Sit… Stay? When It’s Fido Or You.

A recent British psychology research study found, on average, couples fight about pet related concerns three times a week. Based on the average lifespan of a dog, that is more than 2000 arguments. Over 17% of the couples admitted that the arguments were significant enough that one or the other slept in the guest-room. Dealing with allergies, cleanliness, and overall sensitivities to pets and their behavior(s) were among the most significant areas of strife.

Reasons why pets may come between a couple:
Pets are a source of strong emotional connection, often pre-dating the start of new couple relationships

  • During the pandemic, in the face of loneliness, uncertainty, and quarantines, there was a significant uptick in animal adoptions. Not just during pandemic years, people report feeling significantly less alone at times of distress when they have companion animals.
  • Pets are good for medical health; they force people to get out of the house and take a walk, run errands to get food and supplies, and keep to routines essential for animal care.
  • Pets are great for mental health. A synopsis of studies on depression and suicidal thoughts indicates the following “perfect storm“ – feeling like a burden to others; feeling isolated; feeling hopeless/useless about the future. Having a pet can make people feel needed, loved, appreciated, and more structured on a daily basis.

As such, people may become a new couple in conjunction with an important pre-existing relationship… with a pet; a print by artist Stephen Huneck titled ménage a trois depicts a couple in bed with a large Retriever sprawled between them.  A male client recently told me after a series of hurtful arguments with his new wife about his love for his dog: “My pup was there for me when nobody else was. She is also my family.”

Pet problems spotlight deeper relationship issues 
Pets can become an area of compromise, acceptance, or non-negotiation. It’s not uncommon as a couples therapist to hear that an engagement or relationship ended because of disagreements over companion animals. Points of contention include shedding, licking, jumping up, pouncing, biting, accidents in the house, barking, begging or stealing food,  sleep disruptions, chewing, delegation of responsibilities, and odors.

While many of these concerns are certainly legitimate, they can usually be addressed with training, implementing household rules, and setting boundaries. When they cannot be addressed through training, couples therapy, or ongoing communication, it may speak to deeper-seated issues. Pet related conflicts can be based on cultural, family, religious, and individual differences in personal relationships with animals. In the United States, nearly 40% of pet owners describe their companion animal as their child, family member, or best friend.  However, many people grew up without pets, or in households or families where pets were present but not treated as “part of the family”.

Pets can create jealousy

In a 2018 survey conducted by Purina, it was found that half of all female dog owners say they would rather spend more time with their dog than their partner. Over 50% of individuals reported they turn to their pets as the primary source for emotional comfort during times of stress. At times, this can cause some feelings of resentment in human companions if time, attention, and financial resources are going to the pet rather than the partner.

Pets can spark financial arguments
Pets can be expensive. From standard veterinary care and medication, training, to the astronomical costs of medical emergencies, food, walkers and pet sitters, grooming, doggie day care, caring for aging animals and their needs, to treats, toys, outfits, and every type of accoutrement, the companion animal product and veterinary industry is increasing exponentially. Couples may not always agree on the appropriate amount of financial output for pets, from medical bills to cleaning requirements.

Spontaneity and event planning may suffer
Spontaneous outings, staying late at a party, taking a vacation, working late, and scheduling activities and events are all affected by having pets.

Pets require ongoing responsibility (both time and labor)
After returning from work, dogs have to be walked, animals have to be fed, kitty litter has to be changed. Pets require attention. These time sensitive commitments can be difficult for couples who are not used to building that into their day.

Pets can get in the way of intimacy
A questionnaire to 1,000 adults by Harris Poll found that over 70% of pet owners allow their pets to sleep on the bed. So that leaves about 30% of pet owners who don’t. If you’re someone who needs your pet there with you to sleep, it can cause an issue between you and your partner if they’re not into it.

What to do?
Practice Good Communication
If you’re starting a new relationship, take time to discuss your values regarding pets. If having an indoor cat or a dog that sleeps in your bed is important to you, you’ll need to ensure your partner shares these values or risk ending up in conflict. If you’re already in an established relationship, it’s time to begin communicating clearly and openly. Don’t get a new pet without consulting with your partner and getting their consent.

Get specific with the problem
When there’s conflict over pets, getting specific about the problem can help you figure out a solution. If your husband complains about your dog constantly or your wife snaps at your cat, you might assume that the pet is the problem or that your partner hates your pet. But a change as simple as teaching your dog not to beg or keeping your cat off the desk could remedy the issue. If you’re the pet lover, ask your partner specifically what the issue is and what would fix it. And if you’re the one resenting your partner’s pet, be clear about what you need to feel better.

Consult and expert
A poorly trained dog or aggressive cat can be frustrating to everyone, but the person who brought the pet into the relationship can sometimes feel more defensive. If your partner is annoyed by a specific behavior such as excessive mouthing, jumping, or scratching, it’s time to call an expert. A trainer can work with you to make your pet a more mannerly member of the family, and a veterinarian can help you uncover hidden health problems that could contribute to annoying behavior.

Accept differences
You and your partner don’t have to agree about everything. You may find that one of you is simply less in love with your pets than the other. As long as your partner isn’t abusive toward animals, they do not have to feel forced to cuddle with them.

Do the work
If you’re the one who brought the pet into the relationship, be prepared to do a little extra work. There’s no reason your partner has to love your pets as much as you do, or even spend as much time caring for them. As long as you can strike a fair balance that ensures your pet’s needs are met, consider giving your partner a pass on pet duties.

Related post: Teens and Their Dogs.

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