On the Virtue of Pets for Live-In Couples

While taking my dog Louie on one of her late night walks at the beginning of this year, I found myself feeling an unmistakeable inkling of happiness. It’s not that happiness is a necessarily unusual emotion for me to experience, but barreling through the 30 degree weather after my first 8-hour work day for many months just after the excitement and leisure of the holiday season ends isn’t exactly the recipe for happiness. There were plenty of factors that could have easily contributed to my joy. The bliss of newlyweddedness, my recent meditation practice, and having just begun to read a jewel of a Haruki Murakami novel were all potential factors. But the present company seemed a pretty good reason to feel in good spirits too and I attributed the burden of my cheerfulness to her, or more accurately, to what Louie has done for my marriage.

Mike and I were never a dysfunctional or volatile couple, but when we first moved in together, the transition wasn’t without its fair share of challenges. Not only was I working my first full time job back then, I was doing so for minimum wage with AmeriCorps. And this was also my first time truly living on my own with rent to pay, bills due, and a whole host of chores to finish at the end of the day. Navigating the world of independent adulthood is a transition in itself, but doing so with a significant other can be a stressful and trying experience. I watched in horror as my free time was drastically diminished and I felt the true burden of housework like I never did when living in a dorm or at my parents’ house. Though it was great to live with Mike, there were times in those first few months when our roles as roommates far overshadowed those as boyfriend and girlfriend.

It was exciting to be around one another so often, but difficult to achieve a working balance between our other relationships, our personal time, and the time we shared with one another. I felt guilty when I was at home but not physically with Mike, when I just wanted to read by myself or watch a chic flick in which he would have no interest. I imagined that I was the one doing all the housework (which I wasn’t) without a bit of help from him, because that’s often how it felt. And having our finances wrapped up required some adjustment as well on account of the fact that we have very different attitudes toward and tendencies regarding money.

Don’t get me wrong, we loved living together and our roles as live-in boyfriend and girlfriend gradually became easier once we figured out one another’s expectations, quirks, and responsibilities. But I don’t think we have ever been as happy as when we found ourselves owners of an adorable runt of a tuxedo cat and a rowdy pit-boxer puppy made of pure love and solid muscle.

Digby came first when we thought we couldn’t afford to buy a dog. He was the very smallest kitten on offer for adoption at the Petsmart and, though we had a tough time deciding between all the adorable and tiny cats napping behind the glass, we were certain we had made the right choice once we brought him home. Though the little guy hid beneath our futon and behind a shelf lined with DVDs for the first few days, he gradually emerged and began to make himself at home in our laps, in our bed, and on our laptop keyboards (there’s something about the warmth of a computer that he finds so appealing). I was never a cat owner previously and I think I played a little more roughly than I should have with young Digby because I was so accustomed to interacting with rowdy puppies. Digby has grown into a one and a half year old crybaby, a whiner who loved nothing more than to be held but would just as often purr in your arms as attack your hands with his itty bitty teeth and piercing claws. He loved to play in a more violent way than most cats, but I loved him just the same, though I think Mike, despite being a self-proclaimed cat person, has become much less fond of Digby’s ways than myself.

Despite Mike’s reservations regarding the cat, introducing a feline into our home was a good thing. Digby offered a place to direct our attention, a cute and cuddly plaything to take care of and foster together. It was, in some ways, a trial run for parenthood, but also a bonding experience of sorts. I think our relationship improved after Digby’s entrance into our family. Though time itself could explain the general upward trend in our relationship’s quality, Digby was a project of sorts in which we were both invested that strengthened our connection, offering us something positive to focus on rather than all those little aggravations that can develop into big arguments when you have too much free time on your hands and too little with which to concern yourself. And of course, owning a cat together was sort of emblematic of our commitment to one another (even if we were already engaged) because if we split up, then one of us would have to give up Digby and that just wasn’t happening.

When Digby was just under a year old, Mike and I got married and decided it was due time to get a dog. We felt bad for the cat, away from his owners during our week-long honeymoon and then having his world altered by the introduction of this new rambunctious animal in his home. But Louie very quickly became a part of the family that even the cat grew to love (and fear too).

At first, I wasn’t entirely sold on Louie given that she was still a six month old puppy with plenty of training and attention requirements that we may or may not have been able to meet. She also had some pit bull in her which was a little cause for worry given that we didn’t know her history. At six months, she could have been inculcated with the beginnings of a fighting mentality if her early days had been spent in the hands of the wrong owner. Luckily we discovered that she was the friendliest pup we could possibly have chosen. Louie’s musculature and solidity belied a sweet and playful nature towards both humans and canines that we quickly grew to love. Though she required two hours of walking a day, constant playtime, and thorough training efforts at first, these doggie duties were ones we enjoyed. In fact, we playfully bickered over them, vying for the best Louie chores. Our division of pet-related labor was so equitably split that I couldn’t possibly argue that I was doing everything as I so often had previously. We each wanted to be the one to spend an hour walking Louie, procuring her affection by divvying out her daily dose of kibble, or releasing her from the confines of her cage in the morning with a barrage of wet kisses and a violently waging tail. The responsibilities that came with having a dog were fun to us and so we split them quite fairly with little argument or resentment (although I did begrudge Mike a bit when Louie started acting up on walks with me but not with him, a clearly demonstration in my eyes that Mike was her preferred walker).

Beyond feeling good about our equitable division of dog owning responsibilities, Louie required even more attention that Digby, once again displaced our focus from the small things that, without canine or feline distractions, could have erupted into greater disruptions for reasons too silly and petty to understand. Mike often says that having a dog is more work than having a child and, though we can’t speak to the amount of labor required in raising a baby, we were happy to expend any amount of effort required to be excellent dog owners. Louie makes us happy, and we love nothing more than to make her happy in return. We lavish toys and attention on her, improving the lives and temperaments of everyone involved. Though I don’t think she singlehandedly improved our relationship (a series of increasingly improved job situations for me and Mike’s newfound comedy habit definitely helped with our own personal happinesses), Louie’s presence joined us in a strong commitment to providing our dog with a great life. She was a common hobby, a shared interest, a source of laughter and conversation, and even a source of entertainment. To put it quite plainly, Louie was the best thing that happened to me and Mike, our sanity, and the state of our relationship.

And this is what was running through my head after my first full day on a new job in the dead of winter when the world lies dormant for months lie until spring, when the festivity and fun of the holidays have ended, and the trees are bare, and the world feels dismal and dreary. I was quite happy and not just because of a good first day. It was a larger and more general happiness, one that had become a steady undercurrent in my life, rather than an occasional pattern popping up every now and then.

Pet ownership is a rewarding experience in itself – no animal-lover will argue with that. But doing it with a significant other is even more gratifying, for it lends a larger sense of purpose, commitment, joy, and love to already positive and strong relationships. True, there are days when the last thing I want to do is take my dog for a walk in the below-freezing winter night and Mike still gets on my nerves from time to time. Adopting a dog won’t solve your relationship issues and often time is the best avenue to identifying solutions to these problems in the world of love. But adding an animal to the home you share with a live-in significant other can do wonders for a relationship that you thought couldn’t get any better. Digby, Louie, Mike, and I are living proof.

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