Dr. Chatelain's #2 Relationship Rule: 'Turtles Make Dumb Pets!'
Tuesday , November 26, 2013 - 9:05 AM
If you are a “turtle” person, your No. 1 strategy of survival is to withdraw and to put a shell around you.
Learning to withdraw can be a very natural process in the jungle. As a child, withdrawal protected you from bigger people who could hurt you, especially if there was no escaping the situation. Withdrawal could keep you out of the line of fire. You may have even learned to become invisible, to avoid punishment. Even in school, you may have learned that the invisible person got in trouble far less often.
As I work with couples, I often deal with a turtle partner, sometimes even two turtle partners. Again, withdrawal can seem so natural, especially if you learned it as a child. A partner may feel that withdrawal is better than fighting, perhaps even more noble.
Withdrawal can be very dangerous to a relationship. There are two ways to kill a relationship — shoot it or starve it. They both end up dead. Withdrawal is a powerful way to starve a relationship.
Thus the statement, “Turtles make dumb pets.” When you’d like to play with them, they withdraw. When you’d like to talk with them, they withdraw. When you’d like to snuggle with them, they withdraw. Even when you’d like to make up, they withdraw. Soon the positive interaction that vitalizes a relationship becomes so nonexistent that the relationship starves, although to the withdrawing person, it seems justified.
When people withdraw, they usually think a lot. This thinking is usually negative thinking, which can quickly erode their feelings toward their partner and the relationship. It is easy to be critical of your partner and even begin to feel like a victim. This negative thinking can also turn on yourself and erode your own sense of worth. Over time, the withdrawn partner can wonder why they even stay in the relationship and may begin to construct an exit.
Withdrawal can also be very punishing. There are two ways to punish someone: you can give them what they don’t want, or withhold what they do want. Withdrawal can be experienced as a powerful punishment, even if punishing wasn’t the original intent.
Bottom line, you can’t withdraw from a relationship and make it work. When you add positive thinking and positive interaction, you can begin to turn the relationship around. Reach out, communicate, nurture and invest. And, remember, “turtles make dumb pets.”
Randy S. Chatelain is on the faculty of the Weber State University department of child and family studies. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of WSU.