When Pets Come Between Partners

ByABC News via logo

Jan. 22, 2005 -- -- It's a situation many pet lovers might find familiar: You say it's all right for the dog to sleep in the bed; your partner says no way. Suddenly a minor disagreement has turned into a major blow-out.

Some experts say it's becoming more common for couples to bicker over their pets, and in some cases, these "pet peeves" can lead to separation or even divorce. But at least one psychologist says fights about pets could be masking deeper relationship issues.

Lynn Goldstein Nichols owns a cat and a dog, and she loves her pets. In fact, Lynn loves her pets so much, she chose to fight for them when her marriage ended in divorce in 2001.

"We got into a big to-do legally about the possession of the animals," Nichols said. "And that's when the judge finally decided to divide the pets up, saying the cats would go to Tom and the dogs would go to me."

But Nichols wasn't ready to turn the cats over. She hid them -- and ultimately went to jail for 30 days for contempt of court.

"Six hundred and twenty five people have asked me if I would do it again," said Nichols. "And I said, 'Yes, I would.'"

Then there are couples like Mark and Vicki Dodge. Happily married for 25 years, their problems started to emerge when they introduced a dog into their home.

"We fight over her health." said Vicki. "Mark seems to be overly concerned. Takes her to the doctor at the drop of a hat."

The couple also argues over the dog's eating habits and how much time they spend with the two-year-old pointer.

"Vicki is not that warm; she's a little jealous," said Mark. "Sort of like, 'You love the damn dog more than you love me.' It's ridiculous."

As silly as it may seem to non-pet people, these pet problems can become major issues that ruin relationships.

According to Dr. Joel Gavriele-Gold, a psychologist and author of "When Pets Come Between Partners: How to Keep Love -- and Romance -- in the Human/Animal Kingdom of Your Home," animals sleeping in the bed is the biggest issue among couples.

"More than one-third of pet owners say they let their pet sleep in bed with them, but people will argue about a lot of things," said Gavriele-Gold. "Some people feel like they're competing with the pet for attention. Some people get angry because their significant other isn't taking enough responsibility for the pet."

And a lot of the time, the argument may not be about the pet at all.

"It's rarely about the animal, and almost always about you," said Gavriele-Gold. "It can depend on who the pet originally belonged to, but often arguments over care of the animal speak to a control issue.

"For example, I know a couple who disagreed on how much to feed their cat," Gavriele-Gold added. "The woman thought the cat was fat and put it on a diet. The husband was sneaking it food on the side. That was a 'Who is the better parent?' competition. Mom was the disciplinarian and dad got to be the good guy."

Gavriele-Gold said people who argue about their pets need to look at what's behind these disputes.

"You need to ask yourself, 'What would happen if the pet weren't here?'" said Gavriele-Gold. "What would you be arguing about? That can help you get at the real issue and start working on it, and Fido can go back to being just Fido."