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Conflict in the Imago Relationship: Being Heard and Understood

Can you imagine a tiger and turtle as mates?

When a tiger faces conflict, the claws come out, the front paws go up in the air and she roars!

When a turtle faces conflict, he retreats into his warm and safe inner shell while he waits for the situation to change.

To state the obvious: Tigers and turtles are different.

When Tigers and Turtles Mate

Tigers and turtles may not mate in nature, but these two styles of dealing with conflict show up over and over in human relationships. It can be a source of great pain and misunderstanding until couples learn how to handle each others’ differing styles.
jamie-rizzo-imago-therapy-tigers-and-turtlesIn Imago Relationship Therapy, couples learn how to deal with their Tiger and Turtle energies so that each feels heard and is able to speak. (Click here for an introduction to Imago Therapy).
This article explores conflict and healing in the Tiger-Turtle relationship by examining three key questions:

  • What are Tigers and Turtles?
  • How does the Imago Dialogue allow Tigers and Turtles to be heard?
  • Are you a Tiger or a Turtle?

What are Tigers and Turtles?

The “Tiger” in the relationship is the partner who needs, even craves to be seen and heard. When Tigers feel a loss of connection with their mate (i.e. the Turtle withdrawing), they move towards their partner and try desperately to connect. Tigers attempt to do this through words, tears or even anger.

When there is conflict, Tigers are the ones who want to talk about it now, not later. Their partner’s silence or withdrawal triggers fears of abandonment in the Tiger since such acts are seen as rejecting. Tigers need to feel connected to be able to calm themselves, and connection means feeling heard and seen by their partner.

jamie-rizzo-imago-relationship-therapy-conflictThe “Turtle” in the relationship is the opposite. Turtles need space and time to think, and they tend to draw their energies inward. The more the Tiger comes toward them, the more Turtles pull away, which of course causes the Tiger to try even harder. The Tiger’s demands to talk and to be heard trigger a Turtle’s fear of being unsafe. For a Turtle, such acts are seen as aggressive and controlling, and they signal an impending annihilation (of Turtle).

During times of conflict and disconnection, the Turtle withdraws hoping things will calm down. Only when things are calm does a Turtle feel safe enough to reconnect.

The dance between the Tiger and Turtle is a frustrating one. Both are reacting to the loss of connection, however their life experience has led them to defend against that loss in two entirely different ways. This causes a rupture in the relationship and leaves both partners feeling frustrated and misunderstood.

Through the Imago Intentional Dialogue, Tigers and Turtles find a road map back to each other. Tigers learn to pull their energy in and to step back so Turtles can stretch beyond their comfort zone to move toward their partner.

How Does the Imago Dialogue Allow Tigers and Turtles to be Heard?

The structure of the Imago Intentional Dialogue allows the Tiger and Turtle to be heard by providing a safe container for each to speak and to listen. It provides the safety Turtles need in order to stick their head out and speak about their feelings or frustrations.

It also calms Tigers who know they will have their own turn to speak and be mirrored by their partner.

Are you a Tiger or a Turtle?

The truth is we are all both Tigers and Turtles. Depending on the circumstances, we are all capable of reacting to conflict by either withdrawing or moving closer to the source. In general, however, each of us has a “preferred style” of dealing with conflict, and we return to that style over and over again.

No style is “better” than the other. Tigers and Turtles adopt their preferred styles because it makes sense to them given their life experiences. The challenge for each is to see the world through the eyes of the other long enough to be heard and understood.

Are you a Tiger or a Turtle? Take this short quiz on the Imago Relationships website to find out (registration is necessary; provides a wealth of great, free resources).

By Jamie Rizzo, Marriage and Family Therapist, Berkeley, CA

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Jamie Rizzo

Jamie Rizzo

I am an LMFT serving the East Bay Area of California. My office is in Berkeley.