The biggest factor in determining the quality of our relationship is the way we view other people, particularly our partner. There are many books, seminars and couples retreats that are designed to help you improve your relationship. But is there something we can possibly learn from treating our partner the way we treat our dog?
This advice might sound a little unusual, but just go with me for a second.
We accept our dog unconditionally, because we know they’re a dog. We don’t expect them to be what they’re not, because they’re completely authentic. Acceptance is the greatest gift you can give to a person (or a dog) because it’s the greatest sign of respect. Respect builds trust and without trust there is no relationship.
Here are 5 lessons we can learn from our furry friends:
1. Accept your partner just as he or she is.
We accept our pets just as they are, we don’t expect them to be anything else. If our dog does something we don’t like, we may get upset and reprimand them, but we almost immediately forgive them. We think, “well, after all they’re just a dog” or “they’re just being natural.”
Dogs don’t try to be something that they’re not. They are completely authentic. They react to their environment and their natural instincts. Because we know this, we accept them.
If we can learn to accept our partner just as they are, our relationships will transform miraculously. Accepting your partner completely is the biggest sign of respect you can give them. It means you love and respect them enough to know they’re making their decisions based on what they know is right. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer them support and guidance, but you don’t find them guilty for not being who you think they should be. After all, they’re not you; they are themselves.
2. People, like dogs, react better to reward than punishment.
When we pick out all the things we don’t like about our dog, we’re focusing only on the negative. When we constantly punish them for being who they are, we’re telling them it’s not okay to be who they are. This only creates feelings of guilt and resentment.
It works the same way with our partners. When we focus on all the negative things about them, we’re sending them a subliminal message: we don’t think it’s okay for them to be who they are. People often defend themselves by saying something like “I only try to help them because I care” or “I just love them so much that I want to make them better.” But this type of behavior simply leads a person to feel like they’re constantly being rejected. They’re never good enough.
If we instead focus on the positive attributes of the other person, we send them a message of acceptance. When a person knows that we respect them enough to accept them as they are, they’ll also be more likely to take our criticism and guidance. People need to know that you see their strengths first, before their flaws.
3. Love comes from within first, with out second.
Our dogs may seek our approval, love and acceptance, but they don’t rely on it. They have their own sense of joy, playfulness and love that comes from within. They enjoy our company and love, but their sense of self doesn’t come from it.
When our sense of self comes from our partner, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the ups and downs of the relationship. When our partner acts in a loving way, we feel good. But when our partner is unloving, we feel down. This is because our source of love is rooted with out, not within.
When we find love from within ourselves first, we have a much greater capacity to give it. We’re not relying on our partner to give it to us.
This also makes it much easier to love our partner when they are not so loving towards us.
4. Be compassionate, but don’t be a doormat.
Often people have a hard time drawing the line between when to show compassion and when to show tough love. I think this conflict is due to a misunderstanding. Sometimes tough love is the greatest sign of compassion. We all know when something is not good for someone, in our own hearts. This isn’t the kind of judgment that’s just based on our own opinion of the right way to do things. It’s more based on knowing when a habit is something that is unhealthy.
For example, say your partner is a smoker. Obviously, you know this is an unhealthy habit and could have serious and negative consequences if they don’t change. Expressing your concern in this case doesn’t mean you’re coming down on them. It comes from a place of love and genuine concern. You may not want to criticize them, but confrontation and letting them know where you stand is necessary. This is a greater sign of love and compassion than ignoring the problem because you don’t want to seem like a nag. In fact, ignoring it — whether we want to believe it or not — is really just a kind of silent approval.
Sometimes you have to give your partner tough love, just like you would your pet. You may not want to make them feel bad, but it will really benefit them in the long run.
5. Forgive and forget.
When our pet does something wrong and we lose our temper, they naturally feel ashamed, as though they let us down. They might resent us for a while, because in their mind they didn’t know any better. But they forgive much more quickly then we humans tend to.
We humans, on the other hand, have a powerful memory and tend to take things personally. We have a feeling of personal importance; that whatever “they” did it must be about me. But usually, it wasn’t about you at all. It was about them. Whatever someone does to hurt you, it really has nothing to do with you. It was their beliefs, opinions and feelings that caused them to react the way they did. It’s easy to see this when you know that the more emotional security and self-esteem you have, the less likely you are to take offense to others wrongs. On the other hand, the more emotional baggage you carry around, the more likely you’ll take offense to others actions. In psychology, this is what we call projection.
This whole way of thinking stems from personal importance and trying to live up to an image of perfection that we have in our minds. We think that we should be a certain way, but we know we aren’t. So we find ourselves guilty and punish ourselves. We play the game of the judge and the victim constantly in our minds. Because we do this so much with ourselves, we naturally do this with others. We don’t know any better.
Dogs on the other hand are completely authentic. They know that they are a dog and they accept it. They don’t try to be something they’re not and they don’t expect you to be something you’re not. That’s why it’s so easy for your dog to forgive you when you do something wrong. If there’s one thing we can learn from our canine friends, it is forgiveness.
Sofie Aiko, my 2 year old Shih Tzu has taught me a lot about the perfect relationship. It’s based on unconditional acceptance. She loves me just the way I am, as long as I play with her and take her potty, she thinks I’m an angel. As long as she doesn’t steal my food (she has a thing for croissants) or bite my foot, then we usually get along.
She doesn’t have many expectations of me and I don’t for her. She may get on my nerves when she wines at the foot of the stairs for what seems like hours, but I soon forgive her. I know she’s just being herself and wants her daddy to wake up and play with her. And if I don’t play with her, she doesn’t take it personally; she just goes and does her own thing. Most likely chewing her bone or playing with spider.
A grain of salt.
This guide isn’t meant to be taken completely literally. Obviously there are some big differences between romantic relationships and the relationships you have with a pet. Also, a lot of people assume master/servant roles (you decide which is which, with cats it can get confusing =P), which shouldn’t be applied to human or romantic relationships. Some people see their pets as their children as well, some people are abusive to their pets. These are two more examples where you shouldn’t translate the your pet relationship to your relationship with your partner.
Most importantly, we should take this advice with a grain of salt and take away the lessons of forgiveness and acceptance . If we can apply this to our personal relationships, we can see there’s a lot to be learned from our humble friends.
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Some great points Jonathan. I couldn’t agree more with the idea that unconditional love is the level to aspire to in a relationship and it definitely involves allowing people to be themselves.
And rewarding the behaviour we like with praise is really just choosing to notice what works for us, while letting what doesn’t slide. Every relationship will involve letting some things slide because people will always have some habits that irritate us, as we sometimes irritate them. Viva la difference and all that..
The main thing is to know what you’re okay with letting slide and what really is a deal breaker. As you say, don’t be a doormat.
So, I’m loving the content here, but I’m really not crazy about the whole dog analogy. Some men do treat their women like dogs and not in a good way.
Amanda Linehan says
I really like #3, “Love comes from within…” Having a good sense of Self helps us to accept our partner because we are not looking for them to give us things that we need, or to make us feel a certain way. This is the best gift you could give them!
@ Kelly: Thank you for your comments. I added another paragraph at the end to clarify what I felt were some of the limitations of this approach. I didn’t mean for people to take it literally, obviously there are some major differences between your relationship with your dog and your partner.
I think one of the biggest problems people see with this is training your partner the way you train your dog. The issue here I believe is seeing this from a master/servant perspective. I don’t look at my relationship with my dog this way, but I know a lot of people do.
If we see our relationship with our partner from a training perspective, but where each of us is a trainer as well as a trainee, I think it helps to clarify things.
Sofie would be so proud to know that she had a post of yours semi-dedicated to her. :] I think you brought up some very good points, honey. So much that I spent most of the night thinking about how I should treat you more like a dog… ;] in a good way, I mean.
Awesome post man. It’s funny because I just realized how we treat dogs nice for no good reason at all, then stumbled upon this post. We walk in the door and are happy to see our dogs, touch them and play with them and give them attention, yet we are reserved or come up with reasons to limit our love towards humans.
We give our kindness freely to our pets but not to our fellow humans.
Ali from The Office Diet says
Nice analogies, and sensitively done. How do you reconcile “# 1. Accept your partner just as he or she is” with “# 4. Be compassionate, but don’t be a doormat”?
I love my boyfriend dearly just as he is, but he’s quite overweight and I know it’s bad for his health and self-esteem. I’m not sure how best to encourage him to get fitter and healthier without him feeling that I’m nagging, criticising, or saying that he’s not good enough. Any ideas..?
Thanks for a thoughtful post!
@ apricot: I think she’d be proud too. Sometimes I wish my life were as simple as hers.
@ GoingPrimal: Amazing huh? I think there’s a great lesson of acceptance to be learned here.
@ Ali: That’s a tough one. I think the best thing you can do for him is accept him as he is and just set a good example. By setting an example for making healthy choices you’ll likely have a greater effect on him then you would nagging, or making him feel guilty. He needs to feel accepted and empowered, not judged. I hope that helps. =)
Clay Collins | The Growing Life says
I’m very proud of your readers for not introducing ribald humor. It could have gone there very fast :-). Another good post.
I love when you say “with cat’s it can get very confusing” and wonderful in the sense that they are the guardians of our souls, they bring us to the NOW … or so I believe .. the essence of who we are without judgment or blame or any of the other nutzoid concepts our thoughts, our minds, conjure up. The overall message (and I think what you’ve done is called an analogy) is so very true, yet the complexity (for us) lies in the fact that humans have an ego, animals do not. We have trouble sensing the essence of another human because we all have such strong ideas of who we are or want to be that it masks the true person. Underneath that is a dog, a cat, a hamster. It is not only our quest to see and understand that? but it should be our goal to attain that within ourselves.
Max Norman says
Great post! I particulary agree with the last item, “Forgive and forget.” I have seen many relationships on awry due to conflicts over trivial past events. Partners get into a mode where they loose all self confidence because they’re afraid that they’ll be nailed for something they said in the past, and they don’t want to stir it up. It is very important to move on after conflicts, and forget them.
Really enjoyed the post!
Interesting observation that we treat our pets better than we treat our partners. Great post!
Tom Volkar / Delightful Work says
I like this. “Love comes from within first, with out second.”
Obviously we have almost no expectations for the behavior of our pets. Regardless of it we accept them as they are. I wonder if by softening our expectations if our disappointments wouldn’t be so crushing. Good thoughtful post.
JEMi | Tips for Life, Love, You says
I had to smile :) I enjoyed this soooo I emailed it to a couple of coupled up friends
tip #5 – I have a dog and am still amazed at how she’ll come over after I yelled at her (and then..maybe stomped off)
I wonder if she remembers at all or does it just not matter
This was a thoughtful piece and a good read- thank you :)
What a lovely article, so sweet and so “right on.”
You do have a point. But then, the partner has to have the qualities of a dog first!!!
Thank YOU! This is something I noticed even when I was a small child at 5 years old! It’s sad that people treat their OWN partners worse than their pets :(. This is why I haven’t bothered getting into a relationship with anyone. It breaks my heart. I wish people could finally understand the human *need* for unconditional love.. the world would be a much better place for it.