Pets are an important part of many older people’s lives. As you date and enter into a relationship in midlife or beyond, pets can add to the fun or create – how shall we say this delicately? – a bit of poo. When Charles first visited Jennifer’s home, he passed a critical test – her pets liked him! In fact, her three-legged German Shepherd, Sheena, enthusiastically approved of him. Charles noticed that the aging dog, who had always been active despite her missing front leg, fell when she was trying to navigate the few steps leading into the house. He immediately put his carpentry skills to good use, building her a couple of ramps to ease her way. How could any woman resist that gesture?
That was the good news. Later, when we began to live together, we somehow thought that adopting a Labrador puppy was a good idea. Hah! The puppy was adorable, smart, and loveable, but she was so hyperactive that it seemed she had four pogo sticks for legs. She was far better suited to an active young family than to two older people with busy schedules. Eventually, despite the heartbreak, we gave her to just such a young family, where she is thriving. In the glow of new love and our enthusiasm to add another pet to our newly formed relationship, we weren’t very wise in our choice.
Thus we learned the positive and negative effects of “pet parenting” on a midlife relationship. When one person has a strong attachment to his or her pets, the new partner may face some of the same issues that a stepparent encounters. The pet can be territorial and resentful of a new household member. What is endearing to the pet owner may be incredibly annoying to the new partner. For example, a dog that is used to sharing its owner’s bed may growl and snap at the worst possible romantic moments!
We’re not sure if a relationship can succeed if one partner can’t imagine life without pets and the other hates animals. This is a fundamental lifestyle difference that would be very difficult to resolve. Even when both people enjoy animals, conflicts can arise. Some simple steps that may help are:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk things over – but remember to tread delicately. Criticizing your partner’s pet is almost as touchy as criticizing a child. Start with an “I” statement – “I feel uncomfortable when Rover jumps on our guests. Can we figure out a way to help him keep his paws on the ground?”
- Come up with a fair plan for sharing the workload. If you are stuck cleaning the kitty litter for your partner’s cat, resentment may build unless you have agreed to this task.
- Think carefully before adopting any more pets (hindsight is wonderful!). Will the daily care or the financial responsibility strain your relationship? Is it truly a joint decision? Are you sure the pet is well suited to your lifestyle together, now and for the next couple of decades?
- Enjoy, laugh, and have fun together with your pets. Pet owning is associated with health benefits and can certainly put smiles on your faces. Sharing the humor (and the chores) can help strengthen your sense of being a family with your new partner.
Northwest authors Jennifer Y. Levy-Peck, PhD, a psychologist, and her husband Charles Peck have three pets whose antics they enjoy. They are working on a book, "Magic at Midlife: Your Relationship Roadmap for Romance After 40."
Previous Magic at Midlife Columns:
Exploring New Roles
Rowing Through Life Together
Let’ Talk About Sex
Helping Your Adult Children Accept Your New Partner
In Sickness and In Health
Step-Grandparenting Can Be Grand
Enjoy Life Together
Online Dating for the Older Set
Enjoying the Single Life
Sex in Midlife Relationships: Complicated but Wonderful!
Upgrade Your Communication Skills