SUMMER 2019 The Summer of Torah, Hesed, and Charity

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By: Mozelle Forman, Lcsw

A turtle sits in a field contemplating – nothing. He sees some fluffy clouds approaching, notices them, but continues to contemplate nothing. Suddenly the clouds turn stormyand he feels a drop of rain. He begins to become anxious and starts to retreat into his shell. The storm becomes more insistent with lightening, thunder, and a steady rain. The turtle further retreats into its shell for protection, rationalizing that he will remain there until the storm has passed. After a while, he pokes his head out, but the storm continues to intensify and hail begins to pelt him mercilessly. He quickly retreats into his shell thinking, “There’s no way I am going out there now!’ And so he stays there until the storm is completely gone.

The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic

This little turtle story gives us a glimpse into the
“pursuer-distancer” dynamic that I mentioned in last month’s column. The “turtle” personality withdraws in the face of perceived conflict, believing that the conflict isn’t going to get worked out or that they won’t get their needs met. They shut down and pull away because it’s safer to do that. The “hailstorm” personality pursues connection and becomes stormy when denied that connection. The pursuing partner believes that in order to reconnect in the face of conflict they should share what’s going on for them and try to understand what’s going on for their partner.

When I use this analogy with couples I work with, it clarifies that there is a negative dynamic at play in their relationship, and it is this dynamic that needs to be fixed – not the other person. They are both caught in, hurt by, and participating in (typically unwillingly and unknowingly) this pattern without understanding their part in it. The first question to ask is: am I a turtle or a hailstorm? Look at the statements below.

I lean in and try to solve the problem.

When I sense that my spouse is not available
            I become anxious.

I have an urgency to make things right.

I tend to shut down and wait until the storm blows over.

I get anxious when my spouse wants to discuss a problem.

I believe that if I engage in a discussion that I will be
            blamed and criticized.

If the first three statements most closely describe you, then you are a hailstorm. If the last three statements most closely describe you, then you are a turtle. Congratulations! Neither “type” is inherently better or worse than the other. You are one type and you love someone who is the other type.

Andthere is always one of each type in a couple! Sometimes turtles can explode when they are “fed up” and hailstorms can become silent when they are “tired of talking to the wall,” but inevitably there is always one spouse who is predominantly a turtle (usually, but not always the husband) and one who is predominantly a hailstorm (usually, but not always the wife).

Key For Resolution

It is important to note that the distancer-pursuer dynamic is not only a result of conflict, but can also be a cause of conflict. When one spouse wants more closeness or connection than the other, the distancer-pursuer dynamic is triggered. The pursuer is most likely pursuing because they are scared of being abandoned, while the distancer is putting distance between them becauseof the fear being controlled in the relationship. The worst thing for a pursuer to feel is detachment. When they are given the gift of genuine reassurance, they are able to relax.

So, ironically, the key to quieting the distancer-pursuer dynamic is to offer reassurance to the pursuing partner, because if you are right there they don’t have to chase you. And the key to keeping the distancer from disappearing is to focus on expressingyourself without criticism or blame in a short, concise message.

I suggest that couples preface their discussions by telling each other the purpose of their conversation. Ask yourself: What do I need? Do I need help solving a problem, to be listened to, or just to feel close? What does my partner need? Do they need to know that their opinion is important to me, even if I disagree with it, or simply to know that I care? This alleviates a lot of the distancer’s anxiety about “being in trouble,” and allows the pursuer to get the connection they crave. The couple’s dialogue is a powerful tool that helps couples break the pursue-withdraw pattern and replace it with a dynamic that’s supportive and nurturing.