"This is probably the most ridiculous reason you've ever heard for anyone to see a marriage counselor, but Ted and I fight all the time about our dog," says Robin, 28, an executive at a university medical center. "We've only been married for a year and a half, but Penelope, our 6-month-old lab, has become the focus of constant arguments. We fight over how to discipline her, whether she should be allowed to sleep in our bed, what she should eat and how often."
The situation, Karen concedes, would be comical, if it weren't so damaging to their relationship. The bottom line is, she and Ted rarely talk, rarely make love and rarely have fun anymore. Getting a dog was Ted's idea - Karen knew nothing about animals - but they both hoped raising a puppy would bring them closer.
"Ted and I had fallen into a lonely rut," she recalls. "I'd get home from work around 8:30 or 9. Ted had already eaten and was usually well into a six-pack. Sometimes he'd sit with me while I ate, but most of the time he'd zone out on the couch, barely raising his head except to take a sip of beer."
The fights began after they brought Penelope home. "She (Penelope) started to cry pitifully. Ted didn't hear a thing, but I couldn't bear it," recalls Robin. "So I brought her into our bed, lay her between us, and she stopped crying." When Ted discovered that Robin was doing this every night, he was furious - and he told her he wouldn't make love as long as the dog was in the room. Robin thinks that Ted is much too harsh with Penelope, especially when she began to chew her way around the house.
"She's only a puppy. How can a grown man get so jealous of a little dog?" she wants to know. Robin can't help wondering: If Ted is treating their dog like this, will he be just as cold and unaffectionate with their children.
Ted, 26, who is finally going back to school after years of floundering around for a career, admits he's jealous of Penelope. "Robin pays more attention to Penelope than she does to me and she's forever putting the dog's needs ahead of mine," he complains.
"Penelope is the first one she greets when she gets home at night. It would be nice, maybe once in a while, if I got a kiss. If we're sitting on the couch watching TV, Penelope wheedles her way between us."
He also thinks its ridiculous to have a dog in bed with them. "I can't get in the mood when that dog is in the room, even if she's at the foot of the bed. I won't discuss it any more," he snaps.
The truth is, Ted feels that, in subtle ways, Robin has always put him down. "She's much more successful right now than I am, and she lets me know who's boss," he explains. "She makes all the financial decisions and now she even undercuts my authority with our dog."
"Robin and Ted are a classic case of what therapists call a triangulated relationship - that is, something or someone changes the focus of their arguments, obscuring the real issues between them," explains Nanette Berman Cohen, a marriage counselor in Dix Hills, N.Y. Any new influence can alter the dynamic of a relationship - another person, such as a child or an in-law; an addiction, such as alcohol or drug abuse; or, as in this marriage, a pet.
Once Robin and Ted realized what they were doing, they were freer to put their problems into perspective and work on real issues dividing them - Robin's intense loneliness, for example, and Ted's feeling that he had no say in the marriage. To determine if you and your partner are distancing yourselves from your real problems, think about the following points:
1. Is there a pattern to your fights? Can you list one or two points that you and your spouse always seem to fight about? Does every argument sooner or later disintegrate into a battle over these same issues?
Pets, for example, often become a lightning rod for many unrecognized or unaddressed conflicts. A pet is a metaphor for issues that people have been unable to resolve, a symbol of their childhood or even the way they envision themselves and their partners as parents. When the counselor pointed this out, Robin and Ted immediately recognized that Penelope was in fact a symbol of their fears and hopes for their life together. In other cases, a spouse may battle with a mother-in-law rather than work through issues with her partner.
2. Once you've identified your triangle, take two steps back and try to lighten up. Can you go for one day without criticizing your spouse about this issue? Then make it three days or even one week. Observe what happens when you back off from a problem even temporarily.
3. As the tension lifts, share your feelings without blaming each other and without telling each other what to do. Take responsibility for your part of the problem and invite his perspective.
4. Don't expect overnight change. This is a slow process, but even a small change will make you both feel that you're contributing to the relationship.
Robin has made a conscious effort to support her husband and not position him as the "bad parent." She respects Ted's experience with dogs and understands that his actions are indeed appropriate. Even though she makes more money, they now decide together how it will be spent.
Ted realized he was routinely relying on alcohol to assuage his feelings of insecurity and has begun a 12-step recovery program. Now that he is no longer drinking, these two are able to have meaningful conversations and enjoy spending time together as a couple.
By the editors of Ladies' Home Journal