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ISTPs sit at a strange and distinct intersection of traits—one that leaves relationships with ISTPs feeling like an absolute nightmare for the average law-abiding, rule-following citizen (you know, the kind who has any sense of obligation whatsoever). Take a look at the 16 personalities encompassed by the Myers-Briggs, any you’ll notice that just about every other personality cluster possesses some tendency that keeps them grounded in reality. Js love rules and schedules, both of which keep them consistent. Es and Fs have strong senses of connection to others, which keeps them aware of the world and their place within it. Even Ns, with their aptitude for big-picture thinking, are likely to spend a fair amount of time in their heads before taking action.
ISTPs move through the world absolutely untethered to any of these things—and it shows.
An ISTP’s most defining characteristic is their individualism. It’s not that ISTPs think they’re special or different from everyone else—and it’s not that they’re particularly determined to be self-sufficient, either. An ISTP’s worldview simply make its hard for them to see what anything or anyone else has to do with them. They view themselves as separate, preferring to permanently fly under the radar. It’s hard for ISTPs to imagine anyone caring what they have to say—much less paying attention to what they’re doing—and they honestly prefer it that way. It sure beats the crushing sense of accountability that comes from responsibility! Or at least, that’s how ISTPs see it.
While most other types desire power (or at least, attention) from others, ISTPs thrive on avoiding these dynamics altogether, keeping themselves free from obligation and plans. If there’s a disagreement in your friend group, you can find the ISTP artfully avoiding any part in it, hiding in the kitchen and remaining on good terms with everyone involved. In groups, the ISTP is never the one volunteering to lead—the most engaged they typically get is offering a generally spot-on suggestion from the back and then not bothering to see if anyone heard them.
The ISTP’s unique detachment can be explained pretty succinctly using the four letters that make up the type. The I(ntroversion) and T(hinking) predispositions keep the ISTP from thinking in terms of emotional interdependence. And the P(ercieving) element leaves them far more likely to fly by the seat of their pants than make any plans. All of these leave the ISTP pretty ill-equipped to relate to others—which naturally makes ISTP relationships a bit of a challenge. Then, there’s that S. People with S(ensing) tendencies love details and figuring out the intricacies that the average (i)N(tuition)-prone person blows past. When combined with the ISTP’s other letters, this S adds up to a grand obsession with the miniscule. A passing stranger’s facial expression, a single sentence or even an unusual sound can occupy an ISTP’s brain long after most would move on.
An ISTP’s pathological avoidance of commitment and conflict can make them hard to understand, but once you’re in with an ISTP, you’ll have the honor of being one of the few things they consider to be permanent. So, how do you pull it off?
Be consistent, but don’t expect your ISTP to be.
That killer S-P combo makes the ISTP intensely aware of the impermanence of life. One of the first profiles I read about the Myers Briggs describes an ISTP‘s reality as “being constantly torn apart and reconstructed in front of them.” They pretty much expect that their thoughts, feelings and perspectives could change at any moment and assume the rest of the world is the same way. This makes it hard for an ISTP—not only in terms of committing to others, but also in their expectations of others’ commitments to them.
It can be a challenge for an ISTP to believe anyone’s attitude toward them will remain consistent from day to day; ISTPs are some of the most likely types to continually check in with their loved ones to get assurance the relationship is still in good standing. ISTPs have a looser grasp on parts of the world that most people take as absolutes, and they assume others apply the same object impermanence to them. When you’re in a relationship with an ISTP, it can seem taxing to feel like you have to continually prove you still care about them, but if you put in extra affirmations at the beginning, it’ll make it easier for the ISTP to accept you’re sticking around. A thoughtful compliment, good morning text, a small gift or even a little physical touch can help the ISTP believe your feelings for them haven’t changed overnight like they fear.
The other side of this impermanence coin is that ISTPs believe that they, too, could literally change at any moment. Because of their loose grip on permanence and tendency toward improvisation, ISTPs are very sensitive to their upcoming options and alternate futures. Even if almost none of these imagined options come to fruition, ISTPs are plagued by all the “coulds” in their life, and this makes it hard for them to commit to ever being, doing or feeling the same things tomorrow that they did today. This can seem absolutely insane to more grounded types who have an easier time applying past experience to the future and just understanding that life usually doesn’t change that much, but for ISTPs, imagined future possibles feel impossible to ignore. Because of this, ISTPs can be extremely hesitant to lock in future plans.
But the secret is: Almost always, life will be much more predictable than the ISTP will admit, and you can usually count on them to show up/continue to feel the same way about you. Just don’t press them too far in the future. ISTPs want the freedom to be spontaneous, even if they don’t actually plan on it.
If you want your ISTP to come to something, take a second to explain why.
Some of you might have already guessed this from all of the previous descriptions, but ISTPs aren’t especially prone to feeling obligated to anyone or anything else. For some people, that might code as “selfish.” You’re not exactly wrong, but you’re not exactly right, either. ISTPs just don’t innately feel like they have to do a lot of things that others do. They’re not trying to be inconsiderate or self-centered when they opt out of events everyone else is going to—they just think a lot of obligations are kind of bullshit. The ISTP’s combo of individuality, emotional detachment and noncommittal nature means that they are one of the least likely types to succumb to guilt tactics.
You’ll never get an ISTP to do something “because they should” (I’m looking at you, every single J type). ISTPs aren’t overly concerned with their social capital and tend to think they exist under the radar. Coming to your coworker’s cousin Kevin’s apartment-warming party just because Kevin might notice they’re there and think better of them isn’t really much of a motivator. ISTPs are more likely than most to opt out of big events, not just because they’re introverted, but because they doubt anyone will actually notice or care if they don’t show. This is important to take into account if you actually need an ISTP to come to something with or for you.
Don’t bother assuming they’ll come because everyone else is going, and don’t bother trying to make them feel bad, either. The surest approach is just to explain that it would mean a lot to you, personally, if they were there. Although they can be pretty detached, ISTPs tend to live in a “do no wrong” mentality, and they certainly won’t do something if they know it’ll be hurtful to someone close to them.
Don’t expect your ISTP to weigh in on things (but listen when they do).
It can be almost supernaturally hard to get an ISTP to be clear and tell you what they really want. This is because, as we’ve already discussed, they don’t really want to decide what they want until the absolute last second just in case anything changes on them. For this same reason, needing an ISTP to decide on anything at all is a special kind of hell—if you give them three months to decide on something they will decide one day after the deadline (ISTPs have decided that deadlines, like obligations, are mostly made up and don’t apply to them).
This can be absolutely torturous to anyone who prefers to have a plan, or any sort of structure at all, and this is why I recommend limiting the amount of decisions you put in front of ISTPs. If it’s about anything relatively inconsequential, like picking a place for dinner or a show to watch, chances are all they want is for you to make the decision. Most ISTPs don’t like taking the lead because A) Chances are they don’t actually care that much, and B) They don’t put a lot of confidence in their choices anyway. The best choice for an ISTP is the one most easily changed. Their worst-case scenario is putting their foot down on something and having it turn out badly, like choosing an Italian restaurant and finding out you actually wanted Chinese, or that the place they chose ended up giving you food poisoning, or a hundred other outcomes they don’t want pinned on them.
For this exact reason, it’s critical to listen whenever an ISTP does voice an opinion or desire. For most ISTPs, at least at first, this will almost always come as a very quiet suggestion in a tone so neutral it mimics indifference, and the ISTP would rather die than repeat it. A lot of ISTPs have a frail sense of their power to impact others and don’t go around expecting people to do what they want, so listening when they take a chance at showing you their wants (even over the smallest things) will mean the world and help them learn that speaking their mind isn’t just a disaster waiting to happen.
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Help your conflict-avoidant ISTP be clear about what they need and how they feel.
You can bet this same fragility, or aversion, to definitive statements will be a challenge if an argument arises. ISTPs keep a lot of their opinions and choices close to the vest so they can edit them at a moment’s notice to avoid confrontation. This almost X-Men-like ability to shape-shift can be maddening for a partner that genuinely wants to make sure an ISTP is happy and satisfied.
ISTPs often don’t feel comfortable standing their ground because they find it hard to care about anything for longer than a second and certainly don’t see the benefits of defeating anyone else in an argument. While this level of non-confrontation might get them by in most interactions, it doesn’t translate well to a romantic relationship, where ideally their opinions and desires are 50 percent of the thing.
A lot of ISTPs won’t bother to correct your behavior if it’s hurting them, because they hate conflict and have a hard time believing they can effect change. If they try to subtly bring up problems they have, be sure to listen, but truthfully, you might just have no idea what’s wrong for an absurdly long time. The best thing you can do in this situation, other than summon a heaping dose of patience, is try reframing the conflict to your ISTP so they understand they’re not the only one they’re affecting when they don’t speak up. ISTPs tend to assume staying mum is the best way to get through life, but if you make it clear that hiding their feelings is hurtful to you, it might help motivate them to be clearer in their communication.
As frustratingly flighty as ISTPs can be, they’ll at least ensure you never have another dull moment. Being close to an ISTP means you’ll be privy to all the little things they notice but never voice to others, and because they take conflict so seriously, they’re not likely to trap you in fights about anything trivial. Their attention to detail means they can find something good or interesting about anyone they encounter, and the perspective can be refreshing to be around. ISTPs can be hard to lock down, but it’s well worth the effort to have one in your life.