Does Your Pet Play a Therapeutic Role in Your Relationship?


Along with all the benefits that pets offer, close examination reveals that they have the potential to play a therapeutic role in a couple’s relationship. In a strange and precious way, pets seem to serve, much like a therapist, as an emotional β€œthird party” to a couple. As such, they open up emotional space for new perspectives and relationship options.

Katie and Rob, a couple in a second marriage for the two, never planned to have a pet. They cautiously agreed to take Penny, a small terrier, when a parent fell ill. Of course, they fell in love with her. When I asked them how Penny impacted their relationship, their response surprised me:

Penny is our peacemaker. Before Penny, we wouldn’t talk to each other for days after an argument. Funny what’s going on now – after an argument one of us will start talking to the other about Penny to break the ice. We never planned it, we just do it and it works.

In some ways, Penny had become the “third” in their relationship.

The concept of the “Third”

The concept of “third party” comes from relational psychology, more precisely from the work of psychologist Lewis Aron, author of A Meeting of Minds: Mutuality in Psychoanalysis (1996), which resonated with the work of Jessica Benjamin (1999), and recognized the intersubjectivity or shared psychology of a couple (i.e. their tendency to lock themselves into complementary positions and often destructive).

Aron conceptualizes this as the couple sitting on a swing, stuck at opposite ends and in complementary positions – as victim-victim, giver-taker, win-lose, etc. As such, they can move up and down based on their own point of view, needs, or opinions, but leads nowhere. The presence of the therapist as “third” opens the space to a triangle and a possibility.

In clinical work, the therapist as a β€œthird party” is particularly useful in understanding and resolving dead ends and conflicts. Often, the space opened up by the therapist as a “third party” makes it possible to recognize the complementarity of the positions of the couple on the swing. are able to recognize and see themselves in a different space and from a different perspective.

Source: Chris Phillips

Biggie opens the space for the couple he loves.

Source: Chris Phillips

Your pet as “Third”

Careful examination of mates and their pets prompts us to consider that, in an unexpected and bizarre way, pets can also serve as a “third.”

They open up the space between and within partners in a therapeutic way that invites mutual focus and space to come together in emotional space. Consider these situations:

Open the sharing space

Moving to a new city for David to take on a new job involving travel was not a first choice for Mary. It was hard enough for her to find a new job, let alone a connection. Obviously, after a month, the decision was not going well between them. Mary began to see David as more selfish than she had imagined: β€œDid he know how much this move cost me? Sensing his cold annoyance, David felt lonely with his worries about succeeding and the fatigue caused by the constant shifts in the new position.

Enter Wilbur, a little black French Bulldog with great potential to fill the void. Not only did Mary feel comforted by her little mate when David was away, but David and Mary were also delighted to find neighbors who, initially polite, became enthusiastic welcoming once Wilbur arrived and the three of them walked around. Feeling the benefits of emotional regulation provided by mutual love for Wilbur and the regular opportunity to walk and talk together, David and Mary both used the space to share the loneliness and fears they each felt on their own. . Wilbur had bridged the gap and cleared a path to meet again.

From rigid rejection to flexible reconnection

Married for four years, Casey and Mike were alone and unhappy in a sexless marriage they blamed on each other. She claimed that he enjoyed spending time with his pals much more than with her, and he insisted that her cold indifference had repelled him. Neither could reflect on the role they had played in their connection failure.

When asked by neighbors who had to move out if they would consider adopting two little kittens, Casey and Mike agreed in a rare moment of reciprocity. Both were moved by the positive response from the other. From naming to sitting with these little pets, their common goal was an opportunity to experience each other’s presence and tenderness without judgment or rejection.

In a different and unexpected space, the small animals gave a glimpse of the other they had loved and lost.

A new way of knowing

One of the problems with struggling partners is their assumption that they really know the other, an assumption that often rules out the possibility of knowing more.

As such, a powerful and poignant dimension of couples therapy is the observation by each partner of his partner in exchange with and in the eyes of the couple therapist. Sometimes partners are shocked by revelations of hopes and dreams, glimpses of personality, revelations of historical pain, and affirmations of love – rarely spoken and rarely heard.

A broad and appreciative vision of each other

Certainly, with a little less clinical skills, a similar way that pets serve as a β€œthird” to their relationship is to expand the way that partners see each other. The sight from across the yard of the partner with the pet is often a sight from an unexpected vantage point that enhances or rekindles respect, love, and connection.

When I saw the way this man loves and wears my old lab, I remembered why I loved him.

We were both caught off guard when we entered the living room to find that the cats had decorated the place with toilet paper. When we laugh like that, it brings us back to who we are.

When the dog leaps with love and enthusiasm onto our bed, I am struck by how often we take ourselves for granted.

It seems we can’t underestimate the therapeutic potential of finding the best in each other through our pets.


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