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Yes, You Really Are Incompatible — and That’s a Good Thing!

Relationship incompatibility seems like a bad thing, right? After all, we’re flooded with ways to discern compatibility from the get-go: magazine quizzes, personality types, zodiac signs… The message from everywhere seems to be: you want to be compatible.

Yet conflicts arise in even the most simpatico marriages. Especially in peaceful partnerships, an argument can feel alarming as an earthquake. 

Fear not! Far from relationship incompatibility being a deal-breaker, you can actually use incompatibilities to build a stronger relationship in the long run.

Let’s illustrate how, using a simple metaphor from the Imago book Making Marriage Simple by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelley Hunt.

Turtles and Hailstorms

This isn’t the title of a children’s book. These terms refer to the central difference we see in marriage after marriage — how each partner handles stress and conflict. 

“Turtles” handle confrontation by withdrawing into themselves. They need time alone to process emotions. They prefer to collect their thoughts and bring a finished idea to their partner. 

“Hailstorms,” on the other hand, need to engage. They’re the folks who want to talk things out immediately. They were probably the ones who invented the philosophy “Never go to bed angry.” A Turtle would probably say “Sleep on it.”

Is it possible that a Turtle would marry a Turtle, and two Hailstorms might run off into the sunset together? Of course. But, more often than not, these contrasting types of people end up together. You might see it in yourself and your partner as you read this.

Here’s the good news: you have a lot to learn from each other. You can help each other find inner-balance. But first, these differences will make some waves.

The Power Struggle

Before consciously managing different conflict styles in marriage, couples often find themselves locked in “the Power Struggle.” This experience can feel so unpleasant that you might lose hope for a while.

The Power Struggle can take different forms of nagging or even accusation. “You’re never on time.” “You always leave your dishes in the sink.” “You shouldn’t call your sister so often.”

However, the discord essentially boils down to this subtext:

“Why can’t you be more like me?”

The Power Struggle often reaches its maximum demonstration when higher stress disagreements surface. 

For example, parents might differ on how to handle their child’s discipline. The Hailstorm partner might pelt the Turtle partner with questions and ideas, trying to figure out a strategy in response to, say, a call from the principal at school. The Turtle partner feels flooded and retreats further and further. They might go work in the garage, take a long shower, or watch TV.

With each step the Turtle takes backward, the Hailstorm chases in frustration.

A New Horizon

Is there any way out of the Power Struggle? Yes, and this is where the work of marriage really happens. 

Step 1: Acceptance

You must actively accept each other for who you are. This takes a large amount of perspective and patience, so be ready to call on your inner resources.

Seek help from a professional counselor if this step feels hard. You may want to build greater skills in interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation.

Step 2: Space and Communication

For the Hailstorm partner, you’ll need to divert yourself when you want to chase your Turtle. Your intentions are good, but save the engagement for a ready discussion — not a forced one. 

If you tend to hail, it can help to brainstorm “conflict break” activities:

  • Arts and crafts
  • Household maintenance
  • Exercise
  • Visiting other friends and family (without drawing them into drama)

Meanwhile, the Turtle needs to communicate so as not to leave their partner in the dark. Use gentle, clear phrasing like “I need two hours to myself this afternoon before I can talk.” Just a few words can mean the difference between frustration and trust.

 Step 3: Creative Solutions

Relationship incompatibility? Yes, please! Because something beautiful arises when you accept and use your differences as a couple. Suddenly, rather than wanting your partner to be a mirror, you combine strengths to become a prism of perspective. 

The Turtle partner will bring their best work after a little time spent thinking. The Hailstorm will lend their enthusiasm in putting the pieces together.

Below this business, you are each experiencing a deeper level of understanding and love. In Imago, we see this as a core practice in healing childhood wounds.

Through wading conflict, your connection will grow in maturity, depth, and fulfillment.


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Copyright @2020 Dana Cole, LMFT