Relationship Problems: When Pets Come Between Us

April 12, 2011 by

Relationship problems may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a pet, and there is a reason for that: pets are often good for our relationships! A recent study by the State University of New York at Buffalo found that couples with pets have closer relationships and are more satisfied with their marriage than those that do not have pets.

Why Pets Can Help a Marriage

As a therapist in Portland, I don’t find that study surprising. Pets can reduce tension between a couple who is fighting, encourage social interaction with others, provide affection and unconditional support, encourage you to exercise, and help you to relax. The lack of judgment and criticism from our pets allows us to let our guard down, giving and receiving love without any worries, and that is a lesson we can apply to our human relationships.

Why Relationship Problems Occur

For some couples, however, pets can become a source of disagreement. In my work as a therapist in Portland, I’ve heard people argue about how often to take the dog on a walk, how much to spend on veterinary bills, where the dog should sleep, and how to handle problem behaviors.  You may find that your view of your pet’s role in the family is different than your partner’s, and this may be a result of cultural differences that are not always that obvious. Nevertheless, they may cause relationship problems, coloring your arguments on everything from how much you’re willing to spend on veterinary care to how your pets should interact with children. A recent New York Times article discusses a study by David Blouin, a sociologist at Indiana University who found three basic categories for dog owners:

Dominionists – These dog owners see their pet as a useful helper that is beneath the humans, beloved but ultimately replaceable.

Humanists – These dog owners see their pets as children and may pamper them, allow them into bed, cook them special meals, and even provide them with therapy.

Protectionists – These dog owners wish to be the animal’s advocate and have strong views about animal welfare and how a pet should be treated.

Which Are You?
You may not fall neatly into any of these categories, but you likely know which way you lean. In order to prevent arguments with your partner, it’s important to have an open discussion, ideally before you get a pet.  Decide how the responsibilities will be divided. (Who is in charge of making sure the cat’s water bowl is full?) Set some household rules. (Will the dog be allowed to go up on the couch?) And discuss basic training and how you will handle problem behaviors when they arise. Trust me, they will! During the discussion, be aware of the difference between your ideology and your partner’s ideology and find ways to meet in the middle in order to prevent relationship problems.