We hardly need to look at the research to verify that pets do good things for people physically and emotionally. What is interesting in my work with couples is that although couples may vehemently disagree on most topics, they usually both soften in manner and tone to agree that the dog, cat, bird or horse is great.
In fact, if there is any criticism, it is the verbalized wish to receive the kind of love and attention the pet is getting.
“I only wish she was as affectionate with me as with our dog!”
“You should hear him speak to this animal – he never speaks to me that way.”
What happens between people and their pets that accounts for this emotional outpouring of love?
Most will answer with the responses you have heard or given:
“The dog demands nothing from me – he just gives unconditional love.”
“The cats are a predictable source of comfort and soothing – they want to be near me.”
Pets? Not demanding? Predictable? … Really?
What’s interesting is that most pets are loved in a way that makes us minimize or even deny the reality that they definitely have demands we simply accept. Some will only eat certain food; many wake people in the middle of the night; most get sick on the rug; some eat furniture and a vast majority end up on the bed no matter what anyone says.
In one case, when the dalmatian was found eating the steak that had been marinating on the counter for dinner, the husband’s only reaction was “Might as well give him the vegetables and potatoes, and let him finish off the meal.”
Can we learn something from our relationship with pets that might enhance our relationship with partners?
Yes, if we are willing to take a closer look at ourselves.
The old expression “you get what you give” may apply here. Maybe you give something very positive to your pet that invites the unconditional love and connection that makes you feel so good. Maybe it has potential to enhance your relationship.
Can you credit yourself with any of the following?
No matter how you feel or what mood you are in, you greet your pet with a positive, even animated, hello and often with a display of physical affection.
With pets, maybe it’s your lack of expectation that makes the difference. You probably rarely predict that your pet will be angry if you are late. As a result, you don’t head home defensively angry in preparation for the reaction you expect to face.
When you do return home to find that your cats have redecorated the room with shreds of every tissue they could find or the dog has eaten some of the mail, you may well react with a choice expletive but you are not likely to hold a grudge. You are still going to be petting Donatello or cuddling with Thor the next day.
Assuming the Best
There is a natural tendency to forgive pets their trespasses – after all, the dog wasn’t trying to torture you by eating the mail. Was your partner really trying to torture you by putting it in such a safe spot it can’t be found?
Few pet owners personalize their pets’ reactions to others to an extreme that makes them so embarrassed that they fear their image is tarnished or they become resentful of their pets. The fact that the dog is licking every part of the arriving guest’s body is cause to pull him away or laugh it away. The cat that will not come out of hiding or the parrot that is screeching is left without judgment or excuses. That’s them!
For Better or For Worse
In most cases, pets are home to stay. People love and care for pets of every size, shape and disposition. “She’s not exactly a watch dog; she’s loving but easily frightened.” “He insists on sleeping on the bed – we have given in.” “She steals food from the other dogs, she’s pretty hyper, but cute.” Few pets live with the fear of being betrayed or with the implication that things are just not working out. Of course they don’t – but just consider how the absence of such fears enhances the trust and connection you feel from them!
So think about what you give your pet and maybe how — in addition to improving your health — your pet can improve your relationship!