Dogs surveying the park

The best things I know about couples’ dynamics I learned at the dog park

It’s how we start most days, heading off with our two canine companions to the local dog park. We know many of the dogs by name, though actually asking the owners’ names (even if we see them daily) is a whole other level of intimacy that we generally don’t attain.

As we drive up we’re on the look-out for other dogs, usually do a quick count of who’s there that day. Frankie, our 2 year old Shar Pei-mix rescue, loves most fellow members of her species, and does her best to engage them in any game she can: chase (her favorite), jump-on-each-other’s head, and who-gets-the-stick. This particular day she hadn’t found any other dog to play with, so was snuffling around, to following the trail of scents in the grass.

Dogs surveying the park

Frankie and Cody surveying the park

Two dogs playing, one jumping on the other

Frankie with her best friend, Agnes

When Tank* bounded up, Frankie saw her chance, perking up her ears and giving him a sidelong glance. No direct looking, of course.

When we talked about it later, Kath said Tank reminded her of The Rock. White, muscular, focused, he was ready for action.

Frankie gave Tank a wide berth until Sadie, the lanky brown mutt, started a game of chase with a ball she mischievously grabbed from Frankie. Frankie tracked Sadie’s path as Sadie raced around, but didn’t actually engage for a bit. That was, until Tank and Sadie started playing; that was Frankie’s cue to jump in between them.

one dog play bowing to another in the park

The classic “play-bow.” What’s the human equivalent?

It’s unclear exactly what happened next, but we heard a yelping cry from Frankie. As we tried to sort out the dog bodies, we could see that Tank wasn’t biting–but somehow they were tussling in a dog-communication way. Frankie spun and jumped away, only to twirl around and nose her way back in between Tank and Sadie. That is, until Tank growled and clomped his jaws in the air, and Frankie cried again. Then she ran away.

As we drove away in our 2003 Element (best dog car ever), I remarked that what we’d witnessed was similar to couples’ sessions I’d coached. “One person growls, the other cries in protest, but they seem to want to play–it’s all very mysterious. Like Frankie and Tank–what are they actually broadcasting to each other that I can’t track?”

It’s true. Sometimes I’ll be working with a couple, focusing on one of them, and suddenly the other is very triggered. It’s because I missed the look: the raise of the eyebrow, the roll of the eyes, the slight sneer that passed so fast it was gone when I looked back. I’ve commented over the years how I need one of those convenience store corner mirrors so I can observe the minutiae of what goes on between two people.

Man and woman sitting on sofa looking away from each other

As I’ve witnessed thousands of hours of couples’ interactions (and spent endless time playing with generations of dogs at the dog park), what I see is a remarkable overlap between the two. In fact, I believe that what goes wrong for dogs is exactly the same for what goes right–or wrong–for human.

First, when play is involved, there is joy and merriment. Sticks are tossed in the air, games of chase are initiated and then engaged in by the other, playing tug takes on great focus and energy. This is the part that makes everything else worth it, to witness and benefit from pure, unadulterated joy.

However, these dynamics can shift on a dime. Perhaps it’s a new friend or ally nearby that can “take sides,” or someone being offered a treat that the other one doesn’t get to partake in. Maybe someone’s feelings got hurt by a too-aggressive approach, leading to an immediate withdrawal. Then the play shifts, replaced by an invisible, totally clear communication about who is the dominator and who instantly submits. The fun disappears, and hierarchy takes over.

These days, I can’t not see hierarchy in human interactions. I am fascinated by the Power Over behaviors of Dominators (known in the human circles more colloquially as Bitches, Dicks and Assholes) and the Power Under behaviors of Submitters (aka, Weenies, Pussies, and Wimps). While I now think these power dynamics are a totally normal part of being human, and highly adaptive in emergencies and other times when social order is a high priority (like running out of a burning house or pulling over and ticketing speeding cars), they take all the fun out of relationships. The struggles over sex or money or parenting or back-seat driving–they’re all about being stuck in the fight over who is and who isn’t in charge.

What we don’t understand when we’re in the thick of the “who’s right, who’s wrong” battle, is the cost. And it’s steep. When we’re in hierarchy, we’re disconnected from ourselves and from each other. We can’t tune into what’s really happening in our bodies beyond our own reactivity; our whole focus is on the threat that the other is posing to us. We don’t feel appreciation, we’re not in love, we’ve lost any sense of why we’re even in this relationship. The well-being bank account of our relationship quickly drains away.

2 people standing attached to puppet wires

The good news, however, is that we can shift back again. We can notice the invisible puppeteer of power and wriggle out of its grip. We can shake ourselves off, maybe run off some of the adrenaline that’s accumulated in the fight, take a break for water (how about a quick nap and a treat?) and find our playful selves again. When we’re playing we’re Power With, engaged in the absolute joy of improv-ing with the unknown while being with our favorite playmate.

Here are some final thoughts to get you started in moving out of power struggle and into play, connection, and passion:

1. Would you be willing to trade control for play? That’s a big question. Take your time.

2. Are you willing to make play the main context for your relationship(s)? That means seeing those around you as friends and equals. (You’ll have to give up any beliefs that you’re innately better or worse than the other.)

3. If you‘re game for this new context, consider what it was like to be a kid hanging out with your friends. Do you remember the sense of mutuality and flow that came from meeting each other in the moment? That’s the feeling you’re after.

4. Now try out being your favorite four-legged. What would Frankie do? Can you let yourself trust your body and follow the flow?

My favorite part of life is that exquisite combination of feeling so safe in my body that I can connect to others, while experiencing the fresh delights the world has to offer. Maybe I’ll see you at the dog park; maybe Frankie, Sadie and Tank will be there too. I promise not to sniff your butt, but I might want to tug on the same stick.

*we don’t know his real name

With springtime in the Rockies, it is time to PLAY! (tho, when isn’t it??). See you out there!



Want to learn with me? Here’s some of what I’m up to:

Getting Unstuck around Sex: A workshop for couples wanting to enjoy more fun and possibility around their sexual relationship.

July 14-16 (Friday 6-9, Saturday 9:30-6, Sunday 9:30-4), Boulder Colorado

Relationships live or die around the power struggles that arise from sexual expression. From “I can’t feel connected unless I have sex” to “I can’t have sex until I feel connected,” to “I just want to be wanted…is that so much to ask??” to “I don’t know what’s wrong with me–it must be low sexual desire”–couples have universal struggles that they do their best to resolve, though often just give up in frustration, resorting to affairs, porn, or distancing.

This workshop won’t solve any of that directly. What we will do is explore what gets in the way of true emotional and physical connection, and offer a new context, one of entering a state of flow, connection, and cocreativity, so that couples can find their own path forward.

This is an advanced workshop. Prerequisites: ILC 1, Advanced Couples workshops, or work with Julie. Email for more information.

Fall Essentials Weekend

September 15-17, Paonia, Colorado

It’s the classic immersion weekend where we all start from the ground up in playing with the essential tools the EPI is built on: SEW, getting out of the triangle, living above the line, and much, much more.

This time we’re heading back to magical Paonia, CO, where the we’re surrounded by nature, artistry, and beauty.

Join Dr. Julie Colwell and the EPI faculty in-Person

Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday

September 15-17

Learn More Register here

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