Friendship: Lessons from a Puppy

by Susan C. Litton, Ph.D.

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Unlearning codependency has been difficult. If truth be told, I really shouldn't put that in the past tense because it's an ongoing saga. However, the times when I have been able to keep track of myself while in a relationship have been very rewarding. I believe that we're at our most attractive when we're genuinely ourselves. There seems to be something inherently appealing about that kind of congruency. At least it seemed to work for the puppy.

I think the thing that's helped me most in learning to be real in relationships is the whole phenomenon of online friends. When sitting here at the keyboard, most of the normal stimuli that might cause me to lose myself in a relationship aren't present. As a result, I'm more fully here to see what the other person is telling me about themselves and I can let it bounce off of deeper parts of myself before I respond. I've been in an ongoing email group for several years. We discuss everything from what we had for dinner to our deepest thoughts and feelings. As the relationships deepened and we began to want to meet one another in person, I started talking about the friend issue. At one point, various members of the group graciously offered to teach me the fine art of "hanging out" which hadn't been part of my repertoire at all. Not too long after these lessons, I had an occasion to meet one of the members of our group. As might be expected, when any of us met in person the other members eagerly awaited email summaries of the event. The subject line of my friend's email to the group about our encounter was, "Susan Hangs Out!" I felt I had arrived.

In retrospect, I probably could have learned everything I needed to know about friendship from that puppy. When he scampered in to join us that day, he had no thought that we wouldn't all absolutely adore him. His inherent appeal was just a given to him, meaning that his primary focus could be to have a good time. I suppose you could say that he was at least considerate of us -- he didn't mark his territory on anyone's foot or bite anyone's hand. But he also didn't make it his sole raison d'Ítre to try to entertain us or take care of us. He was there for the sheer fullness of living and having a good time in the company of others, and he assumed and expected that that's why the rest of us were there, too.

Maybe puppies and young children have something in common. Maybe both have a certain total lack of self-consciousness that belongs to each of us as a birthright, but that we somehow lose along the way. I suppose that part of becoming socialized means that we all need to learn not to pee on someone's foot or bite their hand, but beyond that, I think things work best if we retain that original sense that we have of ourselves -- that sense that we're somebody special and unique -- that undisputed inner knowing that we're utterly lovable, just as we are. And herein lies the lesson from the puppy.