The Turtle and The Woodpecker Get Married
When working with couples, I often tell them about the woodpecker and the turtle. Relationships can be a lot like their marriage.
In their relationship, when danger comes along, the turtle pulls into his shell and the woodpecker taps on it to get him to come back out. You can see this happening in relationships. When the relationship is in danger or threatened, one person tends to act like the turtle and the other like the woodpecker. The turtle withdraws into his shell waiting for the danger to pass, trying to protect himself and his relationship by not engaging and hoping things will blow over. The woodpecker is also trying to save the relationship. The bird feels the need to be close to the turtle and so it begins to peck on the shell, trying to connect in some way to be sure the turtle is really there. The more the woodpecker pecks, the more the turtle withdraws; the more the turtle withdraws, the more the woodpecker pecks. They both get upset and perhaps scared.
For people, the turtle is like the partner who will stop listening, stop engaging, or physically leave the room when things get difficult. The woodpecker will continue to pursue their partner for some connection and this can take the form of nagging or complaining. A vicious cycle starts. It is circular and although the turtle and woodpecker may blame each other or themselves, it is the cycle that is the real enemy.
It is possible to reverse this cycle. First, you must resist playing the blame game and focusing on ‘who started it.’ Second, you must work together to beat the cycle and break out of it. Start by mapping out your cycle. Go over what happened and how it affected each person and lead to their response without going into blame or judgment or defending. Just look at it factually and take a moment to listen as the other talks and try to figure out what things looked like from their side. Do this completely – keep your focus on understanding the other instead of preparing your own statements.
Once you know your cycle, be on the lookout and have a key phrase that will help both of you stop as soon as you see what you’re getting into. Take a break if you’ve gotten emotional and then have a do over where you express your thoughts and feelings without attacking.
Here is an example of a conversation. This is how it started:
- Woodpecker: “Johnny is watching too much TV. Go talk to him.”
- Turtle: “I’m busy right now.”
From there it can go one of two ways. Here is a non-constructive continuation of the conversation:
- Woodpecker: “You never listen to me. Am I the only one around here who can parent?”
- Turtle: “I don’t see what you’re talking about. This is no big deal. Just tell him to stop.”
Then the turtle leaves the room, followed shortly by the woodpecker, who continues on in the same vein.
What happens though if the turtle and woodpecker realize that they’re slipping into the cycle and take a break and come back to talk again?
- Woodpecker: “When I asked you to talk to Johnny, I was frustrated. I had a long day and it seemed like nothing was getting done at home. Johnny wouldn’t listen to me. I needed help.”
- Turtle: “Oh. I didn’t get that. I just felt like you were angry at me. I felt like I had messed up somehow.”
- Woodpecker: “I just needed your support so I didn’t feel like I was parenting by myself. When you left, I was afraid you’d leave me alone to tough it out myself. I didn’t feel like I could do that right then.”
- Turtle: “I’m sorry. I always want to support you as a mother. I guess I had a long day too and when I came home and that was the first thing I heard, I felt like I was back at work getting yelled at by my boss. I shouldn’t have reacted without taking a break first.”
- Woodpecker: “Oh. Maybe next time I can check in to see how you’re doing when you get home before I ask for help.”
- Turtle: “That would help me. What would help you?”
And so, the turtle comes out of his shell and the woodpecker stops pecking. They can work together. This takes practice and sometimes you’ll need someone to help guide you in constructive communication skills. Every couple has the potential to move past this type of difficulty. What’s more, doing so will help you to understand each other at a deeper level and bring you closer together.
Here’s a short presentation I gave on this topic in the past.