The notion that relationships can be challenging is widely established and understood, but what is less understood are the specific personality types that are especially challenging when trying to make a relationship functional and harmonious.
Based on 20 years of experience counseling patients, the three personality types described below appear to cause significant tensions in relationships, including family, platonic, work, and romantic. Perhaps the most salient effect of these types is that these personalities present a range of behaviors —words expressed and actions taken—that cause those around them to feel thrown off, frustrated, and, above all, confused.
The avoidant personality
Individuals who have an avoidant personality make a strict effort to avoid strong emotions and emotional intimacy because emotional content and closeness feel threatening. While a subset of individuals has the full-blown disorder, as diagnosed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition, DSM–5, American Psychiatric Association, 2013), many individuals present some degree of such avoidance without meeting the criteria for the full disorder.
Having a relationship of close proximity with an avoidant person is confusing because the avoidant person resists clear, open communication. An avoidant person may feel one emotion (anger, sadness, or another) but will not express it or even acknowledge it when asked; this is a means of avoiding conflict or feeling too vulnerable.
Those in a relationship with an avoidant personality struggle emotionally because they often feel disregarded or uncared for. It typically takes many years in the relationship to understand the personality is “officially” disordered. Those in a relationship with such a person find themselves venting to friends about the lack of connection and the abnormality of the avoidant behavior, and they often turn to a therapist or self-help literature for a reality check and help.
The narcissistic personality
Much has been written about narcissism, and much will continue to be written on the subject because this personality type is so challenging for others to make sense of in a relationship. Those with the full-blown disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as diagnosed in the DSM-5, present a grandiose, superior sense of self and display a stunning lack of empathy for others. As with avoidant personality, a subset of the population meets the full criteria for the diagnosis, while the majority of narcissistic individuals present some degree of narcissistic pathology.
One of the most confusing narcissistic characteristics is that the narcissist’s outward appearance and attitude (bravado, superiority, and having everything under control) are at odds with their true beliefs and feelings that lie beneath. Though their defense mechanisms prevent them from admitting it to others or even themselves, they often have deep anxiety about their self-image. They compete with others—especially those in any type of relationship with them—for attention and approval, and they feel vulnerable and ashamed at the notion of having flaws.
Being in a close relationship with a narcissist is also confusing because the narcissist’s words, what they actually say, are often empty. A psychologically healthy individual has self-awareness and is able to express directly and clearly what they think and feel. On the other hand, the narcissist says what they want the other person to hear, what serves their needs or wishes, or what is consistent with the image the narcissist wants to present. In other words, the narcissist often talks and says words that are not a true reflection of how they feel or believe but what they want to feel or believe. As a rule, they try desperately to tell themselves things they secretly know aren’t true.
The passive-aggressive personality
The third challenging personality type is one that engenders confusion and, later, intense frustration in others. While this type was historically categorized as a mental disorder, it is no longer clinically recognized. However, the passive-aggressive personality is widely identified and seen acted out in social relationships across society.
If you are the recipient of passive-aggressive behavior, it’s confusing at first because the individual’s actions (behaviors, facial expressions, and words expressed) obviously don’t match the content of the words spoken. An archetypal example of the passive-aggressive personality is someone seeing with anger but insisting with a clenched jaw and a calm voice, “I’m really fine.”
One never really knows why the passive-aggressive person is upset in any given moment, which provokes anxiety, frustration, and anger. The recipient knows instinctively that punishment is coming, causing a deep sense of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety about what form the punishment may take. The recipient proverbially walks on eggshells through much of the relationship.
If the relationship has been a long-term one, those in a close relationship with the passive-personality have typically accumulated years of resentment toward the passive-aggressive person and come to see how unfairness defines much of the relationship dynamic. Moreover, those in a relationship with a passive-aggressive often become convinced that the passive-aggressive individual derives gratification from trying to upset and unsettle them, that the passive-aggressive actually likes it. Sadly, distrust results and ultimately emotional detachment from the passive-aggressive is sought.
How to heal and gain clarity
Because a relationship with any of these personality types causes a mix of negative feelings, individuals in these relationships must “come out” and be honest with themselves about what isn’t working in the relationship. They must explain honestly to trusted family members, friends, or a mental health professional what life feels like behind closed doors. Because people in relationships with these personalities have been deprived of validation, it’s necessary to seek validation from trusted, appropriate others. Finally, more education is necessary to heal. Reading more about the problem personality type that resonates most in this post will help, as education brings increased emotional understanding.