The Mother Dove, Our Brains, and Incredible Relationships

About three weeks ago, I was out on my front balcony watering the beautiful fuchsia and the pink and white vincas in the flower box on the rail. Suddenly there was a fluttering from inside the flower box; a rustling of the vincas.  A bird flew out! It all happened so fast it was a blur. But then I saw them. There they were! Two tiny little eggs laid among the flowers. I went inside, closed the door, and waited a bit nervously until I saw the Mother Dove return. 

I’m not certain why the tears welled up as I saw her nestle and reposition herself over her eggs. Maybe because I thought that since I scared her off, she might not return. Maybe because my mother seemed to always have doves in her garden. Or maybe because I was touched with thoughts about the sanctity of life.

Regardless of the reason, I have continued to be moved and enlightened by the Mother Dove. The next day I was in a dilemma. I didn’t want to scare her away again, but I knew that the shade and protection of the vincas would go away if I allowed them to die. So I slowly opened the door, very slowly peeked my head out, and spoke to her very softly. In almost a whisper, in the sweetest tone I could muster, I said, “Good morning Mother Dove; I’m not going to hurt you or your babies. You are safe here!”

After a few days, I told her I was going to put a little water in the other end of the box so that her shelter, the beautiful flowers, would not die. I told her I would only put in a little bit at a time, so the water would not run down and get her wet. Although she rustled a bit, I was able to pour a bit of water ever so slowly into the box. By the end of the week, she would allow me to get very close to her in my watering, and quietly talk to her.

Then we had storms. Horrible storms. I was awakened by the thunder, cracks of lightning, hail, and 70-plus mph winds. I couldn’t help thinking about my Mother Dove, wondering if she were in danger of being blown from her nest. So yes, if you had been on the street where I live, you would’ve seen me standing out there, holding an umbrella above her to block some of the wind and the hail! She was no longer just a random bird. I loved her; I had a relationship with her.

Then came the wondrous morning when I checked on her and saw a ball of fur sticking out just beneath her belly. The arrival of her two babies made me even more cautious to speak to her lovingly and assure her that she and her babies were safe. I also understood the importance of being more aware of my distance from her. Once again, I told her in my softest, most loving tone that I needed to put a little water in the end of the box to ensure that the protection from the hot sun would continue. Now that her babies were sitting beside her, I spoke to all three of them daily, and told them they were welcome to keep their home there as long as they needed to.

So you may be wondering, what on earth does this have to do with our brains and fostering incredible relationships?


From the moment I spotted the Mother Dove in my flower box, I was reminded of the teachings of my friend and mentor, Dr. Harville Hendrix. After years of research, teaching, writing books, appearing on television shows (like Oprah), he emerged with a statement that rocked the therapeutic community. He said that the revelation had come to him that the number one secret to solid, long-lasting, fulfilling relationships was “safety.” Although physical safety is obviously a must, he was not speaking of physical safety. He was speaking of a safe environment where love and connection could thrive between two people. It was a comment that made sense, but more importantly, facilitating safety among couples began to create what could only be labeled as miraculous transformations. Whether the relationships were already wonderful or in deep trouble, addressing the element of safety created amazing relationship transformations. I believe Mother Dove stayed, and allowed me to be close, because she not only knew that she was physically safe, but she knew that I cared about her and her babies. I had changed everything by caring about her and wanted her to stay. I changed the way I moved my body; I changed my tone of voice; I changed my words.

These were exactly the things that Dr. Hendrix teaches when he trains couples to create safety.  He teaches that safety is the key to longevity and fulfillment in their relationships. He encourages couples to create an environment of “zero tolerance for negativity.” How do we do that? By making a conscious decision and a commitment to remove all negativity from the relationship. No raised voices; no criticisms, no name calling, no negative words, no harshness; no aggression. And, no “punishing” behaviors (like funks, withholding love, or stonewalling). 

I was talking about this recently with a couple. I was laying out the guidelines. The husband was wide-eyed and had a furrowed brow. Then he said, “Well if we did this, we would have nothing to say to each other, and nothing to do with each other.” His wife nodded in agreement. Everything I had just taught them had been demonstrated right there in real time. We all three burst into laughter… not because it was funny, but because we all recognized that they had put to voice the absurd reality. Sad to say, I can report from my experience that this example is not unusual.
Why on earth would a therapist suggest such a daunting task: that couples should remove all negativity? Because every word we exchange, every behavior in which we engage, and every body movement and posture we make, moment to moment, determines the future of our constantly-evolving relationships.

I have advocated this change to zero negativity for so many years that within the first half hour of meeting with a new couple, I can predict the path the relationship will take if changes are not made. Over the years, I have learned that the greatest intervention I can make is to help couples develop safety.  How?  By helping create an environment of zero tolerance for negativity.

A look at neuroscience and neuropsychology helps highlight the importance of creating this environment.  This transformation is critical for long-term, healthy, fulfilled relationships.

At the risk of oversimplifying the processes that occur in our brains, let’s break this down to make it easier to understand. One of the elements of our nervous systems is called the “sympathetic nervous system.” This system operates from the base of the brain down to our lumbar vertebrae. This is the part of the nervous system that activates the “fight or flight” response. We also have what is called the “parasympathetic nervous system,” which operates our unconscious activities, keeping them working when we are not even aware. You do not have to think to breathe; or command your heart to beat. These systems operate normally and naturally without our conscious thought or action.

What does this have to do with the advantage of living in a safe place?  An atmosphere of negativity keeps our bodies “on alert;” operating from our sympathetic system. This causes a release of hormones that can be quite harmful to our health over time. In this state, our “feel good” emotions shut down, and our libido is significantly decreased. When most people say that they have “fallen out of love;” or “I’m just not feeling it for him/her anymore,” those sentiments are usually the result of living in an environment where their sympathetic system is constantly on alert.  This state of being is very difficult to sustain, and eventually our bodies tell us to give up. I am often asked if you “fall out of love” can you “fall back in love” again? My answer is… absolutely! With consistent zero negativity, our sympathetic system “stands down” and our bodies settle into the parasympathetic mode, where “feel good” emotions return, and libido is once again increased.

Is it really that simple? Well … yes, that is a simplistic description of how our bodies, our neuro systems, and our emotions, work.

Are you still with me?  OK … but it’s NOT simple for most of us to commit to move to a zero tolerance for negativity. Our hearts and minds struggle with the idea of a zero-tolerance commitment. In my office, all manner of toxic beliefs emerge when I go through this.  Some of those toxic beliefs (any of these too close to home?!):

  • Old habits die hard
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • That’s just not how I’m wired
  • You can’t change your personality
  • I inherited that, it’s just in my genes

Of course, when I hear those comments I jump on my soapbox. I tell them it is not in your “genes.” It is a choice you make every day.

This is where the rubber hits the road! Will you chose to be truly committed to the relationship? 

Your choices reveal your commitment.  Just remember, if you chose not to commit you will likely move on to another (and then another; and another) relationship and create the same scenario. Zero tolerance for negativity is not a simple thing, but it’s an incredibly rewarding thing!

You may be thinking, does that mean I have to live in denial, and act like everything is hunky dory even when all hell breaks loose? Of course not. But we can address the challenges, and resolve conflict, using our parasympathetic system. A big challenge is that we’ve been trained by what we saw growing up, by the big screen, and by social media, to flop immediately into our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) when things are not perfectly calm.

Good grief; what can we do?  We can re-train ourselves by setting some guidelines in our relationship. Here are some guidelines to set yourself up for success:

  1. Develop a word, phrase, or signal to communicate to your partner when something that has been said or done has triggered a sympathetic system response. When I ask couples in my office to develop their word, phrase or signal, they usually go to those that would NOT alert the desired parasympathetic response! I won’t repeat some of the words or phrases. (Let’s just say that often the signal chosen is the middle finger!) So the first guideline must be one that activates a parasympathetic response. Here are some examples that couples have chosen and found effective in my office:
  2. The word “butterflies” while putting your hand on your heart
  3. The phrase “you are my sunshine”
  4. At thumb kiss (kissing your thumb and offering it to the other who kisses their thumb and touches yours)

These actions signal to the other that something has happened that has thrown you into a sympathetic response (fight or flight). Neither of you want that! You both must immediately focus on the safety of the relationship as you address the situation in a positive way.

  • Remember that when you receive the signal, the word, or the phrase, that it is more about the safety of the other than it is about what you said or did. Immediately turn your attention to the safety of the other. I have learned that one thing that really helps in this process is to find a picture of your partner when they were a young child. These pictures usually touch our hearts and trigger an affectionate response. Carry that picture in your wallet, put it on your screensaver, or make it the wallpaper on your phone. When you receive the signal, immediately focus on the childlike part of your partner. Recall that that child feels unsafe. None of us are happy when our behavior has caused a child to feel unsafe!
  • Activate your own parasympathetic system by first taking in a deep breath; then take a few seconds to focus on what you are grateful for in your partner. (We have learned the value of gratitude several times in these blogs!)

Zero tolerance for negativity is the first change that is needed. We need to follow that change with the creation new rituals, new fun, and new surprises. These physical activities help us solidify the benefits.  Let’s look at all three:

1. Creating new rituals.

Creating new morning and evening rituals that initiate the parasympathetic system is very helpful. When I ask couples to do this in my office there are often a few humorous suggestions. But then I hear the sweetest things. For example, some of the morning rituals have included things like bringing the other a cup of coffee while they are getting ready; saying a prayer that the other has an amazing day; or giving a long meaningful hug before running out the door. Some examples of evening rituals include sharing a gratitude for the other at bedtime; going for a walk; sharing the three best highlights of each other’s day; or falling asleep holding hands.

2. Creating fun moments.

The word “recreation” comes from the notion of  “re-creating.” Sometimes we get so busy with daily life that we forget to have fun together. As an exercise, I often assign the husband the task of creating a moment of fun on the odd days of the month and the wife that task on the even days of the month. The guidelines are that it must last at least 60 seconds, and usually should not cost anything. I loved a recent idea shared by a husband.  He suggested to his wife that they develop a new ritual of belting their legs together when they walked together in the evenings.  Loved it! I tell couples in my office to watch what kids do if you need fresh ideas!

3. Creating surprises

Surprises don’t have to be huge things. Planning a cruise, although wonderful, can be daunting. But daily little surprises are priceless. Things like opening his laptop and putting a sticky note with a heart on the keyboard, then closing it so he will find it when he gets to work. Or putting her towel in the dryer on a cold morning so that when she steps out of the shower she will have a warm towel. These little things anchor us in our parasympathetic system. They create an atmosphere where love can bloom and safety reigns! The results are certain: a rewarding, rich, fulfilled relationship. (And by the way these same concepts, with slightly different approaches, work in all relationships … with your adult children, with your coworkers, with your neighbors and friends.)

The Mother Dove and her babies have been on my daily gratitude list for weeks. Why? I don’t really believe that all happenstances are coincidences. I believe there is a lesson awaiting us for growth every day. The Dove family reminded me of what I need to do in order to create safety in my relationships. A gentle spirit, soft sincere words, intentional calmness, and sincere love!

Yes, when the storms came again in the night, I built the Mother dove and the babies the best shelter I could! I was soaking wet, but I didn’t mind at all!

Will storms (difficulties, arguments, hurt feelings) come? YES! But when they do, if you really love and care about the well being of your partner, you will create a place of shelter to ride out the storm!

My hope and prayer is that you will be reminded of who and what you need to be to create safety in your relationships. I know it’s in you. You likely do it most of the time. I hope you will join me in consciously making your relationships safer. If we join in and do it together, we can make the world a safer place!