This week's post is from one of my frequent guest bloggers, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff. A friend and mentor from Brandeis University, Dr. Nemzoff offers valuable insight into some of the most challenging of family relationships.
I once read that a dog was the best man at a wedding. I thought I was reading a spoof, but the story was real. I understand that your best friend may indeed be an animal, and you may want to honor that relationship by making the mutt the best man. However, man’s best friend can be a family’s worst enemy. Your in-laws, whether the parents, the siblings, or the extended family, may object to your choice because of allergies, fear, or the dog's behavioral problems. In fact, while animals give comfort to some, they give the sneezes, terror and trauma to others.
During interviews for my books about relationships between parents, adult children and in-laws, I heard the following complaints:
“I am allergic to the dog, but my brother-in-law insists on bringing the animal to the ceremony.”
“I am terrified of animals and my adult children want to bring this beast to the wedding. They say I just have to learn to overcome my fear, but I think they are unsympathetic considering I was bitten as a child.”
“My fiancé’s sister’s dog jumps on the children, eats from the table, and barks—no way is he coming to the wedding.”
A great deal of sensitivity is needed if families are to recognize both the love and deep connection some members have with their pets, and the very real problems other members have.
Allergies are real. I did not believe it myself until I saw a young boy gasping for breath after entering a home with a cat. When we enter into a relationship with another person—whether it be a spouse, a partner or a friend—we can no longer assume that only we are worthy of consideration and love. The benefits of our connection come with the obligation to understand the needs of others. Allergic reactions are unpleasant for all. If you do have a family member who is allergic, ask them if their reactions are controllable with medicine and if they would be willing to take it so that you can bring your pet along. However, if their reaction cannot be tempered by medicine, or they are reluctant to take it, health trumps animal affection. Leave your animal at home.
When a family member fears animals, much sensitivity is required. Instead of disregarding their concern as trivial, acknowledge that they have a real terror of the animal. Ask them how you might work with them to help them overcome their fear. Some people are so scared that they are unwilling to approach the idea of loving your pet. But others may express an interest in coming to terms with their fear.
I, for example, was terrified of dogs. My best friend bred Briards—huge sheepdogs—and I was too scared to even walk into her house. I liked my friend so much that I was willing to tackle my fear to spend time with her. She, however, showed great consideration by always greeting me through the closed door, letting the dogs out of the house before I entered, then calming them down and letting them smell me while she held them by their collars. Instead of ridiculing me and reassuring me about how loving her dogs were, she helped me grow accustomed to them. I never grew to love them, but I did learn to tolerate them and to achieve my main goal, which was to enjoy my friend. I tried not to belittle her interest in animals, though I think she was perhaps more successful in understanding my fear than I was in understanding her passion. In families, acknowledging the full range of human emotion and reactions goes a long way toward enabling future connections.
In another instance, I realized my fear of animals was crippling me. I was afraid to walk in the woods. So I asked a neighbor to help me. She obliged by holding her dogs while I patted them on the back, then letting them sit quietly next to me. After several days, I found I could control my panic and could even understand the joy of having a dog look up at me, smiling.
As for the discipline of the animal, if your dog jumps on visitors, grabs food off of plates, barks incessantly, or interrupts dinnertime, you need to examine what you’re doing. In this instance, the discipline of animals is similar to the discipline of children. Would you allow your child to run all over the house, yelling and stealing food while you’re trying to have a nice visit with family? Though you may treat your dog as if it is your child, there is a need to rethink your frame of mind when your animal is more badly behaved than a two-year-old child.
The animal lovers feel their charges are part of the family. Those who don’t like them consider their owners rude and inconsiderate when they bring their much-loved companion to weddings or family events without even asking, while those who treasure their pet feel targeted when they’re not allowed to bring their pet to the wedding.
Just as you shouldn’t bring a baby to a wedding without asking permission, so too should you not bring your pet without inquiring. The tensions between one’s own needs and preferences and those of another are fundamental to human relationships. How we manage them creates or destroys our future interactions. There are no perfect answers, only imperfect people willing to put up with less than perfection.
A dog can be the best man at a wedding, but I bet if he could talk, he’d tell both his lovers and his haters to be considerate of each other’s feelings.
RUTH NEMZOFF, Ed.D.
Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., Author and Speaker: Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)