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Enneagram Instinctual Drives in Relationships

enneagrams and instinctual drives in relationships

How do the Instinctual Drives and the Enneagram affect your ability to relate?

Enneagram Instinctual Drives in Relationships: Just what effect do they have? It’s Dave’s (Sexual Instinct) anniversary. He’s looking forward to some serious one-on-one romantic buzz time with his partner at an intimate restaurant. When he arrives home, it’s to find that his partner (who has a dominant Social Instinct), has organised some friends to celebrate with them. He just doesn’t get why his partner would prefer a group of people, rather than just the two of them. It’s their anniversary for goodness sake!

Another example: Moira (Sexual Instinct), has received an unexpected bonus from her company. Her partner (Self-Preservation Instinct), wants to invest most of the money and use the balance on home improvements. She has different ideas and wants to take her partner on an exotic tropical island holiday. She just doesn’t get that her partner would prefer a healthier bank account and a repaired roof, rather than the togetherness she’s offering.

The result? Conflict and misunderstanding, and all because of different dominant Enneagram Instinctual Drives.

What are the Enneagram Instinctual Drives?

(Also known as Sub-types, Instinctual Subtypes, Instinctual Orientations, Basic Instincts, Instinctual Variants, Animal Instincts or Sub-orientations)

Enneagram Instinctual Drives: The three Instinctual Drives are animalistic aspects of human behavior. They are vital for our survival and as a result, play a huge role in the way we behave. The Instincts create the drive for our personality to highlight a particular way to get our primary needs met. This allows us to create the resources we perceive we need; be they basics such as food, or less tangible, such as a sense of belonging, or the buzz we get when we connect with someone.[i]

Basically, they are instincts that ensure survival:

  • Self-preservation as getting shelter, food and physical safety needs met.
  • Social as the security of being in a tribe (family, group, etc.), and
  • Sexual being the need to procreate to ensure the tribe’s survival.

We each have all three instincts, but one tends to be more dominant. The instincts are more powerful in their influence by far, than our thoughts or emotions.

The Power of our Instinctual Drives

the enneagram and instinctual drives in relationships

How do they relate to the Enneagram?

While the three Instinctual Drives can be a separate study unrelated to the Enneagram, when we overlay them on our Enneagram Types, they become an extremely accurate and insightful tool as why we behave the way we do and what motivates us. All three instincts are found in each Enneagram Type making for 9 x 3 = 27 variants.

The Three Instinctual Drives

Self-preservation (SP)

Enneagram Instinctual Drives in Relationships

Focuses on the physical environment and self, safety, comfort.

What do I need to survive in the world? What do I need to sustain my physical self? What do I need to do to feel safe? This drives us towards seeking protection, and resources such as food, shelter, warmth, money and security and the ability to cultivate these resources. It creates the urge to become skilled at taking care of our physical needs. This could include exercise, pitting ourselves against the elements or others, or simply taking care of our bodies (or not if we are working with the disintegrated self).

This instinct helps us avoid potential danger and be aware of health issues. It can create a risk avoidance, or an excessive desire to engage with risk – to make us feel more physically alive. This personality tends to be more contained than the other two types because it’s about self-preservation as opposed to interaction with others.

Integration aspects

When integrated, this instinct shows up as our being practical, self-sufficient, balanced and grounded. If disintegrated, it can drive us to become overly security conscious and risk avoidant, as well as needing to hold onto what reserves we have acquired (like a squirrel hoarding nuts for years to come, not just for the winter).

Social  (SO)

Enneagram Instinctual Drives in Relationships

Focuses on the how we relate in groups and society

As the name suggests, the focus is on connection and participation and how we relate to others, as well as our accomplishments to raise our value withing the group – fame, power, wealth etc. for social acceptance. It creates a desire to belong to a group, a cause or religion. (In animals this would be to be part of a pack or herd for instance – safety in numbers.) A horse separated from the herd is more vulnerable to attack by predators.

It’s often been misunderstood as meaning that we need to be with people constantly or are great at entertaining. This is not necessarily the case. For this drive a sense of belonging, being community minded, part of a team, our standing within our community or group is important (rather than necessarily being the life and soul of the party)! It is less focused than the sexual drive but can also be between two people, such as meeting with a close and loved friend. It’s what we present to the world (our clothes, tattoos, hobbies, interests, style etc.) to see where we will be accepted.[ii] It’s how we feel part of, rather than alone.

We speak of ‘Social ME-dia’ where often we’re letting the world know about our latest travel excursion, sharing our humour or an incident in our lives. I suspect the largest group of people who post often on Social media are Social instinctual types.

Integration aspects

When integrated, this instinct allows us to work and interact well with others and assist the community in general. Life is lived for the greater good of all. When we are disintegrated, it creates excessive need for recognition, status, fame, control and power over others. It can also mean that our energy becomes scattered and our need to fit into groups may have us sacrificing sincerely for authenticity.

Sexual (SX)

Enneagram Instinctual Drives in Relationships

Focuses on the chemistry of one-on-one relationships

(Sometimes referred to as “One-on-One.”) Our sexual drive is essential to human survival. It focuses on intimate relationships – both how to attract them and how to sustain them and the fears surrounding not being able to.

From the weird mating ritual of a male hippo who will urinate and defecate on himself, using his tail to fan the excrement all over the place, or the spectacular and beautiful display of a peacock to a peahen; the urge to mate creates a compelling drive that influences our behaviour. It excites with the buzz of engagement. As in other mammals, it results in intense activity, pushing through boundaries and later pulling back, as we reconnect with the boundaries we have surrendered. It’s the synergy or chemistry that happens when two people who are attracted to each other connect and the desire for new experiences. It’s not always necessarily sexual – for example the buzz that may happen between two musicians.

Integration aspects

If we are disintegrated, it can have us disregard others’ boundaries, or allow our own to be transgressed and create dependence or focus excessive energy into our appearance. Others may experience us as being overly competitive, provocative, needy and too intense. We may feel very restless and out of control. When integrated, the energy carries the ability to work closely with others, experience profound intimacy and be more able to explore new experiences.

Do we keep the same dominant drive throughout our lives?

While we can shift between them, we typically, have the same dominant instinct throughout our lives, and one we favor less. Some Enneagram schools refer to these as “stacks.” The way the three instincts stack in order of strength defines much of our instinctual behaviour. A balance between all three would be ideal.

Under different stresses, certain instincts may become stronger or weaker. For instance, in COVID times, it’s understandable that your Self-preservation Instinct may be more active. There is a fluidity about their relative strengths and weakness.

How they affect relationships

I’m often asked what Enneagram Type makes the best partner. When it comes to looking for a partner, more important than what Enneagram Type you are, is if you share the same major Instinctual Drive.


Ideally, if your instincts stack up in a similar fashion it would be first prize. Even if the top two swap around there will still be understanding. It’s when they are completely opposite that you may incur greater conflict.

For instance, if you are a Sexual type married to a Social type, simplistically your needs are going to involve time together, whereas they will be more inclined to mix socially irrespective of your Enneagram Type.

Another example: You’re a Self-preservation type, your Social partner’s seeming indifference to issues of security and safeguarding your home, may have you perplexed. While when you set off for a hike, they’re inviting rent-a-crowd, you’re busy making sure you’ve packed water, a space-blanket and sunscreen .

But good news is that it can provide a place of growth. If you are Social / Self-preservation / Sexual and your partner is Sexual /Self-preservation/Social, your growth would come from understanding your Sexual instincts and developing them. Your partner then represents a unique opportunity to grow.

Neither party is wrong or right, but the perception prevails that because you aren’t sharing my needs, you must be wrong.

An example of how an Enneagram Type is affected by the Instinctual Drives

Let’s take a Type One; the controlled, perfectionistic “Reformer.”

Their basic motivation is: The world is imperfect, and I must find ways to improve it.

If you filter this motivation through the Self-preservation subtype, in essence by focusing on the self and it’s needs, you’ll have someone who wants to do things perfectly themselves, while worrying that they themselves aren’t perfect.

A Social One filters life through the need for the connection with others and navigating society, resulting in the desire to be a role-model in society.

The Sexual One, needing to create intimacy with another person, creates the need to reform (perfect) another.

Finding Balance

Enhancing your Self-preservation Instinct

You’re forever leaving the car unlocked, forgetting to eat properly, ignoring home maintenance issue, or spending rather than saving, you may need to up your Self-preservation Instinct. You may need then to focus on some of the key Self-preservation issues to balance your instincts.

Enhancing your Social Instinct

If you don’t enjoy mingling with other people, now’s the time to start becoming more involved in your community, club or team. Call that friend or family member you’ve been meaning to call for ages or introduce yourself to your neighbours.

Enhancing your Sexual Instinct

If your Sexual Instinct needs some work, then set up a date with a partner or someone you’ve had your eye on. Move out of that comfort zone and embrace new experiences. Give yourself permission to have more fun and enjoy the buzz of connection.


There is still much debate in the Enneagram world about the Instincts, as witnessed recently in an online day workshop with many of the foremost Enneagram teachers (IEA Deepening Your Enneagram Understanding Through an Exploration of the Instinctual Subtypes.) Well over 300 people from 26 different countries came together online with four distinguished panelists – Beatrice Chestnut, Russ Hudson, Peter O’Hanrahan and Mario Sikora.

Illustrations: Ann Gadd

[i] Luckovich, John.!biz/id/5817cd71178f4e845c57e97c Accessed Nov 2018.

[ii] Luckovich, John.!biz/id/5817cd71178f4e845c57e97c Accessed Nov 2018.


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