might work so hard that they neglect their health and family. Self Pres Fives might be so stingy with their resources that they never enjoy having them. A Self Pres Six without sufficient warm relationships might pull back entirely from people, in effect turning cold. A Self Pres Seven might overextend financially and end up bankrupt.
Naturally, all of these would have a big impact on their primary relationship!
On a more positive note, and in order not to stereotype Self Pres people as homebodies, it’s good to remember that they can participate in the larger community with great impact and leadership. Their world is not limited to home and family, they just bring along their subtype style wherever they go. Examples in my experience include a Point Nine man who is a bank president, a Three woman who runs her own business and leads workshops in spiritual development, a Four woman who is a nationally known coach and motivational speaker, a Seven man who is a physician and head of a hospital staff. All of these people have found balance with their three instincts and have successful primary relationships.
• Notice when your self preservation issues lead to non-verbal communication of worry and anxiety with your partner, friends or family members. Either address your concerns directly, or breathe deeply and let them go for the time being. Your connections will suffer if others pick up your anxiety but don’t know how to respond or if it seems unrelated to them.
• Schedule quality time just for you and your partner, and leave the worries about work, family etc. behind. They will still be there when you return, hopefully with a better feeling of being loved and supported.
• Gather your attention for talking with other subtypes. Avoid becoming distracted by physical tasks, bills, family members, pets, etc. Often, people will want/need your undivided attention in order to feel seen and heard. Take a break, even a short one, from your security-making or comfort-making activities and habits in order to make direct contact.
• Remember that other subtypes are less interested in self preservation topics. Resist your tendency to focus on these and try to include their interests in conversation. With other Self Pres types, practice shifting the focus to the social and one-to-one areas at least some of the time.
• Practice building and containing your energy inside your body instead of dispersing it through your everyday activities or distractions. One-to-ones appreciate more intensity, and Social types appreciate more structure. It may feel quite uncomfortable at first, but it will become easier with practice.
• Be careful not to exclude people who don’t match your need for warmth in relationship. This will make your world smaller and limit your access to resources. On the other hand, don’t assume or project family style bonds with people who have no intention or ability to connect in this way, or you may have some rude awakenings.
• In general, the work for Self Pres people in relationship is to notice and manage their predominant instinct, to enjoy its productivity and strengths, to set limits on excess in this area, and to put the necessary attention on developing their one to one and social instincts. In other words, don’t over do the self preservation stuff and be sure that you and your partner have quality time together, just focused on the two of you. You might also consider how to participate in structured groups/activities with others if you don’t already. .... was continued in next issue...
Enneagram Monthly, Issue 150, July/August 2008