It is Not Fair! The Testicle Principle

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By © Al Turtle 2007
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I have been monitoring this problem in my clients, and in discussions among people on the web, for about four years.  Yesterday I got one more call from a person who seemed completely exhausted by trying over and over to deal with it – and failing.  Here’s the deal.  All issues and problems that couples bring to my office are fair.  Each person can lead the way out of the troubles.  If two people lead, then so much the better, but one is all that is necessary.  As I have said elsewhere, “It takes one to make a marriage, and two to make a divorce.”   

Oops, all problems except one, that is. 

There is one problem for which only one person who can lead in the solution.  I call this the Testicle Principle.  Now you guys are familiar with the idea that one is a bit higher and a bit more infront or behind the other.  Nature does this, to make sure that when we slam our legs together, all will be ok.  Painful to have them stay side by side in a pinch.    Well, the same thing is true in a couple’s relationship.  In this particular problem, and in this problem only, there is a designated leader.  However, since about 85% of couples that I see have this problem, this is a big deal. This is the “Unfair Problem.” 

You might want to look at this article as a second part to my earlier paper on the Two Wall Problem – Reliable Membership.    And you might want to review that paper again before reading on.  By the way, this is the problem and solution that my wife and I started working on about 12 years ago.  And, luckily I realized I was the designated leader!  At that time I printed a sign for the wall of our house that reminded me of my job, my role.  Using the word “Lizard” to refer to the survival instinct that was operating in myself and partner, my sign read, “You will never get love by chasing a Lizard.”  

Review (of Reliable Membership principles) 

The principle is that “All people require adequate, reliable (and not excessive) contact with other humans.”  At any given time, each person has a position on a continuum from extremely needy, to extremely avoidant.  No one will be exactly at the same spot.  Put two people together and one will be more clingy (reacting to insufficient or unreliable contact) and one will be more avoidant (reacting to too much contact).   In an intimate relationship, this distressing situation often becomes chronic, repeats over and over, and produces a great deal of distress.  When this sort of event starts, one acts needy, clingy, clawing, interrogating, pushy, invasive, in-your-face, pain-in-the-butt, insatiable, etc.  I call this person the Clinger, or the Pursuer, the Needy one.  During this event the other partner acts cold, withdrawing, silent, detached, avoidant, self-contained, isolating, etc.  I call this person the Avoider, or the Isolator, or the Independent one.  During these events, both tend to drive each other crazy. The behavior on both sides is driven by a) a need for enough connection or enough space and b) panic / the lizard.  When the Lizard takes over, watch out! I am a clinger, and have lived through this problem to its solution.  I recall each stage of the learning.  It was rough.  My wife was an avoider.  Enough said. 

In my earlier paper on this subject, I shared what the solution is: a) the avoider needs adequate space on demand, and the b) clinger needs adequate reliable connection

But this is easier said than done, and this is where the Testicle Principle comes in.  I have never known an Avoider who has been able to lead the way into solving this problem.  Hear me?  Never.  When I work in my office with Avoider individuals, who cannot get their Clinging partner to come in with them, all the Avoiders have ended up stuck – failing in their marriage.  Many of the Pursuers have been successful and leading toward a great marriage.  I was baffled by this for some time.  Then I began to suspect the problem.  Panic causes a Clinger to activate.  Panic causes an Avoider to shut down.  Frantic but active people can choose among different solutions.  Shut down people stand still and freeze.  Just try to get a frozen person to lead you!  This will not work.    

Zoning Out 

I am used to one technique of the Lizard when it freezes.  It shifts the blood pressure in the brain so that the person just drifts away or “zones out.”  When a child is being violated, this reaction saves its sanity.  The child feels nothing.  When on the battle field a soldier, under extreme pressure, just disconnects.  That was shown in the early part of the movie, Saving Private Ryan, by the episodes of silence during the D-Day invasion.   I began to connect this zoning out with Avoiders.  When a couple comes into my office, I typically speak to the Avoider first.  I find this person by speaking to the person who did not make the appointment.  Clingers, I have found, make the appointment about 95% of the time.   For the last three years, if I get the impression that the person I am speaking to is really an avoider, I ask this question. “This might seem like a funny question.  Do you ever find yourself in front of your partner, they are speaking, and you have just gone blank?  Can’t think of anything?  Don’t even know what they are saying?”  In these three years, 70% of these people have looked a bit startled, and then said, “Yes.  Often.”  Some describe it as happening many times a day when they are together with their partner.  Often they tell me that they have told no one about this before, and that it has been a problem since they were little kids.  I usually tell them that what I believe they are experiencing is probably low blood pressure in part of their brain and that this protective dropping of blood pressure is normal.  I also say that we will deal with it later in our sessions together. 

Clingers must do the first work  

The challenge to fix this problem of Reliable Membership is for the team to create TimeOuts for the Avoider (on demand) and create reliable connection for the Clinger.  But the Avoider overloads, goes into Zoning Out and paralysis, and cannot “demand” or even request the TimeOut.  They cannot even ask nicely at first.  They just shut down.  (At least not at first.)  If we Clingers are respectfully waiting for them to become "responsible" and to ask for a TimeOut, we may wait till the cows come home.  I have found this out.  I have studied this.  Check it out for yourselves.  

Avoiders begin to overload, slip further into overload and finally arrive at full overload.  They may know this is going on, but most often they are not aware.  We, Clingers, may not see it going on.  There is no blinking light on your partner’s head that says, “Overload in 2 minutes” or “Now overloaded.”  We Clingers typically become aware some time after our partner is zoned out for some seconds or minutes.  

Thus to fix this problem, Clingers are the only ones left who can do anything, and, omigosh, “aloneness” is their biggest fear!  Still they are looking for a solution.  Clingers get caught between their biggest fear (abondonment) and the opportunity to make progress in their relationship.  So this is the time, oh you Clingers, to call a TimeOut for your partner, and then go take care of your need for connection while your partner is recovering from Overload.  

(By the way, I found that it doesn’t do any good to verbalize the idea that you are calling a TimeOut for them.  “Boy, you look like you need a TimeOut!” doesn’t work.  Try, “This is getting heavy for me.  Let’s take a 1 hour TimeOut.”  This, I found, works.)  

If you regularly call TimeOuts in behalf of your partner, i.e. when they "seem" to need it, they will tend to believe/trust that you can give one and then maybe they can call one.  Then one day, and I remember the day it happened to me, your partner may say, “I am gonna need a TimeOut in 4 minutes.”   On that day, I suggest you crow and jump for joy, because your huge pain is in suddenly finding yourself alone, and now your partner is helping you to avoid it.  Your partner is giving you a warning ahead of time, which you can respond to. Your partner is being predictable.     

The Clinge​r Tasks  

Give your partner more TimeOuts than they need.  Your goal is to use your energy, panic, and wisdom to keep your partner out of Overload.  As long as they are out of Overload, all other problems in the relationship are solvable by either one leading – or both.  When your partner is in Overload, no one can do anything productive.  When the Avoider is in Overload, it is your job to do what it takes to bring them back.  It is good to quickly recognize when your partner is in overload.  The quicker the better.  Also, I have learned that it is wise to begin to recognize when your partner "might" go into overload and anticipate it. Hint: learn how to, pleasantly, give your partner more space than they need.  You will begin to see them coming toward you – which is what you want. The second thing you must do is KEEP YOURSELF OUT OF PANIC in the presence of your partner!  Your Panic probably cues them into overload.  I cannot stress this enough.  Learn to recognize the clues to when you are “losing it,” get away from your partner.  Do things that calm you down (at least 20 minutes) and then come back.  Boy, is this hard!    This situation will not seem fair to you.  It isn’t fair.  But this works.

The Avoider Tasks

I think it is good to help your Clinger partner understand what this situation is like for you.  Tell them. They may not believe you at first.  Hopefully this article will help you.   I think it is good to not blame yourself for becoming overloaded.  This is a normal Lizard brain behavior, when it thinks it is dying. This is Freezing. It is protecting you the best way it knows how.  I think it is good to validate your partner’s frustration – when you can.   “Hey, I sure see your frustration when I zone out.  Now, I can’t do anything else, but I see how that must hurt you, and I bet it seems unfair.” Practice planning ahead.  Learn to anticipate your overloading, and call a TimeOut before you need it.  I, a Clinger, recall the first time my partner said, “I can listen to you for another 4 minutes, and then I will need a couple of hours of TimeOut.”  It was wonderful to hear her give me a warning.   My suggestion is that if you think you can handle your partner’s enthusiasm for 10 minutes, call a TimeOut in 5 minutes.  Give yourself some leeway.  

What about Switching Sides?

It is very common for some couples to switch position.  Some days, or months, or about some subjects, one is the Clinger and the other is the Avoider.  And then they switch. Guys are often Clingers around sex, and Avoiders around most everything else.  Sometimes a “normally” clinging partner will get exhausted and will switch sides and walk away.  The Testicle Principle still works.  It is the Clinger who does the leading, the initial work.    This is what I have figured out.  Good luck.


It is Not Fair! The Testicle Principle — 34 Comments

  1. Avoiders seek space, but I’m not sure space is always what an avoider needs, or what it takes to make an avoider seek affection again. Avoiders often do want connection, but if they aren’t getting the kind of connection they want, then they will seek space. I feel that the split between myself and my clinger partners I have had is that I value quality connection and he values quantity of connection. I want to go for a walk with my partner and talk about our dreams, our fears, our past heartaches. He wants to complain about a boring task at work, or sit next to me on his phone and show me when he finds a funny cat video. Things that make him feel connected actually make me feel disconnected (and maybe even rejected), so I withdraw.

    I think this is often what is happening when one partner wants sex much more than the other, too. I want sex when we both have the time, energy and inspiration to make it amazing. He just wants lot of low quality sex. And that makes me feel degraded and want to have sex with him even less. If I’m just horny and don’t have the time or energy for good sex, I’ll take care of it myself, so I feel used that he doesn’t do the same.

    It’s like if Avoider Anne is feeling thirsty, and Clinger Carl keeps shoving salted peanuts in Anne’s mouth. Carl is just trying to be nice to her and connect with her. Anne knows that and appreciates that, but he is making her feel worse, and she feels guilty about that. So she walks away and Carl just follows her wherever she goes and keeps shoving salted peanuts in her mouth. After a while, Anne lashes out and yells at him to stop. Carl is stunned. He has been doing this nice thing for her, trying to get near her, how can she reject him this way? He doesn’t understand that what she needed from him was a glass of water, and Ann didn’t tell him, maybe because she didn’t even understand herself.

    • Really good description of the cutting/bleeding edge between what’s often called narcisissm and an empathic relationship. I think your partnership is forcing this. To have a great relationship each person eventually has to really get good at dialogue and empathy. Tis all about jointly working on creating a space where both people can live in joy and relaxation. I used to have a chart… ah, there it is Map of Relationship, Short Form. My suggestion is you take a look at this and then ponder the Two World Problem.

      Good luck Melanie

      • Thank you so much, Al! I’m actually slowly working my way through your entire archives. This site is a treasure trove.

  2. Dear Al,

    Thank you again for your response. Please hold on to that paper you have made notes upon. I will try calling you sometime this month to continue this conversation.


  3. I relate with the clinger, and my husband is the avoider (currently separated.) My husband believes that he doesn’t want to give our relationship a shot as he does not ‘feel’ it. He is giving me hot and cold vibes varying month on month (six months into our separation.) Is there any way to build a connection with him without making him feel I am clingy? because for the past one month most of my attempts usually have brief replies from him as answers, and not further effort to talk to me.

    • Well, P, this sounds very normal. Yes for the time being think of yourself as a normal Clinger, him as a normal Avoider and read up on what to do. 1) learn to take care of yourself so that his abandoning behavior doesn’t throw you off. 2) learn to let him set the pace of your growing relationship. 3) Reach out to him less often until you find the point where he feels lonely and reaches out to you. Don’t cut him off completely.
      As for that “not ‘feel’ it” stuff, that’s almost 100% normal event in all relationships at some point. See my Map of Relationships. Good luck.

      • Dear Al,

        Thank you for your wisdom. A few more questions, if you do not mind answering them-

        1. My husband and I have been together for 11 years, he says I am among his inner circle. We have set up a successful business together(which I am no longer allowed to be a part of.) Yet, my husband feels that he wasn’t growing in our relationship or was happy.Is loving and living two different things? (that’s his favorite explanation of our marriage)
        2. My husband has grown up seeing an unpleasant relationship between his parents. His dad is an alcoholic, but my husband constantly blames his mom for not handling his father well and thinks his dad is the victim. Eventually, post marriage it is – ‘this is just like my parents relationship. You are constantly provoking me etc etc.’ an answer to most marital problems we had. When I tried to explain that the past has an effect on our relationships, my husband said I was not being self-responsible, and felt that I was blaming his parents. Is there any way to make him reflect more objectively and positively on this than have his lizard brain react?
        3. Post our separation, my husband has chosen the path of spiritual meditation in order to overcome stress and his anger. But eventually he has completely surrendered to it, avoiding any conversation with me because he believes it takes him away from the peace and makes him angry. He has just gotten more fearful, and his lizard brain has completely ‘enemized’ me. Any insight?

        Thanks in advance, and love reading your articles!


        • Dear P, You asked for insight and I had a whole lot. Printed your piece and wrote notes all over it. Too long to put here. (You could call me.)

          In addition to the issue of Clinger-Avoider you two sound as if you’ve got a whole lot of anger management and control issues. With his family background you both should – you too. So I would also look into Master/Slave issues. Of course you will reproduce the kind of troubles his parents had. That’s normal. You task is to not get stuck in those issues and that sounds as if it’s what happened. Gotta get unstuck and you’re the one to lead the way, methinks.

          Question 1. Living vs Loving, different? Absolutely! You can live with a stranger, but a lover involves you get really getting to know each other at a level of depth and intimacy that I fear most people haven’t experienced nor learned to manage. Says he wasn’t growing. Sounds as if he felt stuck and was yearning for growth. What have you been doing, that you can change, that helped him feel stuck? My guess is “arguing.” That will never work.

          Question 2. Can you get him to reflect more positively on the parental stuff? Sure. You just have to a) stop pushing him at all, b) incorporate into yourself the ability to reflect on your own parental troubles as a way of moving forward, c) show him the positive benefits you are getting, d) be his friendly sounding board. I repeat, change him by not changing him and at the same time changing yourself. Lead.

          Question 3. Love that term “enemized.” Tis all about temper and misreading the cause. If I’m angry I was trained automatically try to blame someone else for it. It is in my paper on Healing Frustration and elsewhere. You may have to learn to be a trainer of anger management. I note a shortcut training in my brain: I observe someone blaming, I translate them as angry, I help them vent their anger safely, then later I become curious about what that anger was all about for them, I get to understand and like them better. The result of this training is I find myself attracted to incidents of anger rather than avoiding them. What things do you do when he get’s angry that further the idea of threat to him. I’m glad he’s meditating.

          Good luck.

        • Thank you very much Al! I did map some of my childhood issues, and yes, I argued, controlled at times, and got angry as well( its a work-in-progress zone:)..) The lead by example part – well I don’t have much contact with him, so I don’t know how can it be done without contact at this point. However, I am not trying to push any contact, or force any ideas or thoughts upon him. Just wish we could connect again, and am curious to know if there is something in that department that I can do without making him feel unsafe 🙂


        • Hello P, Good question that’s been asked by lots of people. Seems that many people don’t “wake up” until their partner is almost completely gone. My two articles on this (What to do when he leaves, When to give up) are my most read articles.

          Bottom line is a) there’s lot to do to fix yourself when your partner is not around, b) you want your partner to know you are interested still, c) in communicating that you are interested there is a little room to show you are fixing yourself and leading, d) for your own sake make a decision on when to move on to another relationship with you more fixed.

          Good luck.

  4. Hello Al. I would classify myself as a “clinger” right now, although I don’t believe that to always be the case.

    A few years ago my wife wanted to leave me because I was detached and somewhat passionless “her word”. I made efforts to reverse this behavior by getting out of my own head and focus on connecting with her. I believe at some point I was becoming a clinger and she met another guy, whom she ended up kissing. I found out about it after she was being secretive with her phone and very distant. That was about a year ago. We had worked thru some of the problems and continued along. At some points in the last year everything was great, or so I believed. We had fun, we did things together, we laughed. Then it happened again, with her writing private letters to this guy and lying to me about where she had been. We then worked thru these issues again. In that last 6 months until now, I’ve become increasingly controlling and suspicious of her behavior, becoming even more clingy. My issue stems with a lack of trust in her. I feel that if she lied to me many times before, whats to stop her again? Its gotten to the point where I would track her phone to know her location, look at her phone logs to see what numbers call or text her or whom she contacts, and looking at her email. I feel disgusted by doing this, but I’m at a loss on how to trust again and how to let go of the past, which I want to do. I want to be with her.

    It came to a head last night. She went and visited her brother out of town via a plane flight a few days ago. I took her to the airport but didn’t think too much of her wanting to go. I know she misses her brother. While at the airport, she tells me she ended up accidentally (her word) taking a call from the guy she had previously been involved with. She says he called to berate her on how he has a new girl and she is better than my wife. She tells me that she told him to leave her alone. That part didn’t bother me, but looking at the phone record shows she talked to him for over 11 minutes. If she didn’t want to talk to him, it shouldn’t have taken 11 minutes to hang up. Yesterday when she was scheduled to come back, she told me she was going to have her parents pick her up from the airport. This immediately set alarms off in my head. I asked her if she was coming back home or just going to end up staying at her parents house. She said she was coming home. She did end up coming home, but only to tell me she was leaving and going to her parents house to stay for a while. I became angry about the lie that she told me, about leaving under false pretenses to see her brother just to get his opinion on the matter, someone who would obviously be biased in her favor and would overlook her cheating most likely. We talked for the better part of an hour, but I knew that this time she was leaving for real, not just a threat.

    At this point, I’ve basically shut down. I couldn’t even sleep in our bed last night. I haven’t eaten anything in nearly two days, and I don’t even feel hungry at all. My brain feels like its going a mile a minute and I can’t seem to calm it any, which was a large part of why I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t talked to her since last night, but I know I can’t call her. She does need her space. She tells me she feels no passion in our marriage, but I don’t believe that to be true. I believe that what she thinks is passion is a misguided fantasy based on romance novels she once said that she wished I could be like. I ask her what would she like me to change and she can’t give me an answer. The trust issue I understand, but passion is somewhat difficult for me. I’m a very analytical person, because of my job and just who I am. I see puzzles and problems, and then ways to fix them. She knew this when we married, yet she still seems unaware that this is part of who I am and rebels against it.

    To sum all this long-winded rant, I need to ask: How can I begin to start trusting her again, along with ways to possibly show her that I do love her?

    • Well, Daniel, it sounds to me as if you’ve already started to build toward trust. I too was trained to be “rational” and “logical” and tended to be arrogant about others who showed passion and emotions. I stayed that way until my late 20s when I realized that my thinking was to a great extent the result of brainwashing when a child. I was taught to fear all the emotional parts of myself and thus cut off those parts. Fortunately I got into counseling and eventually went to school to study emotions – those emotions that I had learned to disconnect from. Sure glad I did.

      So I imagine you have that ahead of you. Go for it. Tis a great study. It ain’t rational to cut off part of the being you are.

      Sounds as if you’ve been given a partner who is “forcing” you to face this. Good for her. Look around my website for help. Check out the essays on Emotions. Keep a going.

      And as for “trust” that’s all starting my essay on Safety. Hard to trust her or have her trust you if you don’t have the habit of trusting yourself. Or said more accurately, hard to feel safe with her or make it so she can feel safe with you, when you don’t have the habit of feeling safe with yourself. Integrating your emotional self should help that – a lot.

  5. Okay so here is my problem, my girlfriend is an obvious avoider and I am a clinger. I have been a great guy for her, cooked, cleaned, made her feel special, and she loved all of it, then on new years she just randomly broke up with me bcuz of issues that she said she had on and couldnt deal with the emotional attachment of us. We are both in AA so i believe this program has sone to do with her thinking but I dont know what to do? She told me she wants to be together in the future but has completely shut me out of her life right now including deleting me from facebook…. she insists we will still see each other at meetings we go to and be friends until she is ready for more but i dont want to see her all happy and not be able to.laugh with her plus she acts like i am bothering her in these scenes. I am considering just avoiding all these meetings for the next few weeks and hope that she misses and wonders about me but am also concerned about the potential adverse effects it could have! Please help….

    • Dear anonymous, This sounds like pretty normal clinger/avoider stuff to me. Goal for you is to really understand her (sometime subtle) need for space. I think she really needs to believe you understand and are gentle and kind in making sure she’s got enough space in her life. The concepts are all in my articles, here. Good luck.

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