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What Submarines Can Teach Us About Intimacy – Part 1

December 1, 2011

Have you ever considered submarines?  They’re quite fascinating machines.

Beyond the obvious ability of u-boats to hold their breath for long periods of time, there are a few key characteristics I want to draw your attention to that can teach us about intimacy.

Submarines (at least the military ones) are generally blind, save a periscope.  Communication between submarines can be quite tricky.  One of my favorite scenes in the film, The Hunt for Red October, involves a US sub and the Soviet Sub “Red October” trying to understand each other.  They use sonar to speak to each other, but let me digress into an explanation of sonar.

I’m not an expert, but as I understand it there are two primary types of sonar:

  1.  Active sonar is where a “ping” (an acoustic signal… you know, the generic submarine sound) is sent out and a receiver listens for that signal to bounce back.  It’s kind of like an echo, you shout, the sound bounces off the wall and comes back to you.  The further away you are from the wall, the longer it takes a signal to bounce back.  Submarines measure this bounce to measure distances away from things like boats and the sea floor.
  2. Passive sonar is listening without transmitting.  It’s more useful for identifying things in the water.  In the submarine comedy Down Periscope, the submariners try to fool the passive sonar of another submarine by singing like a bunch of drunk fisherman.  The opposing submarine, listening to their crooning, assumes they are drunk fisherman and doesn’t engage them.  At another point in the movie, they pretend to be whales by mimicking their calls, yet again fooling the opposing submarine.

So back to The Hunt for Red October.  Red October is a Soviet Submarine with top secret technology allowing them to travel in complete silence.  The captain attempts to defect to the US, but has to deal with the trickiness of communicating with an American sub without getting torpedoed.  The two submarines sense each other’s presence, and they wait…  Underwater death isn’t something you generally toy with.  The Russian captain makes the fateful decision to send out one ping.  The US submarine will know where they are without a doubt after this, and might choose to torpedo them back.  It’s a tense scene where communication is absolutely vital to all involved.

This is a longwinded introduction, but this idea got me thinking about relationships and relating to people.  To me, a ping represents something intimate.  A ping is going to be something important to us, something that exposes our character, something vulnerable.  Sending out a ping is risky.  You might get a ping back.  You might get silence.  Then again, an incoming torpedo communicates something as well doesn’t it?

As soon as we send out that first ping, as soon as we fire off that first intimate detail, there’s a test of trust.  It’s like stepping onto a swinging rope bridge.  Can this bridge hold me?  Will it tip?  Anytime we initiate a relationship where we let someone know what’s really going on, we risk being torpedoed.  We take a degree of control, hand it to the other person, and hope they don’t abuse it.  If we get a ping back, we might likewise return another ping to them later.  The safer we feel the more pings we’re willing to send out.

But what about silence?  Communication is a funny thing in that it often doesn’t involve words.  People are communicating all the time, whether they want to or not.  By saying nothing they’re saying something.  I send a ping out to test the waters, no response.  Maybe at first I think they haven’t understood the message, but if I the silence is repeated enough times, the pings will stop coming… should stop coming anyway.  To keep sending pings when people aren’t returning them is to put yourself in a vulnerable place.  They know where to send the torpedoes, but how will you defend yourself?

Silence can be painful.  Who likes being ignored?

Then there are torpedoes, but I’ll talk about those next.

So what do sonar and torpedoes have to do with intimacy?  I’ll cover my thoughts on the subject over the next few posts.

So yeah, I’m not a psychologist or a submarine expert.  These are simply my thoughts, in no way exhaustive, on a subject I’ve been thinking about for a while.  Comments/insight welcome.

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