When The Canary Stops Singing

Guest Blog by Rob Maroney, co-author of Hope After Hurt

There are countless examples of how animals serve as warnings to humans of impending danger. The classic example is the “canary in the coal mine”. Placing a canary in a mine to detect carbon monoxide was first introduced in 1896 by British physician, John Scott Haldane, and canaries continued to be used for the next 100 years.

The little bird’s rapid breathing rate, small size, and high metabolism, compared to the miners, caused these small, fragile birds to succumb before the miners ever became aware of the elevated carbon monoxide levels. When the canary was found in the bottom of its cage, it gave the miners time to get out of the mine. For a century these little birds acted as their “early-warning” system.

Are you in a relationship where you are relying on someone else to be your “warning system” when things aren’t going well? Sadly, my wife became the canary. She was the early warning system to tell me if something was not right. I was so unfamiliar with recognizing, understanding, and responding to the emotional well-being of someone else that I didn’t even notice when the canary was struggling at the bottom of the cage. When I would finally notice her at the bottom of the cage, gasping for air, my hyper-vigilance kicked in to try harder, make promises, and make some white-knuckled, last ditch effort to change or “fix” the problem. But eventually I would drift back into old patterns and rely once again on the canary to be the warning light … to give signs of life, and to let me know if it was safe to be down in the mine shaft. She became the barometer of how “we” were doing. She determined our level of closeness or separateness.

Knowing how to be together and how to be apart is essential in a healthy relationship. Feeling secure enough to stand on our own, to trust and motivate ourselves, as well as knowing there is someone else we feel safely connected to and someone we can lean on is important. It’s so much easier for us to feel connected when we agree, and when our goals and needs align. It’s easy to express ourselves when there is little risk of conflict. But when we are stressed, irritable and tired, the ability to balance separateness and togetherness is truly tested. Anxiety and impatience increase when we disagree or want different things. Different opinions and perspectives can threaten security in a relationship, and unhealthy patterns of relating to each other kick into high gear when we feel threatened.

At the extreme ends, some people cannot tolerate either being too alone or too close – either one creates discomfort and pain. When your emotional well-being is heavily dependent on someone else’s emotional state, stress increases when you think you are expected to “fix” something. In this anxious state, you often just want the uneasy feelings and tension to go away more than you want to feel more connected, creating distance and isolation in the relationship.

Pushing feelings aside never makes them go away, they just get buried deeper. To communicate assertively and confidently in an intimate relationship takes courage, and most of us never saw this growing up. There’s a good chance you didn’t have healthy models of courage or self-acceptance, enabling you to value and honor feelings and needs and risk criticism or rejection when voicing your feelings and needs. Giving a voice to your feelings also means believing you deserve love and that you are comfortable receiving love. It’s no wonder when we bring these under-developed skills into marriage, the stage is set for a huge emotional intimacy gap.

Although these little birds served a valuable function in warning the miners of danger, it cost them their lives. As the years went by, the coal mining industry wanted to find a way to spare the canaries from a certain death. The cages were modified to include a small oxygen bottle so the miner could release fresh air into the cage to resuscitate the fragile little birds and keep them alive when they started struggling.

If you’re the canary, learn to communicate your feelings in a confident and courageous way. If you’re the miner, don’t wait until the canary stops singing to pay attention to the environment around you. It takes both of you to develop a healthy, intimate, and secure relationship.


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