How Insights From the Enneagram Turned Conflict on Its Head For These Couples

Would you say most of your couple conflict is healthy conflict?  Are you offering your partner the benefit of the doubt or are you doubting your partner’s benefits?  

Or, maybe your marriage is okay but you have an ongoing impasse that threatens to suck the life out of it.

My husband Carey was the first of us to read The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile.  He finished it and enthusiastically ordered 10 copies for family and friends. 

Begging me to read the book wouldn’t overstate what happened next.

Then, he preached a series about the Enneagram and ordered copies of The Road Back to You for all the couples in our church. 

One thing that used to drive me bananas about Carey is his ‘go big or go home’ approach to life.  

(NB please don’t take this to mean I wasn’t in favour of the generous decision to hand out that book.  I wanted people to discover the wisdom in it and grow as we had.)

It’s just one among countless examples of Carey’s modus operandi: Anything that’s worth doing is worth overdoing. This part of his approach to life was provocative between us for years. I would get up in arms about his being “irresponsible” or “impulsive”.  

After absorbing the wisdom the Enneagram has to offer, I was not so quick to judge.  Once I’d gained a greater level of appreciation for Carey’s internal motivations and the lens through which he sees the world, I became less critical and more likely to appreciate his perspective.

A Few Words About Enneagram for the Uninitiated:

Maybe you’ve heard about the Enneagram but you wouldn’t know how to describe it in a sentence. Cron’s website describes the Enneagram as “…an ancient personality typing system with an uncanny accuracy in describing how human beings are wired, both positively and negatively.”  

It describes 9 personality types that are integrated and connected, each with strengths and weaknesses. 

There’s no right or wrong here, merely varying motivations and perspectives that have upsides and downsides.  A healthy version of each personality type is a huge asset to this world. An unhealthy version of each type is hard to live with, but the reasons are diverse.

You also need to know what is meant by a “wing”. A person of a certain type may exhibit the tendencies of one (maybe both) of its neighbouring numbers. 

For example, I see myself as a 5w4, which means my dominant personality type is 5 (the “Investigator” or “Specialist”), yet I also display some of the motivations and behaviours of a type 4 (the “Romantic”). 

We can find flaws in almost any tool available.  The Enneagram doesn’t have ALL the answers. It’s not a straightjacket for your personality; your unique, one-of-a-kind design.  But, if there’s a tool that helps uncover your blind spots and equips you with practical advice to grow into a better version of you, why not give it a try?

How Four Couples Applied the Enneagram For Healthier Conflict:

I’ve asked a few married people how their conflict was impacted by Enneagram wisdom, and they agreed to share.

As you’re reading, if you’re already familiar with your Enneagram type, remind yourself of what you need to keep front and center to further your own journey toward your best loving self.

If you’re not familiar or if you’ve been skeptical about all the buzz, hear how these couples have realized true gains in self-awareness and peacemaking.

Naturally by surveying four couples, not all the Enneagram personality types are represented.  If you represent a type not dealt with here, send me your own story of how your conflict has been transformed. I’d be happy to write part 2. 

Who knows? Simply how this wisdom impacted you two may be a lifeline for a couple you’ve never met.

Now on to a few brief tales of progress, starting with ours.

“Too aggressive”, meet “too disengaged”

Carey and I each held fast to our complaints against each other when our conflict was rough. In the middle of our “ten year argument” (not exaggerating here, folks), the weaknesses of the other drew our focused attention. It was common for us to reach an impasse, neither one budging from our polarized opinions.

How did the Enneagram help?

Carey identifies most closely as an 8w7 (the “Challenger” with an “Enthusiast” wing).  In his approach to problem solving, he drives hard and fast after a solution. For me as an “Investigator” 5w4, I won’t necessarily know how I feel about the issue (yet), and my impulses are screaming “I need some time – stop pushing me!”.  While Carey tends to be in touch with his emotions in the moment, I’m typically not. 

So before we knew anything about our personality differences, Carey would perceive my hesitation to make a decision and feel that I was just holding out on him.  He saw me as disengaged, and that prompted him to try harder to activate me toward a decision.

His urgency felt too aggressive to me.  Add to that – I felt misunderstood. I wasn’t really disengaged.  I was overwhelmed.  Overwhelmed because I needed more time to process both thoughts and feelings before I make a decision.  Once I reached the extremes of overwhelm, I would dissociate, which only made matters worse.

Hhhhhhhh.  We went round and round far more times than I care to admit.

Well, no more.  My insight into Carey’s personality allowed me to see that he was not just being “aggressive.”  His innate, energetic need to resolve issues wasn’t an attempt to railroad me or silence my voice.  It was the part of his makeup that drives him to remove obstacles in the way of progress.

Carey was able to appreciate that snap decisions are not my style.  He came to value my ability to look into an issue deeply enough to emerge with angles we hadn’t thought of.  When we both listened and bent toward each other’s styles of decision-making, we would end up with a decision of enhanced quality (better than Carey’s snap decision) in a shorter time frame (better than me researching and processing as time dragged on).  

“Help me understand (what’s going on inside you…)”

“Help me understand…” has become a go-to question for Maria and Jake when it becomes clear they’re not on the same page.  For Maria, her first Enneagram insight was “People think differently than I do!”

Their conflict emerged and built over the little things.  She was completely comfortable bursting into a large event in a room full of people.  No problem – “we’re here!!”  But Jake saw her as being disruptive and even selfish.  His response was, “No way – we’re not causing a disturbance!” She saw his opposition as abrupt and stubborn.  

Here’s a couple who’ve been helped by what the Enneagram has to offer even though Jake isn’t convinced. “I’m a 10!”, he jokes.  While Maria’s personality type is a 7 “Enthusiast”, Jake’s may be a 9 or a 5 (?)  Even this level of insight helps them understand Maria’s natural impulse to jump right in and build the plane while they’re flying, while Jake cares a lot about peace for themselves and others, and tends to dig deeper before making a decision.  

When they find themselves reacting with anger about how the other acted, instead of assigning blame or negative labels, they work on being “for” each other.  They ask each other, “Help me understand…”

“God, please help me see Colton the way you see him.  My filter’s not good.”

For Colton and Ashley, Colton’s type 3 “Performer” personality was causing conflict, before they knew what that was.

Ashley saw him as “running away” from their family, to work.  His natural draw toward working hard and achieving goals seemed threatening to her.  Until they learned about their personality differences through the lens of the Enneagram.

A greater awareness of Jake’s wiring along with her prayer above has helped her value his strengths, and support him more wholeheartedly.

Similar to Maria and Jake, a lack of clarity around one person’s type hasn’t prevented them from benefiting from Enneagram wisdom.  Although Ashley’s interested in this tool, she isn’t sure whether she identifies most closely as a 5 “Investigator’, a 6 “Loyalist” or a 1 “Improver” or “Perfectionist”.  Enneagram expert Ian Cron says that only the individual can sift through the motivations to discern which one resonates the most.  No one else can do it for them.  And that process may take time.

Despite the lack of clarity, they’ve been able to harness what they know about Colton’s need to get things done and Ashley’s drive to look into matters and “get it right”. Paying attention to each other’s needs helped they come up with a brilliant way to stop arguing over hot button issues.

When they face a decision that may provoke a heated argument, they process it over email.  It’s proven to be a great strategy for Colton and Ashley because he’s satisfied that they’re addressing the issue and making progress, while she has the time to look into it further, come to terms with thoughts and feelings and express herself.

Their conflict is healthier as a result.

“I don’t get triggered the way I did before” 

 Emma and Trevor have worked side-by-side in church leadership for years.  While they love and appreciate each other, they would find themselves embroiled in heated arguments, both feeling personally attacked.

It’s interesting that they both identify primarily as type 3’s (the “Performer”).  So why all the conflict?  Although they’re both wired for achievement and will happily take the spotlight, their wings illuminate their differences.

Emma’s enneagram personality is a 3w4 (Type 4 is the “Romantic”), while Trevor’s is a 3w2 (2 is the “Helper”).  One of the characteristics of the Romantic is the need to deeply understand and deeply be understood.  

When they had conflict, Trevor tended to try so hard to please and to help that he’d be quick to say “sorry” and rush to resolve the conflict.  That made Emma feel like she’d been swept under the rug.  She felt strongly that it wasn’t over, that she needed to be heard. Really heard. She wanted to see and be seen and to delve into why they were arguing, while Trevor was seeking a shortcut to peace.  As a result, Emma would feel like she was just “too much” – a common feeling amongst Type 4’s.

“It was a power struggle that went on and on.  Knowing what we know now about the Enneagram helps us keep our heads.  There’s more space to stop.”

What’s your story?

For Carey and I and the couples above, greater self-awareness and other-awareness is a gift from the Enneagram that lives on. We opened this tool, used it and found ourselves better equipped.  Especially if you’re a type I didn’t deal with here, I’d love to hear from you.  If you learn something from the Enneagram that gives your relationship a boost, please drop me a line.  How did it help?

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