I was in a unique position as a former couples therapist because I got to see the common patterns that play out in relationships that tend to feel so personal and unique to only us. In reality, they’re not. At the heart of it. We all go through the same things. Having some insight into these patterns can help us navigate through them more gracefully.
When couples feel some threat of danger in the relationship, there is typically one common dynamic that shows up as part of our instinctual fight or flight defense mechanism. This more animalistic response can sometimes take us over; which is not bad or anything to judge ourselves over. As a species, we are evolving out of this more primitive way of reacting and learning how to take dominion over our responses, especially since for most people the threat of our survival is less common in our modern world.
One way this defense can show up in our relationships is where one partner maximizes their experience feeling ‘this’ IS a big deal, while the other partner minimizes their experience and doesn’t think anything is wrong or that ‘it’s not that big of a deal.’
For fun, let’s call the partner that maximizes their expression, the tiger. They are usually the ones who express their feelings with a lot of energy. They usually feel there is an issue, so they look to get their needs met by getting louder (this could be verbally or behaviorally). The tigers typically process externally, so may ask friends advice or may have a strong need to talk about things. The other partner usually protects themselves by closing down, withdrawing or downplaying the issue. So, for fun, we can call this role the turtle. Turtles tend to figure things out on their own by processing internally so they don’t have the need to speak much.
In relationships, we often attract our opposite, and each partner ends up playing one of these roles. Sometimes, we can switch which role we play depending on the partner we are with. Ultimately though, we all want to be seen and heard, we just usually have different and sometimes ineffective ways of getting our needs met.
As the tiger role gets louder to get their needs met, this activates the turtle, so turtles defend by closing down. If the tiger feels the turtle pull away, they escalate even more, hoping that if they get louder, the turtle will be able to hear them better and recognize their needs, but instead, it does the opposite. Both roles are doing the best they know how to connect, yet it clearly doesn’t work this way.
Playing out these unconscious patterns creates a rupture that further disconnects and breeds fear, leaving partners feeling unsafe in the relationship. Safety is a key element to healing and building trust, so if that’s missing, there is no foundation.
Once this pattern is seen more consciously, the opportunity then becomes to learn how to be more like your partner (respond in the opposite way), knowing that this will help you connect beyond your conditioned reactions and find a middle ground to meet. Know that as you are able to overcome reacting in those conditioned defenses, your partner will feel safer.
For example, if you are the tiger, know that as you learn to regulate yourself to keep calm and not escalate becoming louder, your partner won’t feel the need to hide so much. If you are the turtle, know that as you are willing to risk opening a little, even if it’s to say, “I need some space right now, can we check back in after an hour?” this will help regulate your partner and they won’t feel they need to be louder to get your attention.
I get this is a stretch for both partners, but as you learn to overcome your reactions, it will help you turn these patterns around in a direction that supports connection. You will have more consciousness over these reactions and then be able to work with the deeper hurt that came up as a result of your partner’s behavior. As you nurture and heal that hurt within you (which can also be healed through the relationship), it will dissolve and will no longer be an issue.
My biased opinion is to have a therapist support you in healing those deeper triggers at the core. They stem back to childhood and you unconsciously chose the perfect partner to bring those wounds up so that they can ultimately be healed. I know it’s not always easy when this stuff comes up, but there is support available for you to move through it gracefully so that it is healed at the root…to fully let it go. It can all be used in service to your growth and spiritual evolution. I fully support you in having the relationship you desire and know it is possible if you are willing!