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Are You a Skunk or a Turtle?

Find out and you'll communicate better

Is your idea of romance a quiet evening at home? Are your favorite words huh, uh, sure, ugh and later? Do you control the remote, love to surf the Internet or habitually wait for your spouse to answer the phone? Do you like peace, hate conflict and avoid emotional issues?

Then you may be a turtle.

Or do you confront issues head-on? Are you an advice-dispenser and problem-solver? Are your most-used words but, why and you always? Do you hate silence, love having people around and get a rush from defending your point of view?

Then you may be a skunk.

If you're a turtle, there's a good chance you're married to a skunk—or vica versa. For some reason, these natural opposites have an affinity for each other. We can tell you all about it, because we're a turtle-skunk pair ourselves. Over the years we've struggled to harmonize those differences—differences that were the very things that attracted us to each other in the first place.

Remember the first time you saw your spouse? What attracted you to each other? Claudia still remembers being enamored with this laid-back, easy-going guy who had all the time in the world to listen to her. I (Dave) was intrigued with Claudia's energy, enthusiasm and endless ideas for places to go and things to do. She never ran out of conversational topics.

Before marriage, when romance and hormones abounded, every day was enchanted. My calm attentiveness complemented Claudia's three-ring circus. Our rose-tinted glasses helped us appreciate our differences. But on the heels of the honeymoon came some real-life adjustments.

I (Claudia) redefined Dave's laid-backness as lack of motivation. No matter how many firecrackers I lit under him, he stayed slow and steady. And when I tried to talk about it, he'd retreat into his shell—just like a turtle! Meanwhile Dave was perplexed. I suddenly seemed so introspective, analytical and opinionated. And why did I always want to be "on the go"? Soon he tired of all that activity—and he definitely could do without my unsolicited skunk-like advice pouring out at him.

Fast-forward eight years and add a trio of sons. Life was more complicated and our turtle-skunk tendencies more pronounced. But a psychologist who ran some personality and psychological tests on us took the time to point out our differences and give us some advice: "Your differences could build a great partnership. Concentrate on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Resist reacting to each other, and you'll be a terrific team."

It seemed simple. Dave, the turtle, would stop stonewalling; Claudia, the skunk, would stop attacking; and we'd find unity in our diversity. It wasn't as easy as it sounds. But over the years, with God's grace and help, we've made progress.

So do you think you're a skunk or a turtle? Whichever you are, here are some tips for finding harmony in your own zoo.

For Both Turtles and Skunks:

  1. Appreciate your differences. Look for ways your diversity brings balance. In our case, Dave, the turtle, helps us avoid immediate face-offs, which can lead to saying things we later regret. Claudia, the skunk, helps get issues out in the open so we don't avoid them.
  2. Forgive each other. Don't live in the zoo. Be the first to say, "Hey, there we go again. Let's stop, forgive each other." Practice forgiveness, and show compassion when your mate slips and reacts in a typical skunk or turtle pattern. Let Jesus be your model. Remember how God forgives you.
  3. Give gifts of love. Make a list of activities or gestures you could do that would show your spouse your love. For example, I (Claudia) can make sure Dave gets his quiet evenings at home. When conflicts come up, consider, "Is this just more important to my spouse than it is to me? Can I 'give in' as a willing gift of love?" Remember, turtles need time alone. Skunks need to talk and know their spouses are really listening.
  4. Stop trying to change each other. You're the only one you can change. But when you do, you might find your spouse changing, too. So concentrate on your own self-improvement program.
  5. Date each other. Get back in the habit of spending time together.
  6. Pray together. Prayer is a great neutralizer.

If You're a Turtle …

  1. Get in the habit of turning off the television, computer, DVD player, and so on.
  2. Really listen. In other words, put down the book you're reading and make some eye contact.
  3. Say, "Honey, would you like to go for a walk?"
  4. Every day find a way to encourage your skunk spouse, including compliments and assurances of your love.
  5. Make yourself vulnerable to your spouse. Share your real feelings.
  6. Keep your promises.

If You're a Skunk …

  1. Start your sentences with "I" instead of "You." Avoid absolute statements.
  2. Resist the urge to criticize or give unsolicited advice.
  3. Avoid discussing hot topics late at night or when you are tired.
  4. Choose your battles carefully. Then approach your turtle spouse cautiously when broaching a sensitive subject.
  5. Measure your words. Avoid flooding your spouse with too many details or repetition.
  6. Look for the positive in your mate, and develop more compassion. Remember you don't always have to be right.

After 35 years, Dave and I react a lot less and complement each other a lot more. But once in a while we still slip back into our skunk-and-turtle ways. One day, on the last day of our European vacation, I complained, "Do I always have to do all the packing?"

Dave, who was preoccupied by a TV soccer match, stayed in his shell: "What's the big deal, I'll help pack later."

"Later," I insisted, "is too late!" I huffed and puffed, but turtle Dave hardly noticed. Finally I said, "Look, here we go again!" I apologized for my skunk-like attack, and then Dave came out of his turtle mode.

"Come watch the last few minutes of the soccer match with me," he said, "and then we'll pack together—and go for one last walk."

We can't remember now who actually finished the packing, but we do remember agreeing we want to keep on walking together for another 35 years!

The Arps lead Marriage Alive Seminars across the United States and in Europe. Their books include The Second Half of Marriage and 10 Great Dates to Energize Your Marriage(both Zondervan). You can visit them at www.marriagealive.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Communication; Differences; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

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