Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Is Your Pet The Emotional “Third” in Your Relationship?

Katie and Rob, a couple in a second marriage for both, never planned to have a pet. They cautiously agreed to take Penny, a little terrier, when a relative became sick. Of course, they fell in love with her. When I asked them how Penny had impacted their relationship, their answer surprised me.

“Penny is our peacemaker. Before Penny we would stonewall each other and not speak for days after an argument.  It is funny what happens now – after an argument one of us will start talking about Penny to the other to break the ice. We never planned it – we just do it and it works.

The concept of the “Third” comes from relational psychology, specifically the work of psychologist, Lewis Aron who drew upon Jessica Benjamin’s work and applied the concept to couples. Aron offered the conceptualization of the see-saw. He considered that often two partners are stuck at opposite ends, moving up and down in terms of their own perspective, needs or opinions, but actually going nowhere and locked into a pattern that can’t bring them together.

In terms of couple’s therapy, Aron identified the therapist as the “third” to open the space. A closer look at partners and their pets invites us to consider that in an unexpected and uncanny way – pets also serve as the third.

Whether a couple has one or many pets, these furry friends often subtly unlock negative patterns of relating between partners. As in the case of Penny, the peacemaker, they become a third point of reference and as such invite mutual focus, prompt feelings and illuminate behavior that expands relational and emotional space.

Is Your Pet The Emotional “Third” in Your Relationship?

Consider if you can relate to or add to the following glimpses of pets and partners:

Bridging the Gap

Moving to a new city for David to take a new position that involved travel was not a first choice for Mary. It was difficult enough for her to find a new job much less a connection. Clearly after a month the decision was not sitting well between them.

Enter Wilbur, a tiny black French bull dog with big potential to fill the gap. Not only did Mary feel comforted by her little companion when David was away; but both David and Mary were delighted to find neighbors who, initially polite, became enthusiastically welcoming once Wilbur arrived and the three were out walking. Wilbur had bridged a tense transition and opened up the neighborhood!

Moving into the Moment

Given the pace and demands of this culture, it is no surprise that people end their days out of breath and literally out of patience. The problem as reported by so many couples is that the person who many find the easiest to ignore, vent to or dismiss- the person who is just supposed to understand that the train was late, the deal didn’t go through, or the kids were wild – is the partner.  Unfortunately this expectation usually adds tension to existing pressures.

Enter Tiger, the cat dragging a roll of toilet paper across the living room or Callie, the clever Jack Russell unzipping the tennis bag just dropped on the floor to get to the balls and–enter moments of mutual laughter, a push out of life’s race into a place of shared delight. A big thing? NO An important moment to grab? YES

Almost every partner with a pet reports that pets make them laugh.  Sharing a pet moment that invites mutual laughter with your partner is invaluable. It is different than replacing attention to the partner with delighted attention to the pet. When the pet invites shared enjoyment or one partner makes a funny remark about the pet to the other –  tired and tense moods shift and a space for the “WE” opens.

Different Needs vs. Mutual Love

Partners report that sometimes the need of the pet out trumps the need of both and results in a valuable third choice.  Casey reported that the typical evening battle was Mark waiting to have dinner and her wanting to get in a run before dinner. Both felt guilty about their own demands. Neither was too willing to concede.

Enter Brooklyn and Arizona, two rescue shelties with the need to walk. Soon, Casey and Mark were solving the situation in an unexpected way with some mutual walking for all and some extra time for dinner to simmer. It’s funny but true that when pets are mutually loved their needs open doors.

Enhancing the Perspective

One of the problems with partners is that they really think they really know each other- an assumption that often precludes the possibility of knowing more.

One way that pets serve as the third is expanding the way that partners see each other. The view from across the yard of partner with pet is often a view from an unexpected vantage point that enhances love and connection.

“When I saw the way that man loved his dog – I knew I could marry him.”

“I’ll never forget how she nursed my cat back to health – the one that she wasn’t exactly in love with when we met!

“How can you not love a guy who sits on the recliner to watch the ball game with a tiny kitten sleeping on his chest?”

“What other woman would insist that I pull to the side of the road to rescue a puppy or remove an entire drain grate to save a panicked frog?”

As the emotional “Third,” pets open the hearts and the emotional possibilities of partners.

Listen in to Carol Novello discussing “Mutual Rescue:How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too” on Psych Up Live