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Spring 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 1 · pp. 69–80 

Personality Type Differences and Marriage Counseling

Karl Bartsch

An interpersonal approach to personality type provides a useful place to start in marriage/family counseling. Personality type refers to one’s orientation, style, vision of reality or Weltanschauung. It is interactive; that is, one person’s orientation evokes another’s in predictable ways and so becomes the basis of attraction to and differences with a marriage partner. In this paper a framework and procedure for assessing personality type will be presented, followed by some applications of this approach for marriage counseling. It concludes with a statement on the need to go beyond Personality Type to people’s inner being or center. Change, choice, and a sense of agency are experienced here. It is also a place where people hear the voice of God and a place from where fundamental values and commitments are made.

Marital life development is . . . based on . . . interactive patterns.


Many family therapists will agree with the semi-facetious statement that, {70} “Most family therapy becomes marital therapy sooner or later and if you’re smart you get there sooner” (Nichols, 1988). I assume that the husband-wife relationship lies at the basis of the nuclear family structure and that dependent children’s symptomatic and problematic behavior is often, but not always, a reaction to parental problems. I also assume that a church that has weak family and marital relationships has weak pillars to hold it together.


The topic before us must be placed in several contexts: social, developmental, personal spirituality and Christian community. It is important to note that the personality type of individuals and the marriage of two people is embedded in a broad social context: in-laws, children, work and school pressures, IRS, conflicting cultural norms, etc. Furthermore, while marriage is the only mutually voluntary relationship in the family, the prior experience of the two partners in their earlier life significantly affects their life together. There are powerful unconscious forces in each of the married pair that shape the marriage from the beginning and continue to dominate the relationship throughout the different stages of marriage. Furthermore, marriage partners connect with each other in almost hypnotic ways, to parts of themselves which they tend to suppress—ways that are lost to memory and yet remembered at some subterranean level. The early, family-of-origin interactions are internalized and become the basic pattern for their own intimate relationship. Thus the marriage counselor may need to deal with the intergenerational patterns of the families involved.

Marriages move through predictable stages. Marital life development is not primarily based on biological development but on the interactive patterns, points of view or orientations of the two people married to each other. Such points of view are experiential realities and must be dealt with as such. It is therefore important for the marriage counselor to get a sense of each partner’s approach, typical pattern of interaction, or orientation early in marital therapy.

The interpersonal approach to personality type presented in this paper provides such information quickly and unobtrusively. It enables the counselor to openly assess the relationship {71} with the client pair and decide jointly on goals in marriage counseling. I use the Interpersonal Check List (Leary, 1957), though I also find the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) helpful. Copies of the Interpersonal Check List and the Scoring Sheet are appended to this article. A description of procedures for taking the ICL and interpreting the results follows. For further discussion see Enchantment and Intervention in Family Therapy (Lankton and Lankton, 1986).


  1. On the Interpersonal Check List those adjectives or phrases that are generally characteristic are checked. Those adjectives or phrases that are not characteristic are left blank.
  2. The responses are scored by noting that beside each adjective there is a number and a letter code (e.g. on #40 there is a two [2] and an I). On the Scoring Sheet is a the list of letters from A to P Beside the I the number 2 is placed if #40 was checked. Two (2) is the weight for the I score. Only one 1 and one 4 beside each letter and three 2s and three 3s for a total of 20 are possible.
  3. The numbers beside each letter are added and the totals written in. Totals for each letter are written beside the letters in the first wheel on the Scoring Sheet below.
  4. To graph the scores, the center is zero and the outer edge is 20. Then the areas in the chart on which you have scores are shaded in.


1. The size of the graph will vary for different people. Some graphs are microscopic and others spread out to the edges. The small graph may indicate that a person is cautious when taking "tests," or it may indicate that a person is generally cautious or maybe even suspicious.

If the graph has been filled out to the edges, these people may see themselves as expansive in their thinking. For example, one person whose graph filled in most of the space available wondered that day where her husband had had lunch and so checked “Jealous.” These people expanded one incident into thinking of themselves as “generally characteristic” like that. (See illustration 1b on following page). {72}

Illustration 1

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2. The horizontal and vertical axes of the graph provide the two main dimensions of this approach to personality. If the graph is split on the horizontal axis, the top part indicates "dominant" behavior and the bottom "submissive." Splitting along the vertical axis, the left side indicates "disaffiliative" or "unfriendly" (distancing, cold, movement against or away) behavior while the right side indicates "affiliative" or "friendly" (close, warm, movement towards) behavior.

3. The friendly-unfriendly and dominant-submissive zones are subdivided to form eight sectors, each with its own characteristics. For each sector there is a low level and a high level. Each of the low level descriptions are considered to be desirable personal qualities to have. When these same qualities are pushed too hard and become too strong, the upper levels apply and indicate that they may become problematic in relationships. Thus, for example, the AP managerial qualities become autocratic when pushed too high. That is, if friendly management does not work, the person becomes autocratic and dictatorial.

4. The interpersonal system specifies reciprocal or complementary interactions. That is, one style evokes another. The middle ring of illustration 2 (e.g. “provokes obedience” in the ‘A’ sector) indicates what each approach evokes, perhaps provokes, in the other person. The different approaches or {73} styles are complementary. Dominance and submission complement each other. Friendliness elicits reciprocal, friendliness. These interpersonal patterns become self-fulfilling prophesies and tend to confirm the orientation or view of the world and of oneself.

Illustration 2

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Adapted from Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (p. 65) by T Leary, 1957, New York: Ronald. Copyright 1957 by Ronald Press (used with permission).


1. A counselor should know what effect he or she has on other people. The ICL is helpful in identifying the effect of a certain style on others and in pointing to blind spots. The highest score on the ICL is the one most likely to be the first {74} strategy that a person takes in any interpersonal situation. If this strategy does not work or is not considered feasible, the person will revert to the next highest score. In illustration 3, “wife about herself,” note her high A, managerial score. Her first strategy is to take charge of a situation, just as his is to be distrustful and suspicious, “Husband about himself,” high G score.

Illustration 3

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2. {75} Not only are the filled in zones helpful but those that are left empty provide useful information to you as counselor. In Illustration 3, “Wife about Herself,” note the relative low scores in FGHI. She sees herself as having little suspicion or distrust, and little if any sense of guilt or betrayal of weakness. These are likely to be blind spots in her personality, that is, with her high A, managerial score she is likely to ignore/deny her contributions to the conflicts she is having with her husband.

3. Personality is reciprocal. Your personality type evokes and sometimes provokes a complimentary response in others. If, for example, your style is strongly managerial, A, you should know that such a style evokes obedience from your client or client couple. If it is aggressive, D, it evokes passive resistance. You may wish to use this for therapeutic purposes but you must know when and how to use it. The ICL is useful to identify your style and what your behavior evokes in others.

When you get "stuck" with a client, you may be complementing too exactly the client’s interpersonal style along with the problems associated with such a style. For example, when a dependent JK client is provided too much support, ON or P, the client’s dependent pattern will be reinforced to his or her own detriment. The therapist must learn to become more fully rounded so as to congruently provide some interpersonal disconfirmation for the client. By disconfirming the client’s interpersonal style, the therapist challenges the client’s old pattern or response. The ICL can thus point the way for the therapist/counselor to personally grow and develop.


The interaction of the couple with the therapist and with one another is the major source of information for the way a couple relates. However, when such information is combined with the self-report of the couple on the ICL, the picture becomes more complete.

1. Diagnosis of interpersonal styles lends itself to setting of goals, which leads directly to treatment strategies. In almost all cases, when the chart is shown to clients they confirm the pattern shown on the graph. The blank spots then become easily acceptable goals, arrived at jointly by the counselor and client. When the complementarity of the two graphs is shown {76} to a couple, they readily see what course to pursue in their relationship and often refer back to it in the course of treatment.

2. When members of a couple not only fill out the form for themselves but also for each other, they have a visual display of their perceptions of each other. From a communications point of view they can clarify and direct why they think as they do about each other. My experience is that couples are not only eager to see their scores but readily confirm the validity of the descriptions about themselves and their scores about their spouses.

3. The graphs of a spouse about the mate may also be viewed as projective identification. Projective identification is a tendency to project one’s own needs onto the partner and become identified with the partner as an expected fulfiller of those needs. When the partner fails to fill those needs, conflict arises (Scarf, 1986). Couples strike an unconscious “deal” with each other to view each other in a fixed way (e.g., “I will regard you as suspicious and cautious, if you will regard me as taking over the management of everything”). Such views of each other may be consciously fought over but unconsciously held. The graph may help bring such issues to light.

The paradox of a couple becoming stronger and more intimate as they permit their partners to be separate and unique people is explained by the concept of projective identification. When one member of a couple “takes back” a projection—accepts, for example that the craziness, hostility, dependence, or competitiveness in the partner may be coming from the partner him/herself—then everything becomes different. Similarly, when a partner refuses to accept a projection, refuses to accept the craziness, hostility, dependence, or competitiveness in order to express the spouse's suppressed or disassociated feelings (in the graph these are the empty spots on one’s own chart), then everything changes as well (Scarf, 1986).

4. I have also found the ICL useful in pointing to assignment interventions. For example, we know about the power of marital and family rituals and roles in people’s lives. These include greeting and parting rituals, child discipline rituals, or eating/food related rituals. By empowering a member of the couple team who scores on the submissive side and conversely assigning the dominant spouse to a waiting role, the marital {77} dynamics shift. This, in fact, was the assignment for the couple in Illustration 3, with good effect.


Our concern here is not only with marriages in general, but more particularly, with marriages in the Christian faith community. In addition, our concern is that our approach to people honestly reflect our Christian commitments as well as our professional competence. As counselors and therapists we too are prone to give only lip service to the spiritual dimensions of life, but in fact function as though the psychological or social/psychological realities are all there is to life. We live in an age where the psychological disciplines offer the dominant images by which we understand ourselves. And so we have the tendency to understand our experiences of life in psychological language. “Right” religious language often fails to touch our experiences of hurt and so is not alive for us in therapy. For counseling to be Christian certainly does not mean the use of canned phrases or the ready quote of Scripture but it does mean the experience of God’s presence in healing ways.

An assumption I make about people is that there is a valid distinction between the edges (Personality Type) and the center of person. What we consciously present to each other are the edges of our personality. What a client or client couple presents to us in the office is the edge of the person—maybe silent withdrawn, or managerial and commanding or angry aggressive. This is what the ICL measures. But, we may ask, what is it that enables people to stand back from their own personality or to take back their projective identifications? From what platform do they then see things? I suggest concept of the soul or heart or karma or center or inner being or Inner Thou as that platform.

The belief that there is a center of personhood helps me to rivet my eye on the client’s inner sense of being. My task is to go beyond the presently interacting person to search out and talk to the "person within," whether the client consciously recognizes this "inner being" or not, and to enable him or her to hear the creative and loving voice of God there. I believe that the church has often seemed more concerned with strengthening the edges or the boundaries rather than developing the centers of people’s lives. I find the distinction between center {78} and edges helpful in my understanding of the assumptions Jesus makes about people in the recorded stories of the New Testament.

The contact of the (often unconscious) center of people is not a particularly religious dimension of reality. The assumption that there is a loving and helpful presence of God in, around and through all that we experience is the spiritual dimension. Spirituality, the direct personal/communal experience of a Higher Being, God, is the most neglected resource in individual, marital or family therapy. Furthermore this presence of God is most often functionally cut out of any consideration by the client or client couple when they consider the problems they face. I think of my role as a therapist is not only to help clients recognize their typical approach or orientation, (as measured by the ICL) but to consciously access their own inner being and to hear, see or experience the healing presence of a Higher Being at the very center of their lives. I think this third dimension distinguishes the theistic therapists from the humanist. I also find it eminently practical in my individual and marital therapy.


  • Andrews, J. D. W. “Integrating Visions of Reality, Interpersonal Diagnosis and the Existential Vision,” American Psychologist, 44 (1989): 803-817.
  • Lankton, S. and Lankton, C. Enchantment and Intervention in Family Therapy, Training in Ericksonian Approaches. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1986.
  • Leary, T. Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality. New York: Ronald Press, 1957.
  • Nichols, W. C. Marital Therapy, An Integrative Approach. New York: Guilford Press, 1988.
  • Scarf, M. “Intimate Partners, Patterns in Love and Marriage,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1986. {79}
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Dr. Karl Bartsch is a psychologist in private practice in State College, Pennsylvania. He is an elder in the University Mennonite Church.

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