Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Turtle Wisdom, part 2: Reliable Membership

(This is part 2 of my Turtle Wisdom series, exploring the Map of Relationships on Al Turtle’s website.)
Back to the introduction.

Previously, I explored the first skill on Al Turtle’s Map of Relationships: Safety. Today I’m going to look at the second piece of the Biological Dream, which he calls “Reliable Membership”.

Al says, “All humans require reliable, sufficient and not excessive, contact with other humans.”

Humans are social animals. We need to live in a herd to increase our survivability. I think we can all agree that this is a biological requirement for children up to a certain age (Al suggests age 7 or 8). And in adulthood there is still a biological drive for connection, although it can be overridden by a history of unpleasant social experiences. For example, as Al notes, people become hermits when they’ve repeatedly experienced unpleasantness when trying to connect with others.

But since survival is the primary biological goal, our brains evolved circuitry for social behavior. This circuitry is mainly located in the area of the brain called the limbic system, which as you may recall from my previous post, is located in the “midbrain”—right on top of the Lizard! (If you are just joining us, go back here to learn about your Lizard.)

The significance of this location is that the neural connections between our need to connect with others and our panic button (fight or flight reaction) are very short and very quick. In other words, any threats to our need for social connection are seen quickly and clearly by the Lizard. And we know what happens when our Lizard is activated!

How much connection do we require?

All people are basically the same in that we have this biological drive to live with others. But we differ in the amount of connection we require. Al draws from attachment theory to posit that the amount of connection we each find comfortable is formed in childhood. Our childhood experience with connection ranges from “absolute unreliability or insufficiency of connection to absolute excessive connection.” We are all located somewhere on that continuum. Al also notes that as we grow our required amount of contact may change, so we could move up or down this continuum.

Al labels the behaviors that result from our differing needs for connection “clinging” and “avoiding.”* And, he outlines the differences beautifully in this chart (I have paraphrased some for brevity):

Clingers: Received Unreliable or Insufficient Contact in Childhood

Children who got too little or intermittent connection from caregivers have very active Lizards—they panic. They survive by developing Clinging skills: staying close, holding on, resisting separation. These survival skills of clinging and pursuing, driven by panic, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.

Reactive Behavior
When these adults panic, they move toward others, especially their partner. They ask questions, follow, push toward, talk at, and in general become invasive of their partner’s space. As an adult clinging may become very controlling, possessing, captivating, cornering. This is the source of stalking behavior.

Frequent thoughts or fears of your partner leaving you behind.

When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s evasiveness, withdrawal, silence. You may also have day or night dreams of safe togetherness – of finally living happily forever.

Avoiders: Received Excessive or Unpleasant Contact in Childhood

Children who experience too much or painful contact also have active Lizards—they panic. They survive by developing Avoiding skills. These are behaviors that do not invite contact. Even when hungry these children don’t cry. We often call them “good babies,” but really they are happier when left alone. As these children grow, when they can walk, they develop isolating skills, such as having hiding places, wandering off, climbing trees and not coming down, running away, sitting at the far end of the room, etc. These survival skills of avoiding and isolating, driven by panic, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.

Reactive Behavior
When these adults panic, they move away from others, especially their partner. They are quiet, self-contained, elusive, non-talkative, and in general, emotionally cold.

Your mind often goes blank when your partner talks, asks, or moves toward you.

When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s invasiveness, attacking, pushing, and you may dream of peace, quiet, and space.

Like Al, I prefer to not label people Clingers and Avoiders. Rather, people display clinging and avoiding behaviors. It is an important distinction because we can become clinging or avoiding at different times in our lives and within different relationships. (In this post, however, I will use "Clingers" and "Avoiders" for convenience when explaining the differences.)

Often we respond in reaction to the person we are with, usually taking on the opposite role. I tend to be clinging in my marriage (in response to Jason’s avoiding tendencies), but I once had a boyfriend who was somewhat smothering and I remember developing some strong avoiding behaviors to get the space I desired. This also works with friendships. As a child, I remember so strongly desiring friendship with a particular girl that I became very clinging, always calling her, asking her to come out to play. And I had another friend in high school who was so clinging with me, that I began hesitating before returning her calls, and I stopped inviting her along every time my friends got together.

But I agree with Al that we seem to have a natural tendency towards one side of the continuum as a result of childhood experiences (attachment theory) and in-born traits (personality theory). I can see how introverting vs. extraverting preferences could have some effect on this. I think the most important factor, however, that determines a person’s general position on the continuum is what activates their Lizard. Do you feel more unsafe or panicked when there is a threat of isolation, or do you feel more unsafe and panicked when there is a threat of overwhelming and unpleasant contact?

Let’s look at what all of this means for relationships.

The Problem

“When a Clinging person gets nervous, they tend to move toward their partner in order to reduce their panic. The Avoiding partner sees someone coming and, starting to panic, they move away. The Clinger sees their partner moving away, and moves faster. The Avoider runs faster from the clinging person, who is now chasing them. The two run toward what I call the Leaving Wall, the wall at the edge of the relationship – the Divorce Wall.”
~Al Turtle

A Clinger is scared of their partner leaving. They panic when their partner says things like, “I can’t take this anymore” or “I need to get away.” When panicked, Clingers often visualize their partner divorcing them, having an affair, or dying, etc. They then try to protect themselves by trying to get more connection. Which, of course, pushes an avoiding partner further away.


For an Avoider, leaving is a move towards safety. Instead, what scares them is the lack of space in a relationship. Avoiders often see contact as conflict. When panicked, they will move towards leaving a relationship if there is no built in safe space within the relationship.

Skills for Relationships

1. Create safe space within the relationship by learning how to take Time Outs. (Al gives specifics about Time Outs here.)

2. Clingers need to learn to be happy when alone and learn to switch to the on-your-own mode quickly.

3. Clingers often need to find other sources of connection in the world. But, and as Al says “this is a big but,” you can’t draw on sources that would threaten your partner. So build a network of friends, join volunteer organizations, keep pets, etc. And learn to shift from connecting with your partner to alone-mode, to friends, and back to your partner quickly, keeping the connection time with your partner the highest priority.

4. Avoiders need to learn to anticipate their need for space, and signal their partner when they need a Time Out.

5. Avoiders need to tend to their partner’s need for reliability by showing that their need for space is not a move towards leaving. Often, simply stating when you’ll return is enough to keep your partner calm. For example, “I need a time out—I’ll be in the garage for about two hours.” Or “I’d really like to read my book now, I’ll come back downstairs at 10:00 and we can talk about the kids then.” Al calls this Relationship Responsibility—“You can’t blame your partner for your need for space. You have to come back.”

And one last note. When in the midst of a clinging/avoiding event (when both lizards are panicked and the clinging partner begins chasing the avoiding partner who is sprinting towards the door) it is very important for the clinging partner to take the lead. Ideally, Clingers need to learn to call a Time Out for the Avoider, before the Avoider even realizes that they need it. This is because panic causes a Clinger to activate and an Avoider to shut-down. The frozen Avoider cannot call a Time Out when their brain has shut down. Al has a wonderful essay explaining this idea which he calls The Testicle Principle (even just finding out why he chose this name makes the essay well worth the read!)

So, that’s the second step on the Map. We’ve now explored the first two steps towards Vintage Love: learning to live with your Lizards and understanding each others’ needs for reliable connection. Interestingly, these are both unconscious aspects of the Biological Dream. The Lizard acts without our conscious control, and our need for connection is a hard-wired drive.

The next three skills on the Map are conscious: diversity, autonomy, and purpose. At first I thought that these would be the easy ones. That I have already learned good skills to maintain these aspects in my relationships. Boy, was I surprised!

Just wait…

* This concept was first discussed by Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy. He used the terms “fusers and isolaters.”


Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, my own pattern doesn't seem to follow this. I spent the first 6 years of my life on a farm, not seeing other children my age except on Sundays at church. My parents were present, primarily my father, who ran the farm, but I spent most of my time alone. I think this is why I never developed good social skills, and as an adult need very little social contact. I'm pretty much self sufficient in that way, although I certainly need some social contact, especially with my wife and son.

Anonymous said...

I like how Al's skills validate the core patterns of a person, but take the jet fuel away from the situation by replacing charged emotions with conscious thought.

Sizing up a raging river from the bank, then deciding to use the bridge is better than being in the current and getting swept downstream.

Aine said...

Charles~ Thanks for raising a point that needs clarification!

There is a difference between our preferred amount of social contact (how much energizes vs. drains us) and how much connection we need from an intimate realtionship to satisfy our biological need to not feel alone (the survival instinct that tells us we can't survive very long in total isolation.)

When we are alone (not in relationship with another) we fall somewhere on a continuum of need/comfort with social connection. I think of this continuum as introverting vs. extraverting. And it's a characteristic we may be born with. Sounds like your childhood environment was a great fit for your intraverting preference.

What Al Turtle is talking about is the amount of connection that feels comfortable when you are in a relationship. And, how you feel when an attachment figure (your wife, for example) doesn't satisfy your desired amount of connection. Some of us require lots of connection from an attachment figure to prevent the hard-wired fear of isolation, others find too much connection smothering or unpleasant, so they feel safer with less connection.

The problem is that when you are in relationship with another person, both amounts of connection have to be satisfied, otherwise one partner will be under stress. And, when you are stressed because your partner isn't satisfying your connection needs, do you tend to move towards them or away from them?

It seems like extraverting and clinging should be linked, and intraverting/avoiding. But they're not. I'm an intraverting type (love being alone, drained by too much social interaction), but I'm very much a clinger when in an intimate relationship with someone who has lower connection needs than me.

It's so easy to be single. You're in control of satisfying your own needs. But in a relationship, there's two sets of needs that have to be satisfied. Much more work required... :P (Unless the two sets of needs perfectly complement each other all the time!)

Jason~ Exactly what I love about you rational types! Removing the charged emotions so that situations can be seen and dealt with more clearly.

Have I said how much I love simplicity? :P This is what I'm talking about. Maybe it would be more accurate to say I love clarity.


Meghna Bhujwala said...

Alright I'm kind of confused this time. I am a typical Clinger I believe(though I did recieve all the attenion I needed as a child from my family).

As far as my partner is concerned, well, I think he is a Clinger too. He hates being alone! He kinda feels sad when alone.

You didn't speak much about what happens when two Clingers bump into one another :)

SzélsőFa said...

i'm a bit confused, too :))
i thought there was a direct connection with introverts being avoiders and extroverts being clingers.
i have to re-read, i guess o.O

JaneyV said...

I recognise myself as having been both a clinger and an avoider in my life. As I come from a large family who lived in a very small house I remember loving being on my own. I find being "one of a crowd" a very difficult thing to do. I am overwhelmed by the inherent competition for attention. I still avoid it. It has nothing to do with how much I love my siblings (dearly) it's a matter of the chaotic energy involved when we all come together. I also grew up feeling very different to them. I can see now that this probably gave rise to a feeling of unreliable membership. I'd like to make it clear that my family didn't actively undermine my sense of belonging - that's just how I felt about it. I did feel like I was the odd one out.

As a result I craved 1:1 relationships and looked to these to validate me. 'If you love me then I am lovable and I am worth something'. I was always happy in the first flush of a relationship but out of nowhere I would start to worry about what could go wrong. I would seek reassurance by clinging and in doing so push my boyfriend away. I think I was around 19 or 20 and utterly devastated by the end of a two year relationship with someone I was convinced was "the one" when I realised that I needed an attitude shift. I had to re-learn to be the child who enjoyed her own company - my authentic self - and had to shed the clinging behaviours. It took a good five years of serious self analysis and really getting to know myself before I got the balance right. In that time I had another 2 year relationship where I was - not so much an avoider - as anti-clinger. When faced with a problem I shut down in anger. I think that had a lot to do with my partner as well though (relationships don't happen in a vacuum).

By the time I met my husband when I was 25 I think I'd figured out the balance of being emotionally available without overwhelming the other. I feel very blessed that in the 18 years that have passed we have learned to instinctively gauge each other's moods and needs and respect them. I do still feel the need to cling but I am aware of it and I try to emotionally distance myself from the clinging behaviour until I can see why it has come about. Most of the time I can see that I'm being ridiculous and snap myself out of it without the need to discuss it with my husband but if I see that I have a genuine need for reassurance then I do seek it.

I also have learned to spot avoidance behaviors and I'm quite good and recognising the difference between "I've had a lousy day and I just want to be alone" and "the way you're acting is driving me nuts so I'm retreating to the garage until the crazy has passed."

In the end I think knowing your partner and respecting who they are is what underpins the give-and-take of a relationship.

By the way I love the pictures you've chosen to go with your post. And as usual - it's a great post.

Aine said...

Meghna and Szelsofa~ Perhaps some of the confusion is that Al is using Clinging/Avoiding to describe behaviors when our Lizard is active (such as during an argument). This is different from the introverting vs. extraverting preference we have in general (when our Lizard is calm), behaviors that we display even when not in relationship with another person.

We do the Clinging or Avoiding in response to the fear of abandonment (when our survival instinct activates). Introverting and extraverting is our preferred amount of contact when we are calm (inactive Lizard), and it refers to where we get energy (do you feel energized or drained by interactions with others, or energized or drained by time spent alone).

So, about a clinger/clinger pairing: the way I understand it, the partner who is closer to the avoiding side of the continuum may begin to display avoiding behaviors if the "clingier" partner is asking for too much contact.

Does that make it any clearer?

Janey~ Thank you for sharing!! I can relate to so much of what you said. But, for me, it has taken 18 years of marriage to realize how my emotional needs can overwhelm Jason. I'm finally starting to see how I've had some underlying trust issues which trigger more clinging than necessary. :P (More to come about that in a future post.)

You've said it all so well-- you definitely sound like you're well on your way through Al's Univ. of Life!

laughingwolf said...

from where does my need for physical touch arise?

i've always been a highly tactile type, even without anyone else present...

and yes, i seem to slide up and down that scale, too, depending on the situation/feedback

Aniket Thakkar said...

And that is the step by step dissection of why/how my past relationship failed. I was the clinger. Though if you would have told me this back then, I might have refused. But I can now see and understand both sides with much more clarity.

I also have experienced that I have taken the role of a clinger and an avoider with different people. But, I would say I am more of a clinger at core.

"Clingers need to learn to be happy when alone and learn to switch to the on-your-own mode quickly. " - Blogging helps greatly. :D

This post is more helpful to me than you can possibly imagine. I so needed this. Much Thanks!

JaneyV said...

Just dropped by to say "Hi". I'm pushing myself to put my blogging cloak back on again. I've been too much of a hermit this winter. Hope you're well xxx

Mona said...

that is a very detailed analysis of human types!

Happy Birthday to you Aine! :)

SzélsőFa said...

Isten éltessen a születésnapodon!

Aniket Thakkar said...

Many Happy returns of the day, Aine!
You've been missed.

Charles Gramlich said...

I saw your poem didn't seem to have comments enabled. It's a lovely piece, but I'm sorry if you are indeed feeling that way. Sometimes life is very very tiring. I wish you well and certainly do care what happens to you.

Aine said...

Hi Charles! Thank you for commenting!! I've fallen away from blogging almost completely, but when I had a day (fueled by hormones, naturally :P) that everything felt so hopeless, I thought it might be self-therapy to put it into words. Then, days later when I felt like myself again, I could laugh (which I did).

I like having a clear reminder that such an emotional state can feel so real on the inside, even when everyone on the outside sees a very different picture (that all is not hopeless). I hope to keep this understanding clear in my mind as our girls start into the hormone rollercoaster of puberty (we've just started up the first big hill-- wheee!)

Thank you so much for your caring! Such humanity, how we can touch souls simply by brief attention to another, is why I love being human. And why I say "life is beautiful!"

SzélsőFa said...

i was glad you led me, a concerned reader to this conversation about that particular poem of yours.
i do feel relieved now :)

we all have our rollercoasters... :s

what else to say here?
have a happy ride! :)