The most common reference to ideal emotion is the "unconditional love" attributed to the beloved pet dog, who remains devoted to his or her guardian through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, and even after death, as legends attest. A psychiatrist specializing in marriage and divorce suggests that even if the practice of unconditional love by humans seems unattainable, the pet love received and given provides pragmatic lessons to help sustain and heal relationships between humans.
While nonhuman animal emotions are labeled as "pure," human emotions include mixed feelings and struggles with conditions imposed on relationships. Writing for Psych Central, Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP licensed psychologist, adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Long Island University and faculty member at the Derner Institute of Adelphi University, observes that couples may vehemently disagree on most topics, but usually both soften 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 such as 'I only wish she was as affectionate with me as with our dog!' or 'You should hear him speak to this animal - he never speaks to me that way' and the reply 'The dog demands nothing from me - he just gives unconditional love.' or 'The cats are a predictable source of comfort and soothing - they want to be near me.'"
Phillips points out that in fact pets do make demands on their owners, whether it's undesired behavior or fussy eating habits. The pets receive human love that overlooks those shortcomings in the pet-guardian relationship. She poses the question, can we learn something from our relationship with pets that might enhance our relationship with partners? She answers that pets can teach us about long-lasting love if we are willing to take a closer look at ourselves and consider "you get what you give." Giving something positive invites unconditional pet love and works for human love, too. Phillips suggests observing the "pure," in-the-moment emotions of a pet and applying them to a human relationship: the positive greeting after absence, the lack of defensive expectation of what your partner might feel, not holding grudges for bad behavior, taking a forgiveness attitude that assumes the best, acceptance of who the love object is, and adapting positively to "for better or for worse."
Licensed clinical social worker Susan Pease Gadoua, who writes about marriage and divorce for Psychology Today, lost her dog suddenly and wrote about her feelings. She received comments from readers, some feeling in their own lives that they had a harder time dealing with the death of a pet than when a human partner moved out. Pease asks "How is it that we can have a much stronger connection with an animal? A being with whom we can't converse or share our worries with?" Her conclusion is: "Because we receive unconditional love from our dogs, cats, birds and bunnies, we feel unconditional love for them. When we allow something to love us and dedicate their lives to us, it brings out the faithful and open-hearted parts of us. We bond around our mutual love - even when nothing can be spoken (perhaps because nothing can be spoken!)"
In another article, Phillips suggests that a pet can be "the emotional third in your relationship," much like a therapist, creating opportunities to heal after an argument, offering solace to a fearful partner after a scary life change, performing antics leading to mutual laughter, defusing a tense situation into a moment of sharing, and creating shared activity, such as an evening walk with the dog, to bring a couple closer. She has seen how a pet's need can take priority over individual needs and provide a valuable third choice. More, observing how one's partner interacts or treats a pet as a relationship forms and then during the routine of living together can open up a new perspective, endearing him or her in a brand new way.
Every day they share our lives, our faithful pet valentines provide for us in many ways.
- Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help "Keep Tahoe Kind". Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.