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Attaboy!

Why one East Bay therapist suggests treating your partner like a dog.


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My husband and I were hungry, and we each thought the other knew where the restaurant was. Isn’t that the perfect setup for a squabble?
But it gets worse. We were on vacation, and we were supposed to be having fun. Still, I didn’t carp or criticize, and when my husband found the restaurant that had been recommended to us, I was unusually effusive in my praise.

“Oh, Honey, you found it! That’s great,” I gushed. “What would I do without you?”

Earlier that day on the beach, I’d been reading a new book called Treat Your Partner Like a Dog by Orinda and Walnut Creek–based marriage and family counselor Margie Ryerson. Now, I was putting into practice what she preached.

Ryerson’s not talking about collars, muzzles, and leashes. She’s all about positive reinforcement along the lines of “Good dog. You found the stick. You’re such a good boy.” Except applied to a human partner—not a canine.

“Dogs can drool, smell, whine, bark, barf, dig, eat our flowers and shoes, you name it, and we will still be devoted to them. Can we say the same thing about our human?” she asks. “Do we try to be tolerant and adjust our expectations? Do we try as hard with our partner as we do with our dog?”

She suggests giving a partner praise, attention, and affection, just as we would with our pet, to increase the likelihood of having a loving—and even faithful—relationship.

All of this is a relatively new concept for Ryerson as well. As an empty nester, Ryerson suddenly had time to take her dog, a Labradoodle named Nelson, to a dog park for socializing. There, Ryerson was thunderstruck by the contrast between how people treat their pampered pooches and the way she had seen spouses treated in her counseling practice.

“People come to me because they are dissatisfied with relationships. I hear about their needs not being met. And here was this community of people so actively trying to meet their dogs’ needs,” Ryerson says.

“This made me think about my life with my husband. I’d come home from counseling, and my husband would be at the sink cutting up vegetables. The dog would greet me, and I would be all over Nelson. Even though my husband was making my dinner, I was not oohing and ahhing over him.”

To be sure, Ryerson wraps the dog analogy around solid human communication techniques such as active listening, using “I” messages, and planning a date night. But the takeaway is that flattery will get you everywhere. Ignore rather than criticize bad behavior, try to calmly discuss a problem, or take steps to solve it yourself, she advises.

I kept this in mind when a blinding light woke me one night in our Waikiki hotel room, I bit my tongue and said nothing. I had trouble falling back asleep, but yelling at my husband to turn off the light would have only made me more awake and wired with anger. Instead, the next morning, I said to him in a normal tone, “You know what a light sleeper I am. It would be a big help to me if you would close the bathroom door before you turn on the light.”

Is that manipulative? Nope, says Ryerson. It’s strategic.

“Face it, if we want good results in our relationships, we need to think before we act,” Ryerson says.

Part of the problem, Ryerson says, is that when we are dating, we are on our best behavior. But after we’re married, we treat our partner like family. And that’s not good.

“As kids growing up, we got to criticize, complain, and pout with our parents. A child gets to act out. In a marriage, many people may revert to replaying their role from their family of origin. There’s a lot of immature behavior between us adults. You need to think instead about how you would talk to a good friend. There needs to be that underlying level of respect and restraint,” she says.

Managing expectations is also vital, according to Ryerson. “We don’t expect a Chihuahua to be a Great Dane. Yet we put so many unfair expectations on our partners and ourselves.” In a chapter called “Nelson, Why Can’t You Be Well-Behaved Like the Cocker Spaniel Next Door?” she explains how you can’t expect the quiet, shy person you fell in love with to morph into a take-charge life of the party.

Vacations can be fraught with expectations. Ryerson’s book was in my beach bag every day, and my husband and I spent a squabble-free week in Hawaii. Coincidence? I think not.

What happens now that we’re home again? Will I be able to follow through and stick with the program? We’ll see. Ryerson advises couples who are having serious problems to seek therapy. For the rest of us, she suggests rereading her book periodically. My copy is going to be dog-eared.

Treat Your Partner Like a Dog: How to Breed a Better Relationship is available at Rakestraw Books, Orinda Books, and on amazon.com.

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