How to Improve Communication in a Relationship: What is Your Communication Style? Are you a Turtle or Hailstorm?

How to Improve Communication in a Relationship: What is Your Communication Style? Are you a Turtle or Hailstorm?

Some of us, when we feel triggered, hurt, or misunderstood by our partner, we follow them from room to room, text them all day long, and want to keep processing until things feel repaired and the connection is restored.

Some of us, when we feel triggered, hurt, etc, we do the opposite. We withdraw, we get quiet, we don’t want to talk, maybe we zone in to our phone, put up walls, shutdown. Usually when I start describing this to couples in my office, there are smiles and nods as to who’s who.

What makes us go more one way than the other? We could be born with more of that wiring, or it could have been ways we learned to cope growing up, or a combination of both. Basically, some of us express our emotions by expanding outward, and some by constricting inward.

In Imago therapy, the nicknames for each of these behaviors is Turtles and Hailstorms. It seems that Turtles and Hailstorms almost always marry each other. It seems uncanny that that is the way it works. But why? Well, amping up (hailstorm) and shutting down (turtle) are unconscious, reactive ways of responding and they are hurtful and scary to our partner.

So… if much of life is about bettering ourselves, growing, learning, then who better to connect to than someone who can’t tolerate our way, and we can’t tolerate theirs? Basically, your partner is holding up a mirror to show you how you talk and act when you feel triggered, and you are holding up a mirror for them. Hidden in that is the ability to become conscious and intentional in our responses.

Turtle and Hailstorm responses come from our “reptile,” or fight or flight brain. It is our biology, and we don’t blame or shame ourselves – or our partner – about it. By the way, one way is not better or worse than the other- these are equal and opposite ways of reacting. But, inherent in this combination is the power for healing. Turtles, to become more whole and healed, need to be able to tolerate staying connected, and Hailstorms need to be able to better contain.

In order for that to happen, we need to be able to access higher-order brain functioning. Instead of operating from reptile brain, we want to access our Adult Brain. This is where our core values and humanity live. Out of a desire to no longer hurt our partner, we are motivated to change. The “distancer-pursuer” dance, if untreated, can go on for years, and totally erode our relationships. Even though we love each other, the emotional safety isn’t there. First, bring conscious awareness to the idea that your partner is not trying to hurt you. You are both negatively affecting each other by getting big and getting small. Focus on how you can respond differently in those moments.

The Couples Dialogue in Imago is one of the best ways I have known to help couples heal this dance. It is a structured communication technique that allows the Turtle to feel safer because there is no reactivity, and allows the Hailstorm to feel safer because their partner is there, listening and staying connected. The dialogue allows us to access Adult Brain instead of Reptile Brain.

But, regardless of what way you find, find your way to give up your patterns of reactivity. This is a fixable thing, it really is, and will take you to a true “marriage made in heaven.”

Below is a list of questions developed by husband and wife Imago team Rivka and Shlomo Slatkin, of the Marriage Restoration Project in Baltimore, to help you learn more about yourself and how you typically get safe. The purpose is to foster a greater awareness so that you can act and communicate from a more conscious place. Place a plus or a minus by the behavior that applies to you most often.

Turtles (minimizing communication style)

When I get upset I tend to:

  • • feel tight inside and do not verbalize my emotions.
  • • adopt an “I’ll take care of myself/I don’t need anyone” attitude.
  • • not be able to tell my partner why I’m upset.
  • • express very few if any needs.
  • • exclude others from my personal space.
  • • withhold my feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • • figure things out by myself.
  • • feel safer alone or in situations that are not intense.

Hailstorms (maximizing communication style)

When I get upset I tend to:

  • • express my feelings with a lot of energy.
  • • turn to others and talk to them about what I am going through.
  • • tell my partner all about my upset.
  • • need others around when I am upset and am very open with my feelings.
  • • express my needs verbally and try to get my partner to hear and to respond.
  • • feel responsible for making the relationship work and getting my partner to open up and talk.
  • • be excessively generous.
  • • get others’ input about what I should be doing to handle the situation.

Now, complete this sentence:

“When I get upset, I tend to become like a (Turtle) (Hailstorm) (depending on which got more plus marks in the above chart) to hide my fear of/that…”

Write what fear you think your habitual response is hiding. (The fear may not be apparent.) For example, you could write: “being unimportant,” “that you don’t love me,” “that you will leave me,” “that you will control me,” “that you will smother me,” “that you will reject me.”

( * Turtles and Hailstorm story and chart © by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D.)

Article from Evie Schafer, Turtles and Hailstorms

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