Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt call the template or idealized image of positive and negative qualities of our primary caregivers our “Imago”. Through our subconscious programs, we are drawn to somebody who matches this template.
In other words, our partner carries some of our shadows. He or she displays to us what we are struggling with and are working on. They are a mirror of what we have learned to identify with or disown during childhood. They might not superficially appear to be like our primary caregiver but we will inevitably end up feeling the same feelings we did as a child. Partially, those could be positive feelings of belonging, being accepted, safe and loved. But the relationship also brings up painful feelings due to our more traumatic experiences, and activates our childhood hurts. Unconsciously, we seek out a partner with whom we can heal each other’s childhood wounds.
If you had a mother who abandoned you, you might unconsciously expect to be abandoned again while seeking out a partner who is like your mother in some ways, to relive and heal the old experience. If you had a father who never stood up for you, you might unconsciously seek a partner who is also afraid to stand up and protect you, in the unconscious hopes that somebody will finally stand-up for you.
Partnerships are meant to resurface feelings and experiences from our childhood. “About 90 percent of the frustrations your partner has with you are really about their issues from childhood.” (LaKelly Hunt) Even if we have convinced ourselves consciously that the person we are attracted to is a good match and not at all like our parents or caregivers, our subconscious meanwhile as a completely different agenda. It has already figured out early on who we can relive our childhood traumas with, hoping for a happier ending this time.
If you are wondering whether your partner echoes shadows from the past for you and what they are, you can do the following exercise. Make a list of frustrations, problems and unmet needs in regards to your primary care giver(s), for example “she never listened to me and that made me feel…” or he “never had time for me and that made me feel…”. Once you have completed that list, make a list of issues you have with your partner and how they make you feel. Compare the lists and notice any similarities. Talk to your partner about the similarities. Once he or she understands that he or she triggers your childhood emotions, the work to keep each other safe and meet each others needs can begin.
You and your partner may have a lot in common but Hendrix and LaKelly Hunt have found that couples are often incompatible in how they handle stress and conflict. When it comes to handling stress and conflicts, people’s reactions fall into two categories: minimizers or maximizers. When minimizers are anxious, they contain their energy and go inside. Like a turtle, they retreat into their shell. When maximizers are anxious, they tend to express themselves loudly. Hendrix and LaKelly Hunt call this person a hailstorm. Their energy flows outward and they prefer to process their feelings with others.
Turtles process slowly and inwardly. From the outside, it looks like not much is happening and as if the person is avoiding rather than addressing the issue. However, the turtle processes his or her feelings and thoughts quietly on the inside, reflecting carefully before responding. Hailstorms visibly get things done; they usually have a to-do list and love being able to cross things off their list.
When the Turtle feels flooded and becomes overloaded, he or she needs to withdraw. To the Hailstorm, it can feel like the Turtle disappeared. That makes the Hailstorm more anxious and he or she will start hailing to get the partner’s attention.
Both partners need to learn to accommodate each others differences in processing. The Hailstorm can learn to give the Turtle a little shell time and make them feel safe to come out again soon by letting them know how much they are appreciated and valued.
To coax out the turtle you can
- Ask them what they need right now. Sometimes they are not sure, but be curious about why they are hiding.
- Don’t do anything; give them space.
- Write a short note of appreciation and leave it somewhere for them to find.
And the Turtle can learn to be more courageous when he or she sees the storm clouds gathering. “Hailstorms hail because they are overwhelmed. They often feel like they’re holding the weight of the world. And when you retreat, the Hailstorm feels even more alone. So the minute you hear a rumble, give them your full attention. Offer kindness and support.” (Hendrix) The fastest way to get the storm to stop is to assure the Hailstorm that you have got their back. Once they realize they rely on you and you will do your part to keep them safe, the sun will shine once again.
To calm the hailstorm
- Respond! Let them know you are not retreating. Respond with facial expressions, a kind note, a service or gesture that shows them you care how they feel.
- Listen and repeat back how the Hailstorm is feeling. They don’t feel heard. Show them you hear and understand.
- Ask “Is there something I can do for you?” They need to know you have their back.
Partners can learn to not judge the other for how they are. As Hal and Sidra Stone point out, “what we judge in others is actually the medicine we need”.
Turtles and hailstorms can teach each other what they are each missing to become more whole. “Turtles need to learn how to push their energy out and how to ‘show up’. This means expressing themselves out loudly and clearly, like the Hailstorm does. And hailstorms need to learn the turtle’s wisdom of stepping back and containing their energy.” (Hendrix)
Ironically, both partners need to learn how to be more like each other. When we embrace the shadow sides which we have disowned, we take a step towards each other. “As the Turtle becomes more storm-like, and the Hailstorm becomes more turtle-like, balance is restored” (Hendrix) within the relationship, but also within ourselves. We have reclaimed a disowned part of ourselves.
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