Relationship Push Pull – Find The Balance You’ve Been Seeking!

AlysssaNobriga Portrait 112412I am deeply moved by one of the couples I am working with and wanted to share… We all left the session with our hearts overflowing by the level of vulnerability that was expressed and the intimacy that was created as a result of it.

I am in a unique position as a couple’s therapist because I get to see the common patterns that play out in relationships that tend to feel so personal and unique to only us.  In reality they’re not, at the heart of it, we all go through the same things. Having some insight about these patterns can help us navigate through them more gracefully.

When couples feel some threat of danger in the relationship there is typically one common dynamic that shows up as part of our instinctual fight or flight defense mechanism.  This more animalistic response can sometimes take us over; which is not bad or anything to judge ourselves over.  As a species we are evolving out of this more primitive way of reacting and learning how to take dominion over our responses, especially since for most people the threat of our survival is less common in our modern world.

One way this defense can show up in our relationships is where one partner maximizes their experience feeling “this” IS a big deal, while the other partner minimizes their experience and doesn’t think anything is wrong or that “it’s not that big of a deal.”

For fun let’s call the partner that maximizes their expression the tiger.  They are usually the ones who express their feelings with a lot of energy, they usually feel there is an issue and so they look to get their needs met by getting louder (this could be verbally or behaviorally).  The tigers typically process externally, so may ask friends advice or may have a strong need to talk about things.  The other partner usually protects themselves by closing down, withdrawing or downplaying the issue, so for fun we can call this role the turtle.  Turtles tend to figure things out on their own by processing internally so they don’t have the need to speak much.

In relationships we often attract our opposite and each partner ends up playing one of these roles.  Sometimes we can switch which role we play depending on the partner we are with.  Ultimately though, we all want to be seen and heard, we just usually have different and sometimes ineffective ways of getting our needs met.

As the tiger role gets louder to get their needs met, this activates the turtle so turtles defend by closing down.  If the tiger feels the turtle pull away, they escalate even more hoping that if they get louder, the turtle will be able to hear them better and recognize their needs, but instead, it does the opposite.  Both roles are doing the best they know how to connect yet it clearly doesn’t work this way.

Playing out these unconscious patterns creates rupture that further disconnects and breed’s fear, leaving partners feeling unsafe in the relationship.  Safety is a key element to healing and building trust so if that’s missing there is no foundation.

Once this pattern is seen more consciously, the opportunity then becomes to learn how to be more like your partner (respond in the opposite way) knowing that this will help you guys connect beyond your conditioned reactions and find a middle ground to meet.  Know that as you are able to overcome reacting in those conditioned defenses, your partner will feel safer.

For example if you are the tiger, know that as you learn to regulate yourself to keep calm and not escalate becoming louder, your partner won’t feel the need to hide so much.  If you are the turtle, know that as you are willing to risk opening a little, even if it’s to say, “I need some space right now can we check back in after an hour?” this will help regulate your partner and they won’t feel they need to be louder to get your attention.

I get this is a stretch for both partners, but as you learn to overcome your reactions, it will help you turn these patterns around in a direction that supports connection.  You will have more consciousness over these reactions and then be able to work with the deeper hurt that came up as a result of your partner’s behavior.  As you nurture and heal that hurt within you (which can also be healed through the relationship) it will dissolve and will no longer be an issue.

My biased opinion is to have a therapist support you in healing those deeper triggers at the core. They stem back to childhood and you unconsciously choose the perfect partner to bring those wounds up so that they can ultimately be healed.  I know it’s not always easy when this stuff comes up but there is support available for you to move through it gracefully so that it is healed at the root…to fully let it go.  It can all be used in service to your growth and spiritual evolution.  I fully support you in having the relationship you desire and know it is possible if you are willing!

All my love,



Alyssa Nobriga specializes in working with couples through a mind-body-soul approach.  She also leads yearly Wellness Retreats to Bali, supporting people in living more open, authentic, loving, and fulfilling lives. To watch Alyssa working with clients, check out her website, or to find out about specials, see her Facebook page. For a limited time she is offering 50% off Couples Counseling in Santa Monica & 10% off July’s Retreat to Bali by mentioning Daily Love.

  • Hope

    After not being in a relationship for over a year I recently started seeing someone new. After several months together I see the pattern you are talking about starting to emerge. I am definitely the tiger. I said to a friend, how do I keep attracting this same type of guy, that type essentially being what you refer to as a turtle. Thank you for explaining that we attract those that can help us to heal. Just yesterday I spent the day, in my head, in full tiger mode but managed to navigate through it on my own and not unload it all on him. I have to say that as hard as it was to work through it without attempting to engage him, I felt better for it at the end of the day. Thank you for writing this. It is so relevant and helpful in my current situation.

    • Alyssa Nobriga

      I’m so glad it helped give you the awareness and a practical tool. It sounds like trying a new way was hard but that you felt better about it in the end.

      There are specific therapeutic ways you can express yourself on your own so you don’t feel like you need to bottle it up. Keep trying things on to see what works best for you. All the best to your relationship

  • Kelly Pietrangeli

    Great insight – thank you. (Although in my relationship it looks like we are BOTH tigers!)

    I’m going to share this on our Project Me for Busy Mothers facebook page. Once a week we help women in a different area of their life – including love & marriage. x

    • Alyssa Nobriga

      Yes having 2 tigers can definitely happen- it’s rare but I’m sure you’ve found your way with it 🙂

      I love that you are sharing and supporting other women! Please let me know if I can help in any way. Blessings, Alyssa

  • Akeem SouledoutBrotha Best

    Awesome post. Thank you for sharing.

  • Allison

    What if we’re both turtles? Both have difficulty with expressing feelings in particular. Both tend to be cerebral and inward.

    • Alyssa Nobriga

      Great question and something to be aware of. You guys can commit to supporting each other in stretching by opening to your feelings and sharing them, even when defenses want to close. I imagine you can also empathize with each other very well both being turtles…

  • Emily

    I just deeply hurt someone for the 3rd time we’ve tried to come together. I went to apologize but he refused to give me another a chance and sent me away. I’m not sure if he or I is the tiger. All I know is that I feel horrible. He didn’t ask for space. He just told me he’s glad I learned something so I’d have better luck next time. I want to send him this blog post – but I am afraid to over do it.

  • Lee

    I found this article while searching for information about the push/pull dynamic. My boyfriend of 5 years and I are having trouble with this, with me being the tiger and him being the turtle. He’s usually very patient with my intrusions, but in this last fight he said he wanted to end it, that he had had enough. We talked more and while he didn’t come back to the equilibrium we are usually at, he did agree that we could try to work on it. I have some serious self-esteem issues I need to deal with, and he is struggling with feeling fulfilled with his life as it is. I suggested we both should see a therapist both separately and together, and he seems to agree. Would you suggest that we seek a separate therapist for our personal issues or find someone who can work with us both as a couple and individually? I feel like seeing the same therapist for both will have better context for our lives and situations, but I also worry that I feel it should be the same because I’m relying too much on the relationship to be the things that defines me. Thank you if you have a chance to respond to this. 🙂

  • Celia A. Escalante

    My hardest problem is trying to not expect him to act out as the tiger. My brain just sets up how he would act the next time he sees me and then I come up with a quick response. My ultimate goal is to reply in a way that makes him the most happy, loving towards me and open to planning our future together. Basically, he’s the pitcher, I’m the batter and I’m trying to get a grand slam. So, should I let my brain do that and use it somehow or should I try to stop the obsessive thing?