Do you know someone whose longest and most intimate relationship is with their pet? I’ve met quite a few of these people and wanted to write a piece about this phenomenon but have been terrified to offend a global community of animal-lovers and decimate my readership. But I can’t put this off any longer. Someone has to talk about how getting emotional support from animals may affect our human relationships.
Let me start by saying there is nothing wrong with loving your pet wholeheartedly. I’ve had animals my whole life. They’re like adorable children who never grow out of the “I need you to clean up my turds” phase. Pets rely upon us to show up consistently. They love us unconditionally and are always there for us – especially during hard times.
I see “Who rescued who?” stickers on cars all the time and I know that this is true in the most literal sense for many people. These animals love us just as much on our best day as on our worst day. They don’t judge us, argue or hold grudges and resentments. We don’t have to worry about them leaving us and they’re pretty much always down to snuggle. What could be more wonderfully validating, comforting and supportive?
I believe this is why hundreds of thousands of pets have been registered as emotional support animals over the last decade. C.W. Von Bergen wrote, “Any animal that provides support, well-being, comfort, or aid, to an individual through companionship, unconditional positive regard, and affection may be regarded as an emotional support animal.” From this standpoint, one could argue that every animal is an emotional support animal.
What The Hell Does This Have To Do With Relationships?
In Vulnerability Is The Price of Admission, I wrote about the importance of being seen and heard as a child and how we adapt when we are not. I believe that people often use pets as a way to soothe these childhood wounds. If your parents abused, neglected, enmeshed or abandoned you, physically or emotionally, pets are a great way to get the love, attention and unconditional positive regard that you always craved but never received.
The problem is that met-needs don’t inspire growth – they usually keep us right where we are. Having pets can be a workaround for unhealed childhood dysfunction when we use them to meet our emotional needs instead of learning to do it in healthy and appropriate, adult ways. A deep-rooted fear of intimacy based on harmful past experiences of closeness can trap us behind a wall of invulnerability, shame, busyness and aloofness forever. In this state, people are unable to truly connect with other human beings. It doesn’t feel safe. So they connect with animals instead, who give their emotional support with zero demands for vulnerability or emotional risk. It’s the perfect relationship for an emotionally wounded person. It also provides an easy-out from ever needing to heal. “If I never find love, I’ll always have Fluffy.”
For many people, their relationship with a pet may very well be the healthiest relationship they’ve ever had. This must be very comforting to such a person, and I imagine that it could play a role in the healing process. But it could also be the crutch that atrophies their capacity for human connection and dooms them to a life of loneliness and quiet desperation – forever lurking in the unseen, unheard shadows of the living.
Soothing vs. Healing
Finding ways to ease the pain is completely natural. Everyone does it, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. What I encourage people to do is to take a look at their self-soothing strategies and identify the underlying hurt. Then and only then can they take action to heal the wounds so self-medicating is no longer necessary. This is why quitting drinking or going on a diet are usually not solutions to anything. Alcohol and food aren’t the problem! These are ways that people escape from the pain. They are not the root cause but merely symptoms.
Soothing makes a problem tolerable. Healing fixes it.
Hiding In Plain Sight
I think the reason I felt so compelled to write this article is because being an animal lover can be 100% healthy and wonderful. Or it could be an indicator that you have intimacy problems that you’ll never heal as long as Fluffy is good enough.
Using heroin is a great way to escape from your problems. However, no one ever confuses a smackhead for a healthy, functioning adult. It’s pretty challenging to keep your daily black tar consumption under wraps and you will either soon die or get help.
On the other hand, there is a vast plethora of socially acceptable ways for emotionally wounded people to hide out and never get the help they need. Workaholics, perfectionists and busyness addicts are often admired, praised and rewarded for their maladaptive emotional coping strategies (see Why Perfectionism Ruins Relationships). I’ve long been aware of the fact that some people treat their emotional wounds with puppies and kittens. It just seems like such a bold and contentious claim, I guess I’ve been waiting patiently for someone else to write this damn article.
However, I’m not committed to saying pretty things all the time so people will love me. I’m committed to saying the uncomfortable shit that could potentially pull the covers on someone’s complacency and lackluster relationship patterns, even if I run the risk of opening the hate-mail floodgates. It’s like my guy Viktor Frankl said, “What is to give light must endure burning.”
You Can Heal And Have Pets!
Let me just reiterate that having an adorable puppy doesn’t automatically make you an emotional leper. Surely at least one person will misconstrue my words that way. There are many happy and emotionally well-balanced pet owners out there. But if cute animals are your plan B to having a loving, intimate, human relationship, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that it might actually be your plan A and you just don’t realize it.
Are all of your relationships optional or disposable? Are you usually the one that leaves? Do you think, “Yeah, it’d be nice to have a partner, but I don’t need one”? This attitude is the typical and completely logical response to a certain type of family dysfunction. The challenge is that most people think that this is how they truly feel deep down inside and don’t see that they’re conflating a childhood coping mechanism with their adult preferences.
If you’re skeptical about your relationship patterns and attitudes about love, I strongly encourage you to take my free diagnostic quiz. It takes two minutes. If you’d like to dig into those quiz results with me personally, I offer a free 30 minute consultation. Honestly, I’m not much of a salesman. Either you need what I have to offer or you don’t. And if you’re not willing to change, there’s not a damn thing I can tell you to convince you otherwise, so I won’t waste my breath. I just wanna be helpful to people who are hurting like I was. I found a way out of that mess and I’m happy to share it with you, if you care to have it. Thanks for reading.