Much like children, having pets brings a lot of joy into a household. Unfortunately, also like having children, pets can introduce new elements of stress. And when pet-related conflicts escalate, it can wreak havoc on your relationship.
One scenario is that a couple enters into a relationship (as many do) with "pre-existing" pets. When you meet someone you want to be with, it's great if you adore their pet (s), too-but that's not always the case. Let's say Sarah, whose beloved cat she's had since childhood, meets Joe, who has a dog he adopted a couple of years ago after he found it roaming the neighborhood, flea-ridden with no owners to be found.
Visiting each other's apartments, they notice small things about each other's pets that seem a little unnerving. Sarah's aged cat is incontinent and does not always make it to the litter box. Meanwhile, Joe's dog keeps chewing up Sarah's shoes when she visits.
In the intense early stages of a relationship, these may seem like little things. Although he's not a cat person anyway, Joe thinks it's endearing that Sarah is so attached to her childhood kitty. Sarah laughs that she never liked those shoes to begin with so maybe the dog did her a favor.
You can see where this is headed. If Sarah and Joe enter into a serious relationship or even get married, those pets come with the package. And as Sarah loses her fourth pair of shoes to Joe's dog and Joe finds the cat has missed the litter box for the umpteenth time … well, it's not so endearing or funny anymore. And as with any tension in a relationship, you're going to have to find a way to address each other's concerns with respect, honesty and compromise.
Even when a couple makes a joint decision to adopt a new pet, problems can arise if they have different expectations about how to divvy up the caretaking responsibilities, deal with problem behaviors, or even how much money to spend on the pet's care.
Common pet disputes couples report include:
- Who should walk the dog, empty the cat's litter box, etc.
- Whether or not the pet should be allowed on the bed / sofa
- What to do with the pet when you travel
- What to do when a pet is destroying your furniture or other belongings
- Jealousy over how much time / interest one partner pays to the pet
I can not stress enough the importance of taking time-well before you go to check out the cute puppies and kitties at the local animal shelter-to talk through each person's expectations about pet ownership. These conversations might not be as fun as gazing together at the doggie in the window, but establishing some ground rules and anticipating potentially difficult scenarios will pay off tenfold down the road.
Other issues, like jealousy over the pet, can be far more serious. Say Emily and Jack have a golden retriever they both love, but Emily begins to feel that Jack is paying almost more attention to Fido than her. He comes home from work and spends his first five minutes home roughhousing with Fido instead of greeting her with a kiss and asking about her day. He lets Fido horn in between them on the couch when they watch movies.
If Emily expresses her feelings about this, and Jack is open to hearing them, they may resolve the situation fairly easily. (After all, there's plenty of room for Fido to sit on the couch without literally coming between them.) But if their communication skills are poor or the relationship has other unresolved conflicts, Fido may just be a proxy to avoid dealing with deeper problems. Is Jack focusing his attention on Fido to avoid talking with Emily, because she always seems to be criticizing him for something? Is Emily feeling insecure in the relationship and threatened by everything that takes away Jack's attention?
If you suspect that your pet problems are becoming true relationship problems for any reason-either because there may be other issues at play, or you lack healthy dispute-resolution skills when it comes to pet ownership and other household matters-talking with a professional couples counselor can really help.