Editor’s note: Wellness Word is an informational column which is not meant to replace a health care professional’s diagnosis, treatment or medication.
By Dale Rhodes
In any long-term relationship, most couples can remember disagreeing about something seemingly insignificant. Maybe one of them was having a bad day. Perhaps it was the result of miscommunication. Often a minor spat can spiral into a major conflict without deeper exploration.
For Vicki Reitenauer, it happened in the kitchen. She and her wife, Carol Gabrielli, share an interest in cooking, but they don’t always adhere to the same standards.
“I’ll chop the peppers, and then she’ll come back and re-chop them at the size that she wants,” Reitenauer recalls. Before long, she’d find herself feeling: “Wow, you’re betraying me on some fundamental level. You’re abandoning me.”
The couple, who met at college in 1985, have been together since 1997. They eventually figured out what was causing such an extreme reaction by studying the Enneagram, a personality system that details nine universal perspectives on seeing the world.
For example, “The Protector” tends to be a bossy person who confronts injustice, while “The Mediator” would rather avoid drama. “The Performer” enjoys the spotlight, while “The Observer” prefers privacy. In essence, each personality type has a specific “lens” through which it filters the world, and the Enneagram aims to bring everything into focus.
Gabrielli discovered that her Enneagram type is “The Perfectionist”; meaning she consistently fixates on errors, which can lead to anger and resentment. “I think things through with great rigor,” Gabrielli says before jokingly busting into an exaggerated German accent. “It’s about discipline and consequence!”
Reitenauer, meanwhile, identifies as “The Romantic”, an idealistic type who frequently notices what’s missing. “I believe in feeling things deeply. I’m drawn to the highest highs and the lowest lows.”
By learning more about their distinct points of view, the couple have been able to develop a keen awareness that not everyone perceives those chopped veggies in the same way. As a result, they stopped taking everything so personally.
“Because of who Carol is, there is this sense of doing everything in the right way,” Reitenauer says. “That intersects with my deep shame around being exposed for being wrong. That would be a driver for conflict in our relationship.”
The goal, she explains, is for people to express affection in a way that will resonate with their partner.
“The Enneagram has helped me to recognize how Carol shows love to me,” Reitenauer says. “Sometimes in a couple, either person can be acting in ways that they believe are loving and which are expressions of love, but the other person can’t see it, because it’s not what that person typically has recognized as love.”
Israel Sostrin and Susan Schmitt have also experienced how the Enneagram can help couples understand each other better. As the busy parents of a young daughter, they have a strong desire to connect during their limited free time—although with different approaches.
Schmitt says the Enneagram is a powerful method to help get to the heart of issues “more quickly and gracefully. It gave us a tool to look inside so we don’t have to blame the other person. It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the nature of who we are”. According to Sostrin, the Enneagram gave him an eye-opening awareness of his “blind spots”. He adds that his frustration subsided once he accepted that he and his wife have inherently distinct outlooks. “You wouldn’t expect a raccoon to act like a giraffe.”
So much about how growth happens is just awareness of one’s point of view. People can spend a long time in therapy to develop awareness that can come quite easily with the Enneagram. It is a system of self-understanding and understanding others in your life. What results from that is compassion—compassion for each other and compassion for ourselves.
“I value any tool that helps me see how I’m wired,” Gabrielli says. “Once one practices the Enneagram more and more, he or she can not only see the train coming, but hear the whistle and get off the track, so that you’re not just standing there and getting run over by the moment.”
Dale Rhodes, is a certified trainer of the Enneagram. Learn more at www.EnneagramPortland.com.