MBTI, will it help us, hurt us, neither, or both?
January 26, 2010 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Does the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment have any value in couples therapy?

(and yes, I plan to ask our therapist)

I find my spouse and I are getting bogged down in therapy with statements such as, "I am this kind of person and you are that kind of person."

Wouldn't something objective define better for us (and our therapist) what kind of persons we are, as long as we're being honest answering the questions?

And if there's something different or better than the MBTI, please let me know.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, I don't put a whole lot of stock in those kinds of tests because I feel we're far too complex to be categorized.

That said, when I took the MBIT in high school I felt it was a reasonable assessment of myself, and my friends agreed that theirs were also accurate. Maybe the answer is not to try so hard to define yourselves. Use the MBIT as a jumping-off point for discussions and make an active effort to not get bogged down on what kind of people you are. Some couples just work together in weird ways, even if they're not considered the "right" way to do things.

Kudos on the couples therapy, not enough people go.

The MMPI or PAI may be what you are looking for, though.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:07 AM on January 26, 2010

the Myers-Briggs test is a wonky, faddish, arbitrary, and unscientific 'tool' popularized by business- types, undergraduates, and various organizations who like to sort folks into discrete boxes/types. it has more to do with how the takers sees (or wants to/wants not to see) him/herself than any actual personality trait. see also: "type A personality."
posted by mr. remy at 9:09 AM on January 26, 2010 [9 favorites]

All of these things are as useful as you make them. I know that isn't all that helpful a response for you, but these kinds of personality assessments provide you with a frame in which to think about your own personality. They can be very helpful for structuring what you look at, for crystallizing your thoughts about stuff, but the helpful part is in you not in the system. Unfortunately, these things can work poorly, also, when folks read them as truth rather than interpretation. You may find that Myers-Briggs allows you to talk about persistent stumbling blocks in new and helpful ways, you may also find that one or another of you decides you don't have to change because Myers-Briggs told you how you are.

There's one rule of successful couples therapy: Change Enough [for the problems to be resolved]. However you get to that change is useful, whatever stops you from getting to that change is not. Frequently changing a little bit is used as a reason not to change enough.
posted by OmieWise at 9:09 AM on January 26, 2010

I used to work for a management consulting company (so, take that as you may) who would use MBTI and the HBDI (Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument) so that coworkers could communicate more effectively.

A lot of people here will pooh-pooh this kind of categorization, but I feel (and saw) that with good guidance people were able to communicate much more effectively after both partners took the evaluations and used the results to better understand how the other person's thought process worked.

If we assume that these are good communication aids, and that communication is the foundation of any strong relationship, then yes - I feel they could very well be helpful. Of course, only if your therapist happens to be good at guiding you correctly.
posted by pkphy39 at 9:20 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

The MBTI is 75% hokum. Out of the four dimensions it posits, one of them (introversion vs. extroversion) is measured with validity and reliability. There's very little research to support it; the much more popular test among psychology researchers is the Big Five.
posted by Jpfed at 9:22 AM on January 26, 2010

Putting people in discrete boxes/types is pretty much the whole point of HR, at least from a productivity standpoint. But in couples therapy? Well, that seems about as practical as horoscopes.

I find my spouse and I are getting bogged down in therapy with statements such as, "I am this kind of person and you are that kind of person." Wouldn't something objective define better for us (and our therapist) what kind of persons we are, as long as we're being honest answering the questions?

Sounds like you'd just have new, fancy-sounding labels for your stereotypes. The bigger problem might be that you're thinking of each other as a "type" rather than a person.

I'm surprised your therapist doesn't discourage that sort of casting.
posted by rokusan at 9:26 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised your therapist doesn't discourage that sort of casting.

Me too.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:28 AM on January 26, 2010

I find my spouse and I are getting bogged down in therapy with statements such as, "I am this kind of person and you are that kind of person."

The following is lay advice:

Try substituting in statements like "I want X", "When you do X I feel emotion Y.", "I can do X as long as you're willing to Y."

Try looking at couples therapy as a way of negotiating with each other to achieve a mutually enjoyable way of life together. As far as I can tell, the basis of negotiation is finding some match between

What person A wants from person B and what person B can give to A
What person B wants form person A and what person A can give to B

Focusing on the unchangeable ("You are such-and-such a kind of person") doesn't move a negotiation forward.
posted by Jpfed at 9:30 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Okcupid (online dating site) has their own myers-brigg type test that focuses directly on lovelife compatibility. It's very good for what it is. If you're going to introduce something like myers-brigg to couples therapy, it seems that this test comes with the requisite bucket of salt simply from its context as a dating site test that people do for fun.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:32 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

"Wouldn't something objective define better for us (and our therapist) what kind of persons we are, as long as we're being honest answering the questions?"
Something might, but this begs the question: what are your goal as a couple, and how are you hoping to further them in therapy?
Typing someone might help to predict their performance or behavior (in a very general sort of way) in some situation or circumstance. But as spouses, you probably already know way more about each other than such typing as a MB might tell you. And each of you probably knows way more than even that, about yourselves. Go to the source!
Typing yourselves might be interesting but I don't know how it would help you to relate to one another any more than (or even as well as) talking about how you perceive one another and how you would like to be perceived and related to. In other words, you don't need a (necessarily general) descriptor of your partner; you have an instance - the only instance - of the real thing sitting next to you!
FWIW, my concerns about typing in the context of a relationship is that we may tend to take our type to justify why we must be who we are and do the way we do. That's probably not your goal.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 9:44 AM on January 26, 2010

Generally speaking, knowing and recognizing the patterns of how you and your partner think, feel, process information, react to stress, interact with people, etc., etc., will help you communicate and understand each other better. If the MBTI helps you categorize that, use it.

I think the problem, though, is relying on those neat little boxes to tell us what we're like. They're not perfect descriptions, and they're not constant, and a lot of them rely on answering either-or questions when the answer is sometimes "neither" or "both."

I think the bigger problem is categorizing yourselves as This Type of Person. You're underestimating and undermining your potential for change and growth when you think of a trait as "just how you are," and you might be making it more difficult to relate to people when you think "well, I'm an X and he's a Y, and X and Y are incompatible."

It helps me to think of myself and my traits and foibles as the way I do things rather than the way I am - it reminds me that I am an active participant in my own life, and that although I have my own ways of doing things, I don't have to do them the same way forever. Maybe changing your perspective to something like that would help you both.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:45 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

the Myers-Briggs test is a wonky, faddish, arbitrary, and unscientific 'tool' popularized by business- types, undergraduates, and various organizations who like to sort folks into discrete boxes/types

This is true in business situations - I recently interviewed at a company where the CEO, COO, and VP Sales all asked me about my Myers-Briggs profile, as well as the sales manager. It was irritating, and I did not end up working at the company.

However, Myers-Briggs is useful for identifying communication styles, what motivates people, how people like to interact with others and spend their time, as well as what values they hold.

It's a useful starting off point for couples therapy, because it can provide a lot of insight from a (somewhat) objective, additional point of view.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:46 AM on January 26, 2010

When my mom was getting her psychology degree, she made me take every kind of personality test in existence. I found that if I opened a book page randomly, and pretended the assessment was about my "type," about half the time or more I could convince myself that type was me even when it wasn't. This is because, as stated above, people are far too complex to be put into these pigeonholes.

I do agree that people are different, though. For instance:

1. Extroverts are energized by being around people and introverts are energized by having alone time. It's not that I, as an introvert, don't like parties. It's just that they do drain my energy, however much I enjoy them.

2. Decision making: Some people are more comfortable having a decision made and done; others are more comfortable having all their options open for as long as possible.

3. Learning styles: People take away different memories or conclusions from the same situation.

I will accept such things as these to be true, but I am wary of using tests like Myers-Briggs to explain said differences. It doesn't seem to give any leeway for being an extrovert in some circumstances and an introvert in other circumstances; or vacillating between being a decision maker and not. As far as it being a starting point for two people to get themselves talking about how they think, I could go with that.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:48 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hm. Your little mini-question, I thought, "yes! The MBTI is great for helping you understand other people!"

If you're already getting stuck because you're trying to identify your differences, though, and narrow yourselves into 'types', that's probably not as productive. I don't know for sure. What the MBTI helped me with is understanding, not that I'm an analytical person who hates making decisions (I knew that one) but understanding that other people are different, and that's normal, and that's okay. So, it's not actually useful for me to advise that my partner go outside and spend time with people to perk up 'cause that doesn't perk him up. THAT was what was good about the MBTI and other similar personality assessments for me - it showed me some of the ways people can differ without having something "wrong" about their way.
posted by Lady Li at 9:59 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Myers-briggs asks, if you're at a party, do you wind up fixing the stereo? In my case, yes, I do, so the test thinks I'm an introvert. If I'm an introvert, then I also shit swiss cheese.

By which I mean, don't take too much stock in those things.
posted by notsnot at 10:04 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend certainly thinks it is useful. I'll try to get him to post later but in a nutshell, he feels like knowing what my MBTI is helps him understand better my perspective on the world, and craft more effective ways to communicate with me.

It isn't a silver bullet by any means, but as a very analytic thinker (I'm not) he finds it to be a tool to help him improve our relationship and understand why I do some of the things that he used to find bewildering.

It also is an opportunity for him to understand more about why HE communicates and feels and sees the world the way he does. He's found several online communities that are expressly for his MBTI type and many of them have similar perspectives to his.

He uses it as a tool, but not his only tool- but one thing I find entertaining is that he makes guesses about what people's MBTI scores will be and not only is he often right, but he uses them to help him determine more effective ways of communicating with them- people like his boss, my family members, his friends, etc.

All in all, I don't pay all that much attention to MBTI- as a non-analytic thinker, it doesn't really do much for me. But I appreciate the fact that it has improved his communication effectiveness, both with me and others, and that it give him two big lessons:
*He's not weird, or at least if he is, he's certainly not alone in thinking the ways he thinks
*Other people aren't weird/bad/wrong for thinking the way they think, even if it is a style that is utterly foreign to him.

Basically I think MBTI has helped be more empathic, both towards himself and others.
posted by arnicae at 10:07 AM on January 26, 2010

follow-up from the OP
My spouse will say (in therapy),"I'm concerned about our child because (s)he gets anxious about trying new things/activities/whatever...We know who (s)he takes after. I love the idea of trying and doing new things, (s)he doesn't, and it puts stress on our marriage 'cuz we're always doing the same things."

The other example is something brought up by our therapist in that she pointed out that both of us appear to be operating under the assumption that we are a different type of person that we claim we are. One of us (the female) makes pleas for emotional ties/intimacy while really demonstating a "I want to be left alone" type of attitude. The other (the male) wants to remain somewhat aloof to the emotional needs of the other, but has an obvious and intense need for a strong emotional connection.

I guess what I'm saying is that I thought something objective might be a wake up call of some kind. Obviously I am not divulging my gender, but over time I have started to see what the therapist is pointing out and would like to learn more about myself. Spouse? not so much... s(he) doesn't even agree with the therapist when called out on this issue
posted by jessamyn at 10:18 AM on January 26, 2010

You and your partner are different in some fundamental ways -- gender, "Love Languages", Mars/Venus, MBTI, Enneagram, etc.

That's okay cause that's how you are made.

And I cannot change how you are made. And I have only limited control over what I can change in myself.

But I can change my thoughts and behavior toward myself and my partner

To the extent that these difference models shed light on myself, I can examine my own thoughts and behavior.

To the extent that these models shed light on my partner, I can anticipate my partner's needs, desires, and reactions.

To the extent that these models help me be more effective in loving my partner, to the extent that they help me step out of myself and empathize with the other person, they are very useful.

So yeah, I find models like MBTI useful. Are they a good objective measure of anything? Probably not much. Would I compare, assess, or rank people based on their scores? Definitely not. But would I use them to improve my personal effectiveness in communication and relationships? Darn tootin'.
posted by cross_impact at 10:19 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Myers-Briggs is an intuitively derived personality inventory. It's about as good as if you or I sat down and came up our own scales. In terms of it's value, it covers a scant 20% of the validity of the rigourously scientific Big 5 personality inventory that has been the psychological standard since 1980. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits (I can get you a source on MBTI vs Big 5).

Is it useful as a tool in therapy? Well, if you and your partner can believe that X is a great test or measurement tool, and then you can both take it and compare and see the changes, perhaps X would have value. There is a post-modern aspect to therapy where in we're human beings and we create meaning, etc. But, since you have the curiosity to question Myers-Briggs and if you read this post on the ones above. . . it's usefulness has probably deflated for you.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 10:38 AM on January 26, 2010

MBTI is just astrology for human resources.
posted by handabear at 10:46 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

If your therapist were trained to use that type of assessment information, and thought it was useful, s/he would use it without your asking or prompting. What if it may actually be part of the relational problem that you both are trying to define yourselves in such static, potentially oppositional ways? What if inflexibility is the real problem, and not "personality differences"?

The Myers-Briggs is not an objective measure, because it's a self-reporting measure, and people can easily feel that they're honestly choosing one option over another, when in reality, they are highly influenced by the social desirability of those traits. Psychological assessment is a very complex process if you want any degree of accuracy or helpfulness. I would not choose to use a Myers-Briggs as a tool in couples therapy, for any reason, because it just doesn't strike me as helpful to that type of work.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:50 AM on January 26, 2010

You and your spouse have a communication problem. No one is always "this kind of person" or "that kind of person". Ideally, your therapist would be helping you find ways to deal with issues without blaming each other. For instance, your child's anxiety shouldn't be blamed on one parent or the other.

No personality assessment is going to cure a problem with not being able to communicate without blame.
posted by 26.2 at 11:23 AM on January 26, 2010

...over time I have started to see what the therapist is pointing out and would like to learn more about myself. Spouse? not so much...

If you've already gotten this far, I'm skeptical that Myers'-Briggs is going to do anything more for you. Won't it just reinforce the idea that Child is "just like" one of the parents? Won't it also reinforce the idea that you two are somehow totally and strikingly different from one another?

I'm not a therapist...I just think it might be helpful to work on "what's the same" about you and what life goals you have in common. 2 cents
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:56 AM on January 26, 2010

if you have a brain, the M-B tells you what you want it to tell you....
posted by HuronBob at 5:13 PM on January 26, 2010

Here's the thing: you can go on and on and around and around trying to figure out your unconscious motivations for things, what you do vs. what you think, who you are as people, etc. You could literally do this for years or even decades, if you'd like. (See: old-school psychoanalysis). The benefit you could get from Myers-Briggs is in identifying your partner's strengths. Think of things that your spouse does that are awesome. What about your spouse is awesome? Their anxiety or their distancing is not awesome. Think about what makes you smile, what you admire. Think about it when you're at work. Think about it when you're in the shower. Do they have a great smile? Have they ever been kind? Strong? Sexy? Think about specific times when they demonstrated positive traits. Did they make a joke? Comfort their child? Make an effort to nurture you when you were sick?

More random suggestions for increasing your connection with your spouse:

1. Improve your friendship: take time every day to talk, take time to kiss (really kiss), do things that your spouse wants to do, pay attention when your spouse tries to get your attention, purposely do nice things for your partner, know things about your partner's life. You DON'T have to be perfect! You can do the wrong thing. What's important is that you try. If you notice what works, you can do that more. A test can't tell you what will work, you just have to try it and see, or ask your spouse.

Try not to do this stuff, sometimes this can result from using personality tests/assesments: criticizing (saying "you're always like this" is one example of criticism), being defensive (justifying your mistakes by blaming your spouse's past behavior, personality, or flaw, bringing up their mistakes), being contemptuous (mocking, making mean "jokes" about your spouse's flaws, saying things that you know will hurt, humiliating or embarrassing).

I should also mention that you should avoid ignoring your spouse, this will harm your trust in each other and keep you from getting to know each other again.

One important thing to learn about yourself is what you feel like before you do negative behaviors and what triggers those behaviors. Then you should try to walk away and think about something else.

Listen to your spouse and "give in" as much as possible when they make suggestions or requests. No matter what personality you or your spouse has, everyone likes to be listened to and everyone likes to have a say in things that affect them.
posted by kathrineg at 12:00 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also feel like I have to say this: thinking about the things that make your relationship harder can help improve your relationship, but only if you're able to change those things. Otherwise you might as well focus on the positive, build on your strengths, and learn to ignore each others' weaknesses as much as possible.

If you are anxious or a bit of a loner, focusing on that is like focusing on being tall. If it's a dealbreaker, well, it's a dealbreaker. But if it's not you have to move on to positive action and do things that allow you to enjoy each other for the flawed people that you are.
posted by kathrineg at 12:06 AM on January 27, 2010

It helped me accept things I disliked about myself, and it helped me understand and accept ways my partner is different from me. It made me attuned to some differences in approach that come up over and over again in daily life, so that I could be more considerate about other people's work styles and more prepared to prevent problems. There are a lot of MBTI haters out there, but worst case it's useless; I don't think it does a lot of damage or anything.

However. If I read between the lines correctly, what you are saying is that you want to be accepted for who you are. You can ask for that without taking any test. I don't fully understand the bit about being opposites and your spouse not hearing the call-out. But rather than focusing more on objective information and what you "are," I'd focus on what you want and ask for that.
posted by salvia at 2:47 AM on January 27, 2010

I think one of the problems with these measures is that they put you into discrete categories, rather than acknowledging that people can really have two traits at once, or be two types at once. Same with right brained and left brained: you really really can have both "right brain" and "left brain" characteristics in equal proportions.

So, I think it's more important that you guys work on figuring out how to get along given that you see yourselves and/or each other as whatever types, as opposed to finding "more objective" ways to define your types. Perhaps objectively determining your types/characteristics could help in a similar way, and could simplify the process since you're removing the "how you see yourselves" part. But this could only work if the objective type definitions were accurate. And that seems difficult, given the point in my first paragraph.

That said, I randomly found a site a while ago that lets you enter your MB results (from a test on the same site), and the proportion of each trait (so, not just "E", but 72% E, for example), for you and your spouse, and it tells you something about your compatibility. I wouldn't necessarily put any more credence in it than you would a Cosmo Quiz, though. And the results are supposed to entice you into buying a more detailed report.
posted by sentient at 9:04 AM on January 27, 2010

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