Human Relationships, Pets, and the Human-Companion Animal Bond
When my son Jeremy married in July, our family gained not only a wonderful daughter-in-law, Melissa, but also her delightful cat, Lena. When Jeremy's brother Dan married Ellen, we gained a dog named Spike. For as often as such human-animal mergers occur, the roles our animals play in those relationships normally don't gain a lot of attention unless problems arise. When problems do arise, the animal or his or her behavior often becomes the target of any blame. However more often than not, when problems arise, they arise because of a lack of understanding of the human-animal bond as well as animal behavior
For example, if Marsha sees her pets as her raison d'etre, logic tells us that any person with whom Marsha would hope to share her life should share this vision, too. However, in a surprising number of cases, this issue is never discussed until the couple move in together or even marry. Throughout their courtship, non-dog person John considered Marsha's devotion to her pets of little significance; he assumed she did it because she had nothing better to do with her time and that once they were living together, she would devote more time to activities of mutual interest. Marsha, on the other hand, assumed that John would easily become as devoted to the dogs as she was once he lived with them full-time.
In this relatively common scenario, there are six possible outcomes:
- Marsha accepts John's view and alters her relationship with her dogs.
- John accepts Marsha's view and alters his relationship with her dogs.
- John and Marsha form a new relationship with the dogs that takes into account their differing human needs as well as those of the dogs.
- John and Marsha agree to accept each other's view of the dogs as right for him or her.
- John and Marsha cannot accept each other's view of dogs and they constantly argue about it.
- John and Marsha can't accept each other's view and they terminate their relationship because of this.
But what about the pets? Of the six options, five of them of them could result in a stable situation for the animals. We know that a consistent human response serves as a reference point on which our pets can count and thus has a stabilizing effect on them. If either John or Marsha adopts the other's relationship with the dogs, this will communicate a consistent message to the animals and make them feel secure, as will the two of them forming a new relationship with the dogs which they consistently implement. However, even if the couple maintain different relationships with the dogs, as long as they can do this consistently and without any negative feelings, the dogs will learn to accept this double standard. Similarly, if John and Marsha consider their differing views about the pets an irreconcilable difference and end their relationship, the dogs should do all right.
However, if neither John nor Marsha can accept the other's relationship with the dogs and they continually argue about this, the stress this creates will undermine the dogs' behavior and/or their relationships with these people. John might see the dogs as the cause of his problems with Marsha and resent them even more. Marsha may baby or otherwise communicate neediness rather than confidence to her pets in a misguided attempt to atone for John's negative feelings about them or her.
What John or Marsha will do depends on how much energy it requires versus any benefits they expect to gain from the change. It requires the least amount of energy for neither John nor Marsha to changeas long as they do this without experiencing negative feelings about the other and/or the pets. If they do, then the question becomes: Is preserving this human relationship worth the effort necessary to form a mutually acceptable relationship with these pets? If John's ambivalence about dogs comes from past negative experiences with a few unruly canines, then a few weeks of close contact with Marsha's well-behaved friendly pets might be all it takes to change his mind about them forever. On the other hand, if Marsha discovers that the way John quietly ignores them calms and relaxes her otherwise constantly attention-seeking dogs, she may opt for his approach.
As human relationships with animals become more intimate, we can also see how new human additions to a household might resent pets the owner views as symbols of past loves rather than companion animals. Surely even the greatest dog-lover would sympathize with John's reluctance to engage in a meaningful relationship with Marsha's dogs if every reference to them also included some praise for her wonderful former partner, Steve, who got these wonderful animals for her, etc. ad nauseam.
Basically what it boils down to is that evolving human relationships which include pets are a lot like those that include kids. In order for a combined, quality human-animal relationship to exist, there needs to be quality communication about both human and animal needs up-front. To deny that problems exist or that love will find a way is both naive and foolish. As with so many problems that plague the human species, successfully integrating pets into new human relationships requires quality communication as well as love and respect for the needs of all involved, regardless of species.
If you have any comments regarding subject matter, favorite links, or anything you'd like to see discussed on or added to this site, please let me know at email@example.com.