When Charis Castleberry met her now-husband Austin, she lived at home with her parents and their five cats. She was a proud cat mom ― the type of person who called her pets her “fur babies” ― but Austin had always disliked cats.
“His family had one and it wasn’t friendly, so he just thought all cats were jerks,” said Charis, who lives in Conway, Arkansas.
Austin frequently visited Charis and her family, but she never forced him to mingle with her pets.
“I wanted to let him find out on his own how great it is to have good pets in the family,” she said. “If you constantly tell your partner that they have to love your cat ― or your rat, whatever ― then I feel like it makes them less likely to do so. The pet will do all the work for you, just let it happen.”
In the end, Austin fell for Charis’ cats and their laser pointer-loving ways. Now that the couple is married and has kids, Austin wants to bring home one of the cats at Charis’ parent’s house. (See the tweet below for proof of Austin’s newfound love.)
“Now he knows cats are hilarious and filled with personality,” Charis said.
Charis’ situation couldn’t have played out any better: Her cats essentially convinced her partner to love them, without any nudging on her part. But for many couples, angst over one person’s pets is a recurring issue. On Reddit, there’s no shortage of people complaining about their partner’s furry friends. Most of the stories don’t end well.
“My girlfriend refused to put the dog in garage or outside [during] sleepy or sexy time because ‘it’s mean,’” one man wrote on the subreddit r/Dogfree. “I cut things off after losing too much sleep over ‘her best friend.’ I am sleeping great now.”
Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas, has seen these kinds of disputes play out with couples fairly often.
“In a new relationship, this issue gives couples at odds a crash course in getting to know one another,” she said. “Are the differences workable, is there room for compromise or, after it’s all sorted out, is it a big enough deal to be a dealbreaker?”
How can you go the way of Charis and her husband ― and not the way of that guy on r/Dogfree and his ex-girlfriend? Below, Whetstone and other marriage therapists offer their best advice on bridging the pet divide.
Don’t trash-talk Fido.
As with any conflict you’ll face as a couple, a softer, more compassionate approach will be more effective, said Winifred Reilly, a marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California.
“Your partner loves his or her pet, so skip the badmouthing,” Reilly said. “Aim for some boundaries that will make you feel that your concerns matter. Like a cat-free room, or the dog sleeping in a bed instead of with you.”
Establish boundaries and continue to respect them.
When Whetstone thinks back on couples who have struggled with this issue, she said the arguments typically focused on boundaries and responsibilities: what rooms ― or pieces of furniture ― were off-limits to the pet, when fluff on the couch needed to be vacuumed, where the litter box should go and how often it needed to be cleaned.
“I once had a client who counted the dog poops in the backyard daily and reported to his wife how many there were,” Whetstone said. “She apparently missed a few days and he announced in session once that 57 poops had collected in the yard. All I could think of was how he was back there tallying them up.”
The bed is another big bone of contention. (A recent study suggested that women sleep better next to dogs than they do next to members of their own species ― but it’s clearly not always great for your relationship.)
“Another client said her boyfriend slept on the couch when he stayed overnight at her house because the bed was full of dogs,” Whetstone said. “The woman was not happy about it.”
A couple can move beyond these problems if each person respects and responds to their partner’s concerns.
“Listen to those anguished pleas for cleanliness,” she said.
Try to separate the pet from the issue.
Some people do have a deep dislike of animals. But most folks struggle with the issues that a pet creates, said Marie Land, a therapist in Washington, D.C.
“Maybe your partner takes the animal everywhere with you and you feel like the focus on the pet is taking away from quality time with you,” she said. “Or maybe your sleep is impacted because you have allergies to the pet.”
Recognize what the root issue is and lead with that when you have this conversation with your partner. Your partner still might get defensive or protective over their pet, but you’re less likely to sound mean-spirited if you focus on the issues and not the specific animal.
“I do see a benefit in talking about issues that are related to the pet that arise in the relationship,” Land said.
Be open to feeling differently about the animal.
Animals are sensitive, and some are capable of feeling your hesitation or anxiety about them. Even if you’ve never been an animal person, it can be tremendously helpful to approach them with an open mind and heart, especially if they’ve acted wary of you in the past.
“I know this firsthand,” Land said. “When I first started dating my husband, I was anxiously greeted by his beloved German Shepherd, Lulu, who jumped up putting her paws on my shoulders. As Lulu got to know me she relaxed and became the most loved pet I ever had.”
If you’re the pet lover, be reasonable.
Whestone, a major pet lover herself, learned a lot about the different ways people appreciate animals when she volunteered at a shelter.
“There were people there who were obsessive and made it their identity and life, to the exclusion of rational behavior and decision-making,” she said.
“They took pets home, they hoarded animals, all in the interest of rescuing as many as they could,” Whetstone added. “It was a loving concept for sure, but it diminished any quality of life for them and their families, and they were not reachable to those people ― they weren’t interested in doing things differently.”
Now, she reminds married clients who are fighting over pets to not go overboard in prioritizing their animals.
“Aim for a healthy love of pets,” she said. “You can love them but still have a balanced life with friends and family.”
Remember: Your human partner needs to come first.
Sure, there’s a sweet little pup or cat (or a snake or iguana, or rabbit or turtle) at the heart of this issue. But don’t forget there’s a human involved who you really value, too.
“Your actions should show that your partner is your top priority,” Whetstone said. “Healthy animal lovers know that being sanitary, clean and good discipline and boundaries is best for you, your family and the animal.”
Don’t look at it as a win-lose.
It’s inevitable that two adults will disagree about things in their relationship, some small and some significant. Couples who approach differences with a win-lose attitude ― as in “I want to have my way even if you lose” ― will collectively lose in the end, Reilly said.
“Consider instead that your differences give you an opportunity to learn flexibility and consideration, to learn when to advocate for yourself and when to yield,” she said. “If you play it well with this issue over pets, the conflict can make you better partners and give you a better relationship in the long run.”
“I Love You But” is a series that offers advice on how to love someone when you don’t love a big aspect of their life ― from their sex and sleep habits to their pets.