Couples have a universal survival dance where one person’s energy gets maximized and very big. And the other person’s energy gets really minimized and constricted. And there’s a beautiful story about the the turtle and the hailstorm which I’ll share in a minute.
To make the story more powerful, know that in a relationship, the turtle person (the person turtling) constricts and becomes small. The person hail storming becomes very, very big. And it can flip. But the energy is always in imbalance. And every single couple who describes the dance ultimately describes the turtle and the hailstorm because it is a reactive, automatic, old brain dance that every couple in every culture dances.
It is not a psychological event, but a physiological one. And that’s very important to know that it is biological not psychological. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We are all turtling and hailstorming in every single relationship.
I make that clear when I work with a couple, and welcome them to the club and tell them that we’re all the same. I sometimes even describe it in my own relationship because I tend to hail storm in danger. Yumi tends to be the turtle in danger. Once I normalize the whole thing and make it clear, then I teach the three invisible connectors.
With steady and regular crossing of the bridge, looking into each other’s faces with new eyes, the reactive survival dance dissolves, and makes room for what relational neurobiologist Daniel Siegel calls “the flow of FACES”, a system that is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable.
The Turtle and the Hail Storm
Once upon a time there was a Hail Storm and a Turtle who fell in love.
They knew that they were very different from one another, but they resolved to love one another and to help one another. They had three children. One was a turtle, one was a hail storm and one was a little of both.
When things were going well, the Turtle and the Hail Storm were quite happy. But things didn’t always go well. If there was strife, there was a strong likelihood that the Turtle would withdraw into its shell, or the Hail Storm would hail with fury. Whichever one acted first, the likelihood was that the other would resort to its normal defense — hail or withdraw.
After several years, the Hail Storm would sense that the Turtle was in the process of withdrawing. This would make the Hail Storm angry, and hail was immediately forthcoming. Usually, this would accelerate the withdrawal process by the Turtle. Likewise, the Turtle could sometimes smell hail in the air. If so, the Turtle would not wait for the thunder, but would withdraw immediately.
Over time this resulted in the Hail Storm hailing and the Turtle turtling on a regular basis. There were fewer days where the two could be feeling friendly and cooperative, and more days where they found themselves in their stereotypical roles. This angered and disappointed them both. Each thought that the other was at fault, and that the other should change. The Turtle said, “if only the Hail Storm would hail less frequently, I would not have to withdraw so much, and I could enjoy the hail’s company.” Similarly, the Hail Storm complained, “If that Turtle would stop withdrawing at every raindrop, we’d both be much happier.”
Just when it seemed there was no solution to the dilemma, a Wizard appeared. The Wizard was very knowledgeable about the ways of the heart, especially in regard to turtle and hailstorm relationships. (It turns out that there are many such relationships, and the Wizard had seen dozens of them.) He explained that the two were in relationship to one another for a reason, and discovering that reason would unlock many blessings and opportunities for the two.
“Thank God you’re here” said the Turtle. “Perhaps you can tell the Hail Storm to stop hailing on me.”
“That’s not the problem!” said the Hail Storm. “The problem is that you keep withdrawing and that hurts me.”
Each turned to the Wizard for a verdict. But he smiled and remained silent for a moment. After a diplomatic pause, the Wizard spoke. “Each of you thinks that if the other will change, everything will sort itself out. If the Hail Storm will stop hailing, OR if the Turtle will stop turtling, then the other will be happy. But it’s not that easy — and yet it is!”
Now they were both confused. “Well, what good are you then. I see only two options -one or the other of us must change, and neither of us wants to. As a turtle, I don’t see why I should become something else just because the Hail Storm says so. After all, it’s my hard turtle shell that protects me from all that hail!”
“Well, my hail is just as much a part of me as your shell is of you. Why should I have to stop being my full, uninhibited self?”
“The solution,” said the Wizard, “is not either/or. It’s both/and. Turtle, your hail storm is in your life to help you grow out of your limitations and withdrawing. And Hail Storm, your turtle is in your life to help you learn to contain your hail from doing damage. Each of you is as you are for a reason having to do with your survival. But somehow, each of your survival actions has gotten out of hand. Instead of making you happy, they deprive you of the happiness of which you are entitled.”
“Who goes first,” they asked.
“Both go first,” responded the Wizard. “Every day, and in every way, Turtle has to begin finding occasions to come out and stay out of its shell. And Hail Storm must begin containing the hail. As each progresses, that one helps the other to continue progressing. Turtle, by staying out of its shell, tells Hail Storm that it doesn’t require a barrage of hail to get Turtle’s attention. And Hail Storm’s holding back the hail makes it safer for Turtle to stay out of the shell for increasingly longer periods of time.”
“Now no one needs to do anything. You can both go on as you have. Or you can both make the necessary moves toward growth, and each will benefit from the mutual transformation that occurs.”
“So now the secret’s out. I have no magic. I am not a Wizard. You two have all the magic needed at your disposal. You can choose to grow by overcoming your instinctive reactions, and instead choosing to cooperate. In doing so, you each grow, as does your relationship. So have at.
“Not so fast,” said the Turtle. “You’re still saying that I must change my instinctive reaction in order to make Hail Storm happy, and…”
“No!” said the Wizard, emphatically. “You don’t change to make Hail Storm happy. You change to make YOU happy. You become more fulfilled by being able to experience the world more fully. Hail Storm is simply here to help you do that. And Hail Storm, Turtle is in your life to tell you that not every situation calls for hail. Thus you can conserve your energy for when it’s truly needed. It just so happens that, in the symmetry of things, you will each become happier — both because you have changed and because the other has changed. But neither of you will be happy if this mutual transformation does not occur.”
“So where do we begin?” asked Hail Storm.
“By doing! There’s nothing to wait for. Turtle, you begin ‘sticking your neck out’ right now, and at every opportunity, without waiting for your partner to make the first move. And Hail Storm, you begin by deliberately choosing to curtail your hail, without waiting for Turtle to extend all limbs. And both of you can resist the temptation to blame the other. You got here together.”
“Each of you — together — begins by beginning. NOW! There is no further signal that will be forthcoming. Just do it!”