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An introvert’s guide to dating: ‘I married an extrovert. I think he loves that I keep him grounded’

Going out with someone of opposite temperament can be difficult to navigate, but with the right approach you can get to where you want to be

“[The introvert] blushes frequently [and] is self-conscious ... [The introvert] limits his acquaintances to a select few ... [The introvert] hesitates in making decisions on ordinary questions that arise in the course of the day ... [The introvert] takes up work that requires painstaking and delicate manipulation.”

These are entries taken from Max Freyd’s comprehensive list of the traits of the introvert, which he wrote in the journal Psychological Review a century ago. There’s no denying that certain entries are dated, laughably unverifiable and just plain weird: I don’t know any modern introverts who are particularly “slow in movement” or who habitually “[rewrite their] social letters before mailing them”. And yet, overall, the list seems to capture, with an uncanny degree of accuracy, our contemporary pop culture understanding of what it means to be an introvert.

Ever since the famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung first presented the term – roughly 12 years before the appearance of Freyd’s list – introversion has extended beyond a mere social temperament to describe aspects of how we think, problem-solve and engage with the world. Neuroscientists have even corroborated our age-old observations with proof of concrete differences between the brains of introverts and extroverts.

Introverts have higher blood flow in the frontal lobes, which control cognitive functions such as planning, judgment and attention, as well as a less active dopamine reward network. This difference in reward-related brain activity explains why an extrovert feels excitement when invited on a date with someone they admire, while an introvert tends to feel overstimulated or even a sense of dread.


Remaining on the topic of first dates, it is natural to wonder how introverts, who are not only socially but also neurally distinct from extroverts, approach dating individuals of the opposite temperament.

When writing Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After, Sophia Dembling, a Dallas-dwelling writer and self-proclaimed “professional introvert”, says that one of the most common questions she encountered from other introverts was: “Who am I better off with – an introvert or an extrovert?”

“I think it’s 50-50,” she tells me. “Some introverts really like having an extrovert who is what I like to call the cruise director – somebody who’s going to make the plans, someone you can go out with and ride their coattails. Other introverts prefer somebody who’s going to stay home with them and be quiet.”

I’m married to an extrovert and I feel that, from the very beginning, we were attracted to each other’s very different natures

—  Susan Cain - author

Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, reveals that she probably fits into the former category.

“I’m married to an extrovert and I feel that, from the very beginning, we were attracted to each other’s very different natures,” she says. “I love that he never runs out of things to say, and I think he loves it that I keep him grounded.”

Notwithstanding the novelty and excitement of falling in love with someone of the opposite temperament, introvert-extrovert relationships can be difficult to navigate. But in my years of dating extroverts, I have learned that with a bit of know-how, the experience does not have to feel quite so unmooring.

Take time out

Contrary to popular belief, being an introvert is not the equivalent of being a grumpy misanthrope. While Dembling is clear that being an introvert does not make her “shy or socially awkward”, she, like myself, admits to feeling a little “bitchy” when she hasn’t had time to recharge after socialising.

From the writer’s perspective, differences between introverts and extroverts tend to revolve around where one gets their energy. While social interaction can replenish the energy reserves of extroverts, it tends to drain those of introverts, for whom alone time in low-stimulus environments can feel almost sacred.

In situations where quiet solitude is harder to come by – as when she and her late husband spent extended time with his family – Dembling cherished her partner’s willingness to “run transference with her”.

She says, “If I ever needed to just go out and take a walk by myself, he would make the excuses for me. He would find the times for me to go. And so, he knew that by protecting my energy in that way, the experience would be better for everybody. Respecting the introvert’s need [for downtime] can be a gesture towards the happiness of the couple.”

When it comes to setting boundaries around alone time, Dublin-based relationship coach and accredited psychotherapist Annie Lavin stresses the importance of clear communication:

“An introvert may feel overwhelmed or drained by their [extroverted] partner’s desire for more socialising, and it’s important that this true need to recharge is respected. But equally, some extroverts can misinterpret their introverted partner’s need for solitude as a kind of rejection or disinterest,” she explains.

“It can be helpful to reassure your extroverted partner that the need for alone time has nothing to do with not enjoying the time spent together, especially in the early stages of a relationship.”

From Cain’s perspective, “the most important thing for extroverts to know is that, while introverts want a lot of downtime, this doesn’t mean they don’t love you”.


Addressing differences in energy levels and social preferences can feel especially daunting in the early phase of dating, where shyness and the pressure to impress can make it challenging to be upfront about one’s real needs. According to Lavin, empathy and flexibility are essential when we finally pluck up the courage for these conversations.

“When date night comes around, an introvert might want to meet for a quiet, intimate dinner or drinks, whereas their extroverted partner might prefer to go to the newest, busiest spot in town for the lively atmosphere,” she says.

“But in situations like these, both partners can benefit from openly discussing their social preferences and finding compromises that honour both of their needs. Some couples might opt for alternating between quiet nights and larger social gatherings for their dates.”

Whatever the compromise reached, Cain echoes the importance of finding creative ways to meet each other halfway, rather than stumbling at the first roadblock: “Instead of wondering whether there’s something wrong, it’s useful to just have a discussion about what an ideal social life looks like for each of you and see where you can honour each other’s needs, including realising that it’s okay for one of you to go out while the other one stays at home.”

Ditch the extrovert yardstick

Navigating the dating world as an introvert can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield of social expectations, some of which we feel perpetually ill-equipped to meet. Just recently, during lunch with a friend seeking advice about a new love interest, she referred to his introversion as a kind of “incapacity” in need of fixing. The man in question was delightfully engaging one-on-one and in small groups, but to her, both his confidence and allure evaporated the moment he found himself seated at a dinner table surrounded by more than 20 of her closest family and friends.

“There’s this assumption that we are failed extroverts rather than existing in our own context,” Dembling says, after admitting that few things “make [her] crazier” than being unexpectedly thrust into a social gathering without prior warning.

While the writer feels she is in her element at small gatherings where she can have “real conversations”, she admits that certain large parties and networking events, where you are handed a cocktail and expected to “work the room” are a nightmare.

“Whenever I go to those things, I compare myself to a sea sponge where I sit in one place and I talk to anybody who drifts by me,” she says.

I think it is safe to say that Dembling is not alone in feeling the weight of her perceived social deficits in certain dating contexts. We both confess to being utterly inept at flirting and downright allergic to small talk – that formulaic exchange of “Where do you work?” and “What’s your favourite pizza topping?” through which Dembling has often wished she could fast-forward, like “eating your vegetables as fast as possible”. Pro tip: Dembling recommends asking more open-ended questions that have the potential to spark deeper conversations, like her and her late husband’s favourite: “What was something that made you smile today?”

Rarely do we acknowledge that at least some of the misery of early dates can stem from our efforts to satisfy what we have come to regard as a certain inalienable standard of social performance. This standard, in Dembling’s view, has almost always been calibrated to the extrovert or “social butterfly”– a way of being that does not come naturally to us as introverts.

But within the dating world, there is so much potential comfort and authenticity in liberating ourselves from this imperative.

“If I tell myself I’m okay with being a sea sponge, then parties aren’t that scary,” Dembling says. “It’s only when I go into these social situations saying I have to behave like an extrovert that I end up feeling like I’ve failed. That’s what makes me not want to go to parties.”

Take agency

In the early stages of dating, where we so often find ourselves in crowded pubs, nightclubs and house parties teeming with strangers, introverts can benefit from planning dates in settings devoid of such distractions, where they can truly get to know someone without becoming overstimulated. Despite being sensitive to the exertion, introverts can thoroughly enjoy socialising in the right context.

“In our extrovert-centric society, I think that introverts can forget that they have agency too. Just as introverts often wait to be chosen, we also tend to wait for invitations to come our way,” Dembling says.

“Instead of suffering through a date where you feel like you’re competing with the band or the bar or the crowd, you can take the initiative and set up a date where you feel more in your element. It really is a matter of figuring out what works best for you in social situations and finding a balance that respects both your needs and your partner’s, so that the date feels right for both of you.”

Find the humour in it

While every introvert is different – some eagerly anticipate the right kind of party while others prefer to curl up in the nearest quiet corner with a good book – getting to know and embrace each other’s differences is essential in any introvert-extrovert relationship.

Cain reminds us that doing so need not be such a sombre affair. After she had finished writing Quiet, Cain found that many of the sources of friction between her and her husband softened with the realisation that they stemmed from difference in each other’s temperaments. These incongruities, which sometimes spark deep irritation, can also evoke excitement and even comedy:

“For years, we would bicker on long drives about how loudly to play the radio. He would move the dial to the right and I would move it to the left. In the end, just knowing that this conflict had to do with differences in who we are made it easier for us to compromise with each other and laugh about the friction,” she says.

For the introverts still wondering how they’ll ever survive that first excruciating stage of dating, it may come as some relief to know that when you’ve “eaten all your vegetables”, so to speak, a quiet, cosier phase of intimacy awaits. With the knowledge of morning breath and bed hair comes the reign of what Dembling describes as a “value-added solitude”, where, like a beloved piece of furniture, your partner becomes someone for whom you no longer need to perform.