Sunday, October 12, 2008

"What's that? Dive buddy." Tips for Relationships

August took me to the Great Barrier Reef. A once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed. I mean, if you’re going to be in Australia and you’re already a certified diver you just can’t miss the Great Barrier Reef. So, I got onto the dive boat with a dive tour and was taken out to some of the most fantastic dives in the world. However, the real story, for the sake of this news letter, is the first dive briefing and skill review.

Partner up. That’s the first rule of diving. Have a dive buddy. Once your dive buddy is determined the next critical part of the briefing is a review of dive hand symbols. Communication under water is very limited. Your nose and eyes are masked and you r mouth is filled with a breathing apparatus. You can make sounds however they don’t project so it’s a futile effort, unless all you want to do is hum to yourself. The best alternative to communication is relying on divers hand symbols.
There are universal dive hand symbols. They are used for the necessary basics to both ask and respond to issues of direction, wellness, enjoyment and need. “I’m okay”, “I’m not okay,” “going up,” “going down”, “look at that!” “I have ____ pounds of air.” and a few you don’t really want to use, “I’m in trouble,” “distressed,” “come pick me up” and “I’m out of air.” Basic and necessary—life protecting and life saving. The signals themselves are simple, clear and easy to understand, obvious really.
On the first dive we went out with an instructor to have a skills check. We had all taken scuba certification courses and had many dives under our belt, but better safe than sorry. A skill check is, while redundant, appreciated. One of the skill checks is practicing giving air to your buddy. Hand signals are used to cue the need for air and the life saving response—taking a breath and handing over the mouth piece, then putting in your own spare mouth piece and resume breathing.

Getting under the water to join the group for the skills check was difficult for me. I hadn’t been diving in over a year. The jump off point into the water was over the water like a mid height diving board, much higher than I was used to, and the surf was rough, rolling and high. Scared, I reverted to the low platform to inch my way in down a ladder. It was my first cold water, ocean dive. Once in, I realized my weights weren’t right, more had to be added (all while in the water and fighting the rough surf) so achieving buoyancy fatigued me. I also had been worrying a bit about the sinus infection I was just recovering from, “was I really well enough to dive?” Then I watched as one man from our group panicked and had to be escorted out of the water. By the time I got under water my breathing was labored and rather than feeling the soothing comfort diving typically brings me I felt nervous and unsure of myself. Still, I relied on my former positive experience and usual comfort in the water and expected things would get better with more underwater time.

We went 20 feet underwater, breathing air from our tanks and gathered in a circle for the underwater skill review. I was doing okay, and starting to feel more comfortable. Then the “I’m out of air” signal came to me. I froze. I was confused. I knew that signal, before, but my mind went blank. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I floated there, staring straight at my buddy completely nonresponsive. On the inside though a million questions and possibilities ran though my mind, so many it felt like a mental log jam of sorts. Being quick thinking, and “needing” air my buddy reached out and helped me respond, took what was needed and then directed me on what to do next. With the pressure off and having had a reassuring contact, it dawned on me what I was suppose to be doing and what had gone wrong. The hand signal, it had confused me. I didn’t understand it in a situation of high stress. I was embarrassed and felt guilty, and then questioned my own ability to assist my buddy in the future if there was a real need to share air. Fortunately, it was practice. Air got shared and the dive went on. I couldn’t spend much time with those feelings of inadequacy and humiliation. Later though, I wondered, what happened?

I realized I have a hand signal barrier or sensitivity. When I was growing up I learned American Sign Language (ASL), I used it fluently and later professionally. I relied on it in both social and professional settings. What happened to me on the dive was under stress I reverted instantly back to my ASL knowledge bank to achieve understanding. That’s where I have the most experience with hand signals. However, the diver’s hand signal and ASL are two very different things—they just don’t translate. What happened in my brain was a sort of overload. The diver signal didn’t compute. “I’m out of air and I need some quick” in ASL looks nothing like the diver hand signal for that same thing. This was an important realization for me and good information for anyone who dives with me to have —I really need to continually review the distressed divers hand signals in as close to a real time situation as possible to avoid freezing on the spot.

Married couples are so much like dive buddies. We need a partner to be safe, sustained, to share the beauties and adventure with, to offset life risk and to rely on. We have to be able to send and receive clear, understandable signals, especially in times of need.

We need to be securely bonded. I’ve mentioned the basic emotional needs we have with a partner, calling them the ABC’S of attachment. A—Acceptance. B—Belonging. C—Comfort and S– Safety. To have a secure bond develop its helpful to be able to share our needs and longings, to both give and receive these attachment needs with our partner. We need to send and receive clear and understandable signals. Here are a few questions to ask yourself, or to discuss with your partner, to help you create more emotional closeness in your relationship.

Do your signals for need overwhelm your partner and trigger a freeze response in them?

Do you become stressed, worried, or mad if your partner doesn’t seem to ‘be there’ or respond to you in a way that assures you that you matter?

Are you the partner (like me with my dive buddy) who feels horrible, realizing that you don’t know how to respond? Perhaps you’re not sure what you’re partner needs nor are you sure if you’re able to give them what they need when they need it?

Do you have sensitivities from your past that make either sending or receiving a clear message of need difficult?

Once you answer these questions to yourself, ask your partner how they experience you, or let your partner know what you’ve determined. Be sure when you talk that you send a clear message—if you’re afraid of sharing, let your partner know even that. Let your tone convey your true feelings, not the anger, defensiveness or resentment that can often hide the vulnerable feelings underneath (fear, inadequacy, quilt...etc.).

Communicating a clear emotional message that your partner can respond to about your need to be cared for and matter always comes from a soft and vulnerable place.

Remember, we need to be securely bonded. When it comes to the ABC’S (acceptance, belonging, comfort and safety) of attachment we have to let our partner know how we truly feel—deep down—from our soft place, our heart.

That’s all for now—and happy diving!

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To learn more about the principles this newsletter is based on read Hold Me Tight: Seven Conservations for A Lifetime of Love or follow the work of Dr. Susan Johnson and the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy.

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