Barbara and her husband Michael can’t sleep lately because their dog, Reggie, whom they adopted from a shelter thirteen years ago, has taken to jumping on their heads in the middle of the night and barking hysterically. Fortunately for their marriage, they are both committed to Reggie and to finding a solution to his midnight madness.
But another couple didn’t fair so well. Who could have imagined that the sweet kitty who never gave Pamela a moment’s trouble would, upon finding Robert’s shoes by the bed for the first time, decide to urinate in them? And then, when Robert returned again (putting his new shoes on a high shelf) to urinate on his briefcase? And then his coat? What to do? The relationship ended before an ultimatum could be given. The problem really couldn’t have been anticipated because Robert actually liked cats. Just not this one. When pets and relationships collide, it can be a deal breaker. Oftentimes the couple find themselves in situations that really couldn’t have been anticipated before they became a real couple. According to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association, there are presently 72.9 million pet owners, that is 62 percent of U.S. households (http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp).
With so many dog and cat owners, the questions surrounding pet ownership and how they impact on relationships comes up frequently. Do couples who have pets reap any rewards? A University of Buffalo study reported positive benefits for couples who owned cats and dogs (http://www.buffalo.edu/ubreporter/archive/vol29/vol29n26/n5.html).
The study, conducted by Karen Allen, found that couples who owned pets showed less stress when confronted by conflict than couples who didn’t own any pets. The pet owners also recovered faster from the conflict (this was measured by blood tests showing stress indicators). One hundred couples participated, with fifty pet owners and a control group of fifty non-pet owners. The couples who owned pets also showed more signs of self-reported happiness as well as sociability. Interestingly, the pet owners had more interactions and contact with each other than the non-pet owners, with the couples who were most invested emotionally in their pets showing the most contact with their partner.
Pets aren’t just for teaching your children empathy anymore. They can add love to any family even though they can add plenty of stress as well. But do you and your spouse have to be equally in love with the pets? Not necessarily. Certain pets speak to different people. Surely, entering into a relationship where there is already a pet would be a situation where the pet might be much closer to one spouse. Even if both spouses agree to have a pet, it’s okay if one spouse is more of a “pet person.” What is not okay for the relationship is if either spouse is insensitive to the other and uses the pet as the subject of that insensitivity. Whether the one who is not as close to the pet is unkind about it or the one closer to the pet is deaf to the other’s concern about a pet issue, the pet will become a point of contention.
Like every other important part of life, spouses need to be aware and caring about each other’s feelings even and especially when those feelings are different. Perhaps one of you is insensitive to the dog because of a childhood dog’s painful death causing an emotional distance from all things dog while the other is extremely attached to the dog because your kids are grown and this dog has become an emotional focus. The answer is in working to understand each other so that you can use the pet to bring you both closer and receive the researched benefits to pet ownership.
If you are dating and the person you are liking is completely opposite than you in this arena, one of you loves pets and the other can’t stand them, consider what this may say about the person. Sometimes, loving or hating pets can speak to one’s emotional ability to give and love. Don’t always assume one who hates pets isn’t a loving person as there could be childhood or cultural associations that may be causing the feelings. Don’t assume someone who is extremely involved with a pet is a very loving person. In fact, there are some who can love a pet, that unconditionally loving furry friend, but not do well in a relationship with one of those human types. However, you can use opinions of pets to help guide you on your way when dating. Surely, use it as a topic to find out more about the person’s personality.
Clearly, pets are a topic that many people would be right to discuss at the beginning of a relationship. The best thing to do is to speak openly about your feelings and work together to create solutions when necessary.
M Gary Neuman is a New York Times best-selling author, and creator of Neuman Method Programs. He was on the Oprah show 11 times as well as having made multiple appearances on Today, Dateline, the View, NPR and others. Oprah referred to Gary as “One of the best psychotherapists in the world.”