I’ve had a love for dolphins since I was a young girl. My affinity for them has grown over the years, as I’ve shared incredible moments with these complex creatures. One of my favorite memories took place on the shores of Jekyll Island, joyfully watching as my daughter fed wild dolphins.
The more I absorb, whether through reading or observing them in nature, the more I’m struck by how much we can learn from dolphins. So much of what they exude is what I try to instill in the individuals and couples I work with in my psychotherapy practice.
Dolphins are highly social mammals living in complex societies, and are known to engage in cooperative behavior to survive. It’s not unusual for them to make arrangement for “childcare” as their calves can stay with them for years, and they’re also known for disciplining and educating their young. When it comes to feeding, dolphins are masters at using coordinated strategy; pods neatly and effectively work together, employing a variety of techniques to achieve the greatest outcome for the group. Dolphins know we aren’t intended to go through this life alone.
Unfortunately, it seems that many people forget this principle and try to live life like a great white shark — isolated. They forget that we were born to be in relationships. Consider it on a biological level: Humans were designed to physically give life through the ability to breastfeed; children are meant to rely on their parents for many years before they’re ready to venture off into the world.
Many individuals I meet have created unconscious defenses protecting them from relationships due to the pain of early trauma or the hurt of poor attunement with family members or, later in life, with significant others. Part of therapy involves processing these wounds and stepping back from long-held defenses. But, all the while, remaining aware of how the defense tactic of isolation and protection no longer serves you in the world. After all, protecting yourself from risk by living a life surrounded by walls is, ultimately, lonely, burdensome and exhausting.
Borrowing the dolphins’ communications skills
Dolphins have remarkable hearing and communication capacities. Their hearing capacity is well beyond that of humans. In environments in which the water conditions are murky, dolphins rely heavily on their specialized communication capacities. In clear waters, they may use only a third of the number of clicks and whistles to communicate. There is something to be learned from them about utilizing different abilities and skills when conditions are obscure — especially in interpersonal relationships.
An integral part of my work with couples involves helping them slow down the automatic defensive relational patterns they have been repeating for years, long enough for them to understand that there’s another option.
That option involves curbing reactivity and learning to listen on a deeper level — where partner’s often feel heard or “gotten” for the first time. They learn to hear that their partner has a different perception and experience than they have — one equally valid as their own. Couples come to understand the meaning behind their partner’s behaviors, increasing empathy for their partner’s defenses, while the partner simultaneously works toward letting go of these same outdated behaviors.
Learning to listen and communicate is essential to the health and growth of the relationship. To strengthen our relationships, we need to use deliberate communication skills which requires effort on our part.
Dolphins enjoy a good dose of curiosity and inquisitiveness, which is directly related to their capacity for complex communication. Much of my work involves holding couples in curiosity where they eliminate symbiotic beliefs and remain curious about themselves and their partners.
One of the issues that creates distance is the assumption that your partner sees the world the same way you do, or holds the same goals. A key to developing a healthy relationship is to hold fast to the idea of remaining in curiosity, which would involve a willingness to learn the intricacies of your partner’s uniqueness in perception, experience and interests. It would involve making room for these differences — supporting, respecting, and even advocating for what makes us each remarkable.
Dolphins have been known to go beyond the boundaries of what is familiar to them. They encounter and embrace differences, and have a lot to teach us about being open to others, especially in today’s climate where there appears to be growing intolerance in the world.
Successful relationships require a process known as differentiation. It’s the ability to have a clear sense of oneself and hold onto oneself in the presence of another. It also involves the capacity to be open to, be curious about, and affirm the differences in the other. When couples can maintain their perceptions and positions as well as consider their partner’s perception and position, they have the advantage to make a genuine compromise, rather than a decision based on acquiescing to their partner passively or grudgingly. Secure relationships involve the ability to accept and embrace differences rather than trying to force the other to accept your individual vision of the world. Not only does the process of differentiation help to create security, but it also adds richness to the relationship.
Another admirable trait of dolphins is their incredible ability to quickly repair from conflict. They are known to fight at times, including head-to-head posturing, yet as soon as the conflict dissipates, they’re observed placing their pectoral fin on the back of the other and swimming side by side, demonstrating friendship, as if nothing ever happened.
We can learn a valuable lesson here from the dolphin. One of the most destructive behaviors between couples is stonewalling during conflict. When a partner withdraws from the other and refuses to interact, it’s perceived by the partner as withdrawal of love — a punitive action. At times it may be necessary to step away and soothe yourself before you’re able to process and repair an issue. This is coming from a place of intentionality and wanting to better manage emotions.
One of the most valuable mantras that I pass on to my couples is the saying, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?” Being in relationship involves needing, even in times of conflict, to call upon the most mature part of ourselves and recall that we are in a partnership where goodwill is necessary. Goodwill involves both partners taking responsibility for making repair attempts: using strategies to deescalate the negativity. It involves expressing how you feel without attack, taking ownership for your part in the conflict, expressing remorse, and the willingness to accept your partner’s.
In other words, do as the dolphin: openly address issues and continue to swim side by side.