Handle new relational insights with delicate care.
Gaining new insights into how we relate with one another is powerful. Good insights can help any relationship. But, for those of us looking to grow more understanding and intimacy with our partners, they are gold. That said, as humans, it’s so easy to weaponizing new insights by manipulating them.
As the Enneagram personality test has become popular over the last few years, we have come across comments like these…
- “You always agree with what other people want, instead of what I want! Stop being such a 2!”
- “You are the perfect 9… you never get up off that couch.”
- “Of course you’re only interested in your own feelings. You’re a 5.”
- “I won’t even try to talk to an 8 – you won’t listen anyway!”
Launching verbal weapons rarely creates the outcome that either partner is hoping for. To grow our relationships we need to lay down our arms to get anywhere good. But before we talk about disarmament we should define what the Enneagram is.
What is the Enneagram?
The Enneagram, (ennea = nine, gram = diagram) is a widely used personality test containing nine personality types. And really, the term “personality” can be limiting, since it’s more about our motivations, or what drives our daily behaviors. Much of the Enneagram developed over the eons from ancient wisdom traditions that included mystical Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, and ancient Greek philosophy. But it was a South American, Oscar Ichazo, who integrated the popular, nine personality type version in the 1960s.
The nine personality types are arranged in a circle like this:
Most of us are predominantly one number, with a certain set of traits and motivations that come with that number. However, we usually have some of the traits and motivations of the neighboring numbers next to it. In Enneagram speak these are our “wings”. For example, someone who is predominantly a 9 will have some traits or tendencies from their 8 and 1 wing as well.
In addition, there are lines from our number leading to other numbers in the chart. These lines point to the dark or light sides of those numbers, depending on the motivations of the moment.
If you’ve had any experience with the Enneagram, you know it is uncanny in its ability to nail our best and worst traits right against the wall. Rohr even suggests in his book that “person experiences real remorse or shame as they read about their number, it’s probably not the correct one”. This is because when you finally stumble across your number, it’s like looking into a magical mirror. One that shows you everything you’ve always hoped was, and wasn’t, true about yourself!
Here are the brief descriptions for the nine personality types, according to the Enneagram Institute. (I’ve also added the motivation for each according to Richard Rohr, from his book, The Enneagram, A Christian Perspective):
- THE REFORMER (The need to be perfect) – The Rational, Idealistic Type: Principled, Purposeful, Self-Controlled, and Perfectionistic
- THE HELPER (The need to be needed) – The Caring, Interpersonal Type: Demonstrative, Generous, People-Pleasing, and Possessive
- THE ACHIEVER (The need to succeed) – The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious
- THE INDIVIDUALIST (The need to be special) – The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental
- THE INVESTIGATOR (The need to perceive) – The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated
- THE LOYALIST (The need for security) – The Committed, Security-Oriented Type: Engaging, Responsible, Anxious, and Suspicious
- THE ENTHUSIAST (The need to avoid pain) – The Busy, Fun-Loving Type: Spontaneous, Versatile, Distractible, and Scattered
- THE CHALLENGER (The need to be against) – The Powerful, Dominating Type: Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational
- THE PEACEMAKER (The need to avoid) – The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type: Receptive, Reassuring, Agreeable, and Complacent
No number is better than another.
This would be a good place to point out that there is no “best number”, so drop the idea that 1 is better than 9, or vice versa, (more on that below). As humans, each of us has both a light and dark side or a mature or immature side of our personality. I’ve heard many comments and jokes as people discuss the various types.
- Some wish they were ”three” because wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to achieve whatever they set out to achieve with skill and confidence.
- Some wish they were ”seven” because they just seem so happy all the time.
- Some are glad they are not a ”one” because it would be terrible to be strangled by perfectionism
- Some are glad they are not an ”eight” because they would be fighting all the time.
But, that’s not how this is meant to work. As mentioned every type displays traits that manifest in both mature and immature people. A mature 3 is a force to reckon with, true… but they are only a positive force if they’ve done the very deep, difficult work of becoming aware of and developing empathy for others around them. An immature 3 will walk over others to climb whatever ladder of success is before them. A mature 7 is inspiring and a joy to be around because their optimism is uplifting even as they are aware of how difficult and painful life can be sometimes. An immature 7, on the other hand, is apt to flippantly wipe away the pain, even the pain of others, in their quest to force everything and everyone to be happy.
So, whatever number you resonate with, remember that you have a potential superpower to bless the world with, but you also have the curse of imperfect human ego pushing you in the other direction.
How the Enneagram can be helpful in relationships.
If the Enneagram was developed as an aid to help people understand their own personal motivations and actions, it stands to reason it could also be helpful in bringing new insights into relationships as well, right? Right!
The Enneagram can be helpful in the same way learning any new information about your partner can be helpful. If I know my husband doesn’t like nuts in his chocolate chip cookies, I can show him I love him by not putting nuts in the cookies. In the same way, if I know certain situations have the potential to trigger his 2-ish overly-empathetic tendencies, I can temper my words and not over-react to situations that don’t require a huge reaction.
In other words, we can use specific knowledge we have about our partners to help and encourage them.
In our relationship, I am a 9 with an 8 wing, and Rick is a 2 with a 1 wing. We both know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, mature and immature responses. With a useful tool like the Enneagram, we are in a position not only to encourage each other toward positive growth but to offer grace and understanding when either of us falls into our less mature spaces.
How the Enneagram can be… less helpful.
Just like we can use specific knowledge about each other to help and encourage, we can also use it to belittle and discourage. This is what I mean by weaponizing the Enneagram.
You can use a hammer to build something so it’s strong and reliable. You can also use a hammer to tear down and break things. The Enneagram can be used both ways, too.
When you start thinking about your partner more as a number (or even a group of interconnected numbers) and less as a complex person, it’s time to stop and get some perspective. Yes, your partner can learn more about themselves and their motivations by looking into their Enneagram type. Yes, they can use this information about themselves to identify areas that need work. No, they don’t need you to do that for them.
It takes time and practice to learn how to use a new tool. You have to figure out what works and what doesn’t, which sounds risky, right? If it can be used to cause harm, if there’s a chance it will hurt someone, why even bother? Well, I think that’s a line you have to deliberately step over together, knowing you’ll probably screw up from time to time. Also know that as you seek to learn more about each other, you will gradually grow closer, become better friends, trust each other with more, and experience deeper intimacy.
Relationship style makes a difference
Of course, just like the individual, the couple who is diving into the Enneagram has to weigh their maturity and immaturity. We like to refer to this as their relationship “style”.
Our marriage mentors brought relationship styles to our attention years ago. They called them “The 4 Styles of Marriage”, and they are listed from less mature to more mature:
- My way or the highway: one person calls all the shots while the other caves.
- Horse-trading: both people do what they want, and actively “keep track of points” so they can “keep things fair”.
- Mutual support: both people agree to follow their own path while the other actively supports them.
- Partnership: Both people agree on a set of dreams or goals, and though they don’t do everything together, they both do their part to achieve their collective goals.
And, unless you’re striving for partnership or at least mutual support, you probably are going to find yourselves more likely to weaponize any useful information the Enneagram has to offer.
Of course, the good news is, no matter where you find yourselves in your relationship, improvement is always possible. The Enneagram has definitely helped our relationship and brought us closer together. Small moves toward maturity both in ourselves and in our relationship happen in every decision we make to put our shared goals ahead of our own personal wants.