For many of us, being greeted by your pet after a long day at work is a highlight of our day. Our stresses and worries can float away a little easier when there is an easily excitable animal waiting for us behind the front door. Our pets have the magical capability of helping us forget about all the bad stuff. It’s not surprising that many of us refer to our pets as our “babies”!
As an animal-assisted therapist, I am lucky enough to bring my “baby” with me to work at Austin Family Counseling. Rio, my border collie, is the friendly therapy dog you may have seen around the office. He is usually wearing a bandana and will greet you with a kiss or a full downward-dog bow. He spends his days with me, working with children, tweens, teens, and their parents. With lots of pets and belly rubs throughout the day, it’s safe to say he has a pretty sweet gig.
Rio and myself are certified in animal-assisted counseling and completed our trainings at the Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy at Texas State University (Eat ‘em up, Cats!). Throughout our training, we experienced how powerful and therapeutic the human-animal bond can be.
In my previous blog post, I shared about animal-assisted counseling and how is can be therapeutically beneficial for clients. For this post, I want to share some animal-assisted interventions that I incorporate into sessions with my clients.
Highs and Lows with Rio:
To check in with my clients at the beginning of session, we start with our highs and lows. A “high” is the best thing that happened to you that day. A “low” is something we wish went a little differently. My client shares, I share, and we often speculate about what Rio might share if he could speak. Sometimes clients guess that Rio’s low is that it’s raining outside, that he’s feeling sleepy, or he only got to eat 2 treats instead of the client’s proposed 50. More often than not, my clients theorize that Rio’s high is spending time with them in session (and they’re not wrong!) 🙂
What Would Rio Do?:
I adapted this intervention from a fellow animal-assisted therapist, Wanda Montemayor. Wanda and her therapy dog Chango work with middle schoolers in Austin. Sometimes it is easier for kids to imagine what someone else might do in a situation instead of guessing what they themselves might do. You may have experienced this when your kiddo effortlessly recalls what their sibling did wrong, but find no fault in their own behavior! Not surprisingly, kids are very aware of what a dog might look like when they are scared, angry, or tired. Sometimes, it is more difficult to know our own physical reactions to stimuli that make us scared, angry, or tired. My clients know that if Rio were to ever huddle in a corner, wimper, or hide under his blanket during a thunderstorm, he would be feeling frightened. By guessing how Rio might react to relatable situations, clients are able to verbalize what their own emotional and physical reactions could be.
Dr. Elizabeth Hartwig, the director of the Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy, knew that Rio would be a good fit for this intervention because of his energy levels, intelligence, and eagerness to please. I have about a dozen stress balls with different emotions depicted on them. While Rio and I wait outside of the office, my client will hide the emoji balls throughout the room. When the balls are in place, my client invites us back in. Because Rio is very motivated by anything that can be thrown and retrieved, all my client has to do is ask, “Rio, where’s your ball?”. Rio will then tirelessly search the room for each emoji ball. As he finds each one, he will bring it back to us. My client and I each share a time in which we felt the emotion that is shown on the stress ball. These emotions range from scared, angry, calm, loved, sad, and more. We often like to guess a time when Rio felt that emotion, too. This is an active intervention for all participants, and definitely a favorite of my kids.
I hope this sneak peak into animal-assisted counseling gives you a little more insight into the therapeutic work canine counselors are capable of. If you have any questions for myself (or for Rio), don’t hesitate to reach out to [email protected] or (512) 893-7396. T
…and 100+ other items on the list that I will be unable to get complete. I didn’t even mention maintaining the meaningful relationships in my life…you know, my wife, children, close friends, etc. We all have a daily, weekly, even monthly “to-do” list that at times, can feel overwhelming. In the midst of living life and managing your “to-do’s,” you are expected to maintain some level of intimacy with your partner. Add the rest of your life to the mix and when do you have time to strengthen your intimacy? In preparation for writing this blog I googled “How to maintain intimacy in a relationship” and the first thing that popped up was a list of 10 things TO DO to maintain intimacy. Really?! I have enough items on my to-do list as it stands. I am not looking to add my relationship to a list that at times can feel monotonous. Let’s scrap the “10 To-Do’s” and try to simplify intimacy. Here are the 4 steps to help you and your partner simplify your intimacy.
1. Identify where the bulk of your time is spent together
One of the first questions I ask people who have sought couple’s counseling is “what types of things do you do together?” The usual response is something along the lines of “we go to the movies or dinner on our regular or more often semi-regular date night.” I would assume most couples, when asked would respond in a similar way. Reality is, how often do we get to go out on those dates? Weekly? Monthly? When you do get to go out on those dates how long do they typically last…1 hour? 2 hours if you’re lucky. There are 7 days in a week, 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week. If we base our level of intimacy on a 2-3 hour date night once a month that may or may not be enjoyable, you might find it hard to say you feel or experience intimacy with your partner.
The trick is to simplify what you consider to be “intimate” time with your partner. What are the things you do together? Well, you probably eat together, you come home to your partner, you also leave your partner in the morning to go to work. We probably spend 1-2 hours a day eating together, that’s 7-14 hours a week. How long does it take you to leave in the morning, 10 minutes? What about being greeted when you arrive home, 5-10 minutes? How are you received when you return home from work? If you are received by your partner as if they are genuinely happy to see you that’s roughly 2 hours a week spent with your partner that you can work to make more intimate. We can continue to break this down as much as you want, the point is to identify what constitutes the majority of time spent with your partner. Think about every moment you spend with your partner and work to identify how you can make those moments more intimate.
The love and connection we seek can be found in those small every day moments. We put too much emphasis on date nights and planned intimate moments. When half the time those planned intimate moments are forced and frustrating. Reality is you spend the majority of your time with your partner living life outside of planned intimate moments. Work to make those moments meaningful. Identify the time spent with your partner and work to better those moments.
2. Don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of
In most intimate relationships, there will be moments when it will be necessary for you to make sacrifices. Sacrifices are a part of relationships and play an important role in the value we gain from those relationships. However, you can all think of a time where you have made a sacrifice and it resulted in a feeling of being taken advantage of. Often times we justify these moments in our minds as necessary for the other person in the relationship. The problem with justifying your concerns is that they can and will turn into resentments (which we will cover in step 3).
Resentments can turn into contempt and contempt leads to the destruction of the relationship. When there is a necessary sacrifice or disagreement, (which there will be!) stand your ground, be firm and precise, allow yourself to be heard and understood and do not allow yourself to be taken advantage of. Share the burden of the sacrifice with your partner. When you feel taken advantage of, convey these feelings. Confiding in your partner is not a request for them to fix you or your feelings. The goal is to help them understand how it is you feel taken advantage of. Feeling heard and understood in moments of hardship lays a solid foundation for true intimacy. This step is not easy, it requires courage, honesty, and trust, however, it is better than the alternative…which is to allow yourself to be taken advantage of and develop resentments. Which can and often will slowly erode any intimacy that exists. Talk to your partner, tell them that you feel taken advantage of, who knows, they might hear you! Which could lead to a deep and meaningful conversation about how you are feeling and develop a deeper sense of intimacy.
3. Identify and avoid resentments
Most of us have experienced resentment at some point in life. Whether with a loved one or a close friend. If you think long enough you can recognize how it has been toxic to those relationships. Your partner, at some point or another will do things that rub you the wrong way (this is what makes relationships so exciting!). I imagine you can think about examples in your own life when you read that. Here is an example…maybe your partner always leaves their wet towel on the bed after a shower. It drives you crazy but you tell yourself “no big deal, of course, I will take care of it because I love them and I don’t mind”. No matter the scenario you can come up with a multitude of ways to justify why it’s ok to not confront those feelings of discontent within yourself. One year into the relationship you still have never told them how much it irritates you when they leave their wet towel on the bed after a shower. Now, every time you see that wet towel on the bed you spend the next 30 minutes in your head going over all the ways you’re going to get revenge. You are not immune to resentments, you will develop them and if you allow them to, they can destroy a relationship from the inside out without you ever knowing why.
When you experience negative emotions towards your partner take note, talk to someone about them. Talk to your partner, too! If you don’t feel comfortable confronting your partner then go talk to someone about what is bothering you. Don’t ignore your frustrations or try to tell yourself you’re too nice to develop resentments. Sorry to disappoint but no one is that nice! There is not a one size fits all for preventing resentment. There are some resentments that cannot be prevented and in those instances, there are plenty of ways to address them. Whatever you do, do not ignore them. Doing the wrong thing can be better than doing nothing. If you need a place to start with, consider a rule I call the “3 Pieces of Evidence“. The first transgression you ignore, the second transgression you take note and the third transgression you communicate. Any more than three transgressions and you begin to harbor negative feelings toward your partner and it becomes progressively more difficult to have this conversation. By waiting until the third transgression you have shown your partner that you can be compassionate, understanding and patient. More importantly, you are showing yourself that you are worthy of being taken care of and are willing to treat yourself as such. There is no level of triviality to this rule, resentments can grow from almost any amount of conflict. Do not fall victim to the small, trivial offenses in the relationship.
4. 100% rule
This last step is all about individual responsibility. There are two people who are both responsible for the health and intimacy of their relationship. We all have our expectations in a relationship whether explicit or implicit, they are there. When these expectations are not met you can get hurt, upset or feel betrayed. The 100% responsibility rule is more of a challenge than it is a rule. It is a challenge –take 100% responsibility for the relationship as often as you can manage it. That means giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, picking up the slack, or covering their end of an agreement. It also means talking to them about your resentments. 😉
Regardless of the scenario, the 100% rule requires you to, in times where they fail to show up 100%, take full responsibility for your partner. Let’s look at it this way, if there is 100% responsibility in the relationship that is to be divided up between you and your partner and on most days the responsibility split is 50/50 or 60/40. Every once in a while on really bad days it might even get to 80/20. A difficult truth in relationships is you are destined to let your partner down and they are destined to let you down. It is a part of being human and the 100% rule is a way of saying “It is ok for you to let me down today, I will pick up the pieces because tomorrow I will let you down and I will need you to pick me up.” It is important for you to identify where you fail at being 100% as well as identifying where your partner fails at being 100%. It will be just as important for you to identify where you have succeeded at being 100%. Identifying these times are another way of giving 100%.
Couples who practice this rule are able to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the relationship. Sounds to me a lot like vulnerability and if I am not mistaken, vulnerability is on one of Google’s “How To develop and maintain intimacy” lists. I guess Google didn’t get it all wrong. There will be moments when you don’t see how you have fallen short and the same will be true for your partner. Avoid resentment and communicate your failures and celebrate your successes. The 100% rule is the intimacy equivalent to a trust fall. The more you fall and are caught by your partner the more you trust them to always catch you. Know that you will be there 100% and trust that your partner will be there 100% when you cannot be. So go, go close your eyes and fall.
Step 1: Mutually understand the benefits of a break and the cost of not taking one when it is necessary.
Despite our very best efforts, sometimes conflict is going to get heated. Being able to shift gears in the heat of an argument and take a break is one of the most crucial relationship skills. We compound the problem by staying engaged in a conflict that is devolving to criticism, stonewalling, contempt, or defensiveness. After a certain point in conflict, we are likely to do more harm than good. This is the moment when we need to take a break. Breaks give you time to calm down, deepen your perspective, and have a successful “do-over” with your partner.
Step 2: Identify the signs you need a break.
Recognizing when a break is necessary will take some practice. Establish with your partner now what the signs are that a break is necessary. Then, look for those signs when you and your partner are in conflict.
Signs to include:
When I recognize I am flooded or my partner is flooded.
When I notice my mind is racing and jumping from topic to topic.
When my partner and I are interrupting each other.
When I feel myself shutting down (getting quiet, ignoring).
When my partner or I begin to make personal attacks on each other.
When my partner or I become sarcastic or mock one another.
Non-verbal cues such as eye-rolling, storming out of the room, or slamming doors.
Step 3: Initiate the break and agree on a time to reconnect.
When you notice the predetermined signs that a conflict is bubbling out of control, initiate the strategy of taking a break.
State your intention so your partner does not feel rejected or abandoned. Communicate to your partner that a break will help you re-focus on the relationship. For example, “This conversation is important to me. I recognize that I’m/we’re too upset right now to talk about this constructively. I worry that if we continue this conversation right now, we will only make it worse. Let’s take a break so I/we can calm down and come back together.”
Set parameters for the break. Agree together on how long of a break you need. A break should be at least 20 minutes (that’s how long it will take your body to physiologically calm down). A break should be no longer than a day, or you risk building resentment. It is critical after the break to come back together. Agree on a time to reconnect now.
Step 4: Calm down.
The purpose of a break is foremost to calm down. The greater insight and perspective you garner will result from first calming down. What you do with the break will determine whether the time apart will be beneficial or detrimental. Channel your distress into something unrelated that takes your mind off of the conflict. Go for a run, walk the dog, go take a shower, water your plants.
Tips for calming down:
Cease negative thoughts about your partner.
Consider that there may be more to the picture than what you see and feel in this moment.
Refrain from venting to others or to yourself. (This is probably a bad time to call your sister.)
Do not go prepare for battle or strengthen your case.
Step 5: Come back together.
After the agreed upon amount of time, come back together. Coming back together is a critical component of taking a break. It is necessary to achieve resolution and reconnection. It also behaviorally shows your partner that you care about them and the conversation you were having.
You have a new opportunity to get back on track. You will likely experience greater clarity and closeness because the “big emotions” have subsided. You will also be able to focus more clearly on your shared relationship goals and see the situation through a broader perspective. You will be better positioned to communicate successfully with one another.
Here are some ideas for starting your reconnection conversation on the right foot:
“My reaction was too extreme earlier. Can we try that again?”
“My feelings were hurt and I did not mean the things I said. I’m sorry.”
“I can see my part in all of this.”
“Let’s try this over again.”
“We were both saying…”
“Let’s find our common ground.”
Written by: Katy Manganella, LPC-Intern supervised by Susan Gonzales, LPC-S, LMFT-S