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Relationship and Connection Aren’t Just for Lovers. Consider Co-Regulation with Pets and Nature

Relationship and Connection Aren’t Just for Lovers. Consider Co-Regulation with Pets and Nature

[Editor’s Note: This Valentine’s Day reflection comes from Kaethe Weingarten, PhD, Director of Witness to Witness. You can find her many resources in English and Spanish on MCN’s Witness to Witness webpage.]

In the United States, stores have been filled with heart-shaped chocolate boxes, red plastic roses, and teddy bears since the first week in January – signals that Valentine’s Day, celebrated on February 14th as a day of romance and love, is just around the corner. Yet, as celebrations of Valentine’s Day around the world reveal, ideas about romance and love have specific cultural meanings. In South Korea, for instance, a day of love is celebrated on the 14th of every month, with each month associated with a particular tradition: December’s is a day of hugs, June of kisses. People who are unmarried have their own month of traditions, April, when young people eat black noodles together. Love may be universal, but how we celebrate it clearly is not.

On the other hand, loneliness also seems to be a universal experience and it is increasing worldwide. Recent research is demonstrating the importance of social connections to decrease loneliness, a condition now seen as hazardous to our mental and physical health. While much of the attention on social isolation (an objective lack of contact with other people) and loneliness (the subjective feeling of being alone and isolated) has been paid to older adults, rates of loneliness are high for all age groups and seem to have worsened during the pandemic. The kinds of phrases people endorse when they are counted as lonely include: “often or always feel lonely,” “feel that I lack companionship,” and “feel left out and feel isolated from others.”

It will come as no surprise that even people who are living with others – whether in a family or with roommates -- may endorse these feelings. They may have people around them but still feel apart or disconnected from them. They may even be well loved but they don’t “feel” it. 

Many people equate feeling connected with having a romantic monogamous love relationship with one person. When this is successful – where mutual affection, support, and companionship happen, and tensions are easily repaired – people usually do feel connected and do not feel lonely. But this doesn’t readily happen for many people, and they too need the mental and physical health benefits of connection. What to do?

One possible answer is to re-think our understanding of connection. In the United States, most of us are exposed to a narrow view of romance and love, or romantic love. We are “supposed” to feel loved when we have a steady relationship with a person who is committed and devoted to us. We are “supposed” to feel miserable if we don’t have that one special person or if we have a special person, but the relationship doesn’t feel special at all; in fact, we often feel miserable in it. What if we were to expand our understanding of the emotional experience we are seeking when we are looking for love?

There is another term – not love and not attachment – that neuroscientists use to explain the human capacity to regulate emotions and behaviors to soothe the self in a situation of stress with the support and direction of a connecting individual. That term is “co-regulation.” Typically, co-regulation is defined as a process that occurs between two individuals, but many people have the clear experience that they feel calmed and soothed by their relationship with their pets and with nature. I think we might do well to think of love in this broader sense, a relationship in which we sustain a feeling of connection over time and a feeling of well-being in the presence of the “object” of our attention, be that our cat or ocean waves.

The term pet (from the French word ‘‘petit,’’ that translates as small or little) is usually the term people give to animals kept for pleasure. However, scholars of animal studies and human-animal interaction prefer the term “companion animal,” and that makes sense when considering that pets provide an opportunity for a mutual relationship and co-regulation. Several meta-analyses (for example, here and here) of the effects of pet ownership on physical and mental health suggest there are benefits.

Froma Walsh, a distinguished professor emerita at the University of Chicago, a clinical psychologist, and family therapist, has long studied family resilience, and in the last two decades has studied the benefits of human-animal bonds. She writes: “One of the strongest areas of research evidence correlates pet ownership with positive physiological measures, such as lower blood pressure, serum triglycerides, and cholesterol levels. In fact, the presence of a pet was found to be more effective than that of a spouse or friend in ameliorating the cardiovascular effects of stress.” 

Walsh goes on to identify many other positive benefits of loving a pet, especially in the contemporary conditions of multiple stressors that so many people experience in daily life. She considers the way that a close relationship with a companion animal can produce a soul-to-soul experience that “can restore a sense of calm, balance, and harmony.” 

That description may sound familiar to people, for that is often how we describe the experience of time spent in the natural world, in blue spaces, like looking at the ocean, a lake, or the sky, or in green spaces, like forests, parks, or meadows. Andrea Glik is a licensed clinical social worker who writes about co-regulation with both animals and nature and how, as a queer girl growing up, she was often without human companionship but could access animal and nature as reliable co-regulators and sources of comfort. She writes:

We can co-regulate with most parts of the natural world. We can have a secure attachment to nature, or a specific part of or place in nature. While I never knew how my girlfriend at the time was going to act, I always knew how I would feel with the ocean. I felt secure in my relationship, held, and loved. 

It’s different for everyone where they feel the most secure. For some of us it’s an open field, for others a dense forest. For some of us, we live in big cities and have to build relationships with the breeze, sunshine when we can, clouds, plants between the sidewalk cracks, any tree we can find, and always, birds. The promise of birds is everywhere.

We can always return to a calm place in nature in our mind's eye. Remembering how a place we have visited feels in our body, what it smells like, looks like, feels like. We can hang pictures on our walls of the natural world, which is scientifically proven to ease our bodies. 

Her insight from personal experience has research evidence to back it up. Exposure to nature –green spaces, including gardens and indoor plants, and blue spaces, like sky and water -- buffer emotional distress and are associated with more resilient individuals and communities (as shown here and here).

In the UK, physicians are now beginning to write prescriptions to spend time in nature as a way of boosting well-being. Some may argue with me that well-being is not the same as love, and it won’t take time to make that argument because I certainly agree. But if all humans benefit from social connection, and not everyone can find a human with whom to form an enduring loving connection, maybe those hippy tree huggers offer something of value in its absence. Maybe next February, I should take an inventory of all the ways I have important relationships in the animal and natural world and carefully notice the peace and calm they bring. I have one to add already: As I write this, I can see a full moon between the trees from my window. I am feeling awe and calm. Thank you, moon! Happy Valentine's Day!