Hailstorm or Turtle?

Mark Vogel, PsyD  ext. 318


It is well accepted, in the realm of romantic relationships, that we are drawn to partners who are very different from us in certain ways. And yes, it’s also true that the same differences that attracted us will eventually frustrate us.

 

One common difference that shows up in couples’ relationships is the way in which each person responds to conflict or stress. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, authors of Making Marriage Simple, have identified two basic approaches, which they call “maximizer” and “minimizer.” When distressed, “maximizing” people tend to expand energy outward into the environment. For example, they feel and express their emotions clearly; they will want to engage others about their concerns in order to get support, advice, or just to vent; they are acutely aware of any disruptions in the relationship and they want to talk about it – right now! They are quick to act – and react -- and they want to get things done.

 

Meanwhile, “minimizers” under stress tend to constrict and contain their energy. They prefer to be alone, to reflect, to analyze what happened. They will want to process their feelings internally before offering input or sharing their experience (if they want to share it at all). They like to keep things on an even keel and will become uncomfortable with intense displays of emotion. Their pace of making decisions and acting will be slower.

 

Hendrix and Hunt use the metaphor of Hailstorm to describe the maximizer, since being on the receiving end of the maximizer’s energy can feel (for the minimizer) like being pelted with hail. The minimizer, on the other hand, is like a Turtle – pulling energy inward and staying safe inside its shell. Turtles are also likely to minimize their feelings and needs in the context of a relationship (“I’m fine”).

 

So how do these differences cause trouble in a relationship? One typical scenario is where a maximizer wife vents to her husband about some frustration at her job. The minimizer husband, uncomfortable with the heightened emotion, says “It’s not that big a deal – that’s just how it is in the corporate world.” He’s hoping for his wife to take a less emotional, more philosophical stance on the issue, but his response only leaves her feeling unheard, maybe even uncared for. Or, if the maximizing partner senses distance or tension in the relationship and wants to get to the bottom of it, and the minimizer (less aware or sensitive to disconnection in the relationship) responds “I don’t know what you’re talking about – I think we’re doing fine,” this will clearly be a dead-end response for the maximizing partner, leaving this partner to feel frustrated and anxious. In an effort to facilitate interaction, the maximizer “hails” down upon the minimizer with more words and more emotion; the minimizer in turn becomes stressed and then “turtles” deeper into his shell for protection.

 

More trouble ensues when each partner begins to criticize the other’s style. The Turtle says:

n  Don’t be so dramatic

n  Everything’s such a big deal for you

n  Can’t you ever just let it go?

 

 

And the Hailstorm replies:

n  You never communicate

n  You always want to avoid issues

n  You’re like a robot – no feelings

 

This amounts to a power struggle of sorts – i.e., “Why can’t you be more like me?” But these styles are deeply ingrained and not likely to change in any dramatic way.

 

The key is really for the Turtle and Hailstorm to see the value in the other’s style, rather than criticize it. Hendrix and LaKelly Hunt would add that the growth edge for each partner is to stretch beyond their own comfort zone to be a little more like the other. That is, the Turtle could work on trying to come more out of his shell, e.g., share more thoughts and feelings – this helps the Hailstorm feel more reassured about the connection in the relationship. And the Hailstorm could try to be more patient and contain the intensity of emotion, to make it safer for the Turtle to stay out of the shell.

 

 

Hendrix, H. and Hunt, H.L. (2013). Making marriage simple: 10 truths for changing the relationship you have into the one you want. New York, New York: Harmony Books.