Psychological Defenses: When Pets Come Between Partners

Thispost is part 2 in our series about When Pets Come Between Partners by Joel Gavriele-Gold, PhD. Our topic is two common psychological defenses and how they affect our relationships with our partners and pets. We will also explore other reasons people abuse and abandon pets to shelters and veterinarians for re-homing or killing. 

happy couple with dogPets become casualties as our dramas play out.

By shedding light on psychological defenses and mechanisms, we raise awareness about people and pets caught in the dilemma of…

“It’s me or the pet.”

My hope is that, with awareness, more innocent pets can stay with the people they love (and who love them) and develop a positive relationship with the new person in their lives.

Two psychological defenses explained in the book are displacement and projection. I promise to make them easy to understand.

But first, be aware that we all have these psychological mechanisms to some extent and use them often.  They are often unconscious and exert a powerful influence over our interactions and how we live our lives for better and worse. Identifying them is the first step to healing them and the relationships they affect – with people and pets. 

Displacement

Displacement is an unconscious psychological defense. Dr. Gold uses a slightly different meaning of displacement than the traditional meaning. For the purpose of the book, displacement happens when a person transfers past feelings and experiences onto someone else. This person relates to the pet as if he or she were that person from the past.

Does your cat remind you of your childhood best friend? That is an example of a positive association.

A negative association is based on an unresolved issue with someone. Your boyfriend’s dog might remind you of your selfish, haughty mother. The innocent pet stirs up unconscious feelings and memories which interfere with your ability to have a genuine relationship with the pet.  

Projection

Projection is similar to displacement, except we attribute our traits to the pet (or another person). These may be positive qualities or unwanted traits. You see you fur-baby as the lovable part of yourself. Or you project the fearful or worst parts of yourself onto your boyfriend’s dog. You perceive the dog as mean, spiteful and scary even if he is not aggressive.

 Dr. Gold shared an example of a man who over-trained and over disciplined his dog because he himself was quite disorderly. This made life unpleasant and rigid for the dog.

What about cases of outright abuse? A female patient was unconsciously angry at her controlling father. As may happen, she had become like him. She treated her dog in the same miserable way she was treated in order to identify with her father and not feel angry with him. This was her way of unconsciously showing everyone what was done to her.

Projection is a psychological defense we use often. It is difficult to discern in yourself, but don’t worry about it. Unless you are harming someone mentally or physically, it is harmless.  

Dr Gold says, “It’s fascinating to realize how many people have pets solely for the unconscious purpose of regarding the pets as themselves. It is as if the individual is showing the world how he or she should have been treated growing up.”

He recommends seeing a therapist if you set unrealistic expectations for your pet that are counter to their breed or species. If you attribute false qualities to an animal (or person) to their potential or actual harm, you should also consider therapy. Figure out what is going on. It may be a case of projection and/or displacement, as the following cases exemplify. 

Projection or displacement: Two case studies

 

psychological defenses when pets come between partners

Ted began kicking his girlfriend’s male poodle even though he had never abused an animal before. He was jealous of Homer and claimed he couldn’t stand how the dog wiggled his behind. He said Homer was contemptuous, demanding, and effeminate (among other things).  He issued the ultimatum, “It’s me or the dog” .  Sally opted for therapy.Ted worked through important insights revealed about himself and his family dynamics. He realized his judgments of Homer were displaced. Then he and Sally got engaged.

Mariam, her boyfriend, Stan, and Genghis illustrate projection gone awry. When Genghis, a normally friendly dog, began aggressively charging his privates (without correction by and Mariam), he gave her the ultimatum. Mariam chose therapy. It was a revelation to her that Genghis was acting out her hostile feelings as a form of projection. She was suspicious of Stan because all her ex-boyfriends were cheaters. Highly intuitive Genghis sensed her silently growing hostility and directed them straight at faithful Stan’s privates. Thankfully, this trio also had a happy ending.

Surprised again? Nothing is obvious or simple in psychology!

Other Psychological Reasons For Pet Abuse and Abandonment

Dr. Joel mentioned several other reasons why pets are abused and abandoned to shelters and veterinarians for re-homing or killing. I have taken some liberties in expressing these.

Put up your intuitive antennae. Notice the potential for the psychological defenses of displacement and/or projection in these points.

Reasons Pets are Abused, Abandoned and Neglected:

  • trying to change an animal’s natural behavior and instincts because of a personal problem that has nothing to do with pets. People may expect animals to be like people or other kinds of pets. They aren’t mindful of the fact that animals have instincts and traits peculiar to their species.  They get upset because they want their animals to show human emotions like humans do. 
  • not being mindful of an animal’s needs and traits. For example, dogs are pack animals that need companionship. It is a form of abuse when they are forced to live solitary lives alone on a chain in the yard or left to guard a business by themselves.
  • believing the myth and lies that non-human animals feel no pain and are not deserving of basic kindness. Or they believe kindness will spoil the animal.
  • intentionally beating animals and isolate/torture them to make them fierce.
  • viewing animals as a commodity, such as puppy mill dogs.
  • the abuser was abused, rejected, and/or abandoned as a child.
  • jealousy.

The Abused as Abuser

Victims of abuse may lack trust, fear being controlled, and/or shrink from touch. They may appear to be in disarray and turn to animals for comfort in a threatening world. Adopting a dog gives them the unconditional love they need and deserve.

Other victims turn into abusers. They may seem totally controlled and rationalize discipline as training.  Their pets are expected to be obedient and regimented. The self-loathing parts of the abused self can get projected onto the pet.  

According to Dr. Gold, many abused people gain a sense of satisfaction, control and respect at the thought of physically punishing a pet. This may lead to regret and a desire for forgiveness from the pet after the abuse incidents happen. They often report that it was something inside them that provoked the abuse, not something the animal did.

Still others adopt an air of indifference to their experiences of rejection and abandonment and constantly give up or have their pets killed. Such was the case of the woman who, more than a dozen times. brought her dog to be euthanized when she thought he or she no longer loved her.

The Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy

Jealousy is a complex emotion we all feel from time to time. Dr. Joel describes jealousy as a feeling of loss.

He says, “jealousy is a terrible feeling of inadequacy, a feeling that we are no longer enough and that somehow we have lost the ability to please-and because of that we are being replaced! It always hurts.” He further explains that jealousy is based on the belief that something strongly desired is out of reach. This might be the reality of things or a fabrication of the mind.

Jealousy brings out the worst in us when it escalates to anger and the desire for revenge. We aim to hurt the object of our jealousy or someone/something he or she loves. When those desires and fantasies are acted out, someone, human or animal can get hurt, killed or sent away.

Headlines like these are all too common:

Man strangles woman’s puppy in a fit of rage after she dumps him.

Summary

In this series of posts we touched on some of the psychological defenses and reasons behind abuse or relinquishing pets as discussed in When Pets Come Between Partners by Joel Gavriele-Gold, PhD.  

This book goes into much more detail than what I summarized in these two posts. Dr. Joel goes into depth about psychological defenses, issues and emotions, and how they affect us and our relationships. He also talks about pet custody, the grief of losing a pet, and the healing power of pets.

Personally, I would like to see this book in the offices of every veterinarian, therapist and shelter director. I recommend it to pet guardians who see themselves or loved ones in the pages of these posts.

If you or someone you know is in an unhappy love triangle with a partner and pet, this book is a must read. It will help you better understand yourself and your loved ones so you can decide on the next best step for all involved, including your precious furry, feathered, or scaly pets.

Psychological Defenses: When Pets Come Between Partners
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30 thoughts on “Psychological Defenses: When Pets Come Between Partners

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  • February 12, 2016 at 9:33 am
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    Projection…. it is a bummer! Low EQ is the source of many ailments – and not recognizing our own role in disagreements can escalate things to the point where we loose sensible approaches…and bam, escalation and it becomes “me or the dog!” This is an important topic and I’m so very glad you’ve written about it!

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    • February 12, 2016 at 10:32 am
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      Thanks much Rebecca. It’s very difficult to shine a mirror on our own psychological defenses or even to admit we all do it and probably a lot more often than we’d like to think. Awareness of these defenses is the first step and developing self awareness is the next – whether alone or with the help of a therapist or trusted other.

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  • February 12, 2016 at 12:03 pm
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    I love this topic although am single and happy that way, I am sure its an eye opener for many couples, thanks

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    • February 12, 2016 at 2:18 pm
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      Yes, not only couples but all relational dynamics including human to pet.

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  • February 12, 2016 at 12:40 pm
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    What an eye opener how emotions can be projected on to pets. Quite an interesting but difficult subject.

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  • February 12, 2016 at 10:14 pm
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    Great series of posts – cats really do pick up on emotions in the family home, so harmonious and happy is vital.

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    • February 13, 2016 at 8:16 am
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      You’re right. Often we think the animal has a problem, but in reality they are reflecting back to us the emotions they pick up from us.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 12:18 pm
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    Great series, its difficult balancing relationships dog and human alike, finding balance is key.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 12:33 pm
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    This was a very interesting article. I found parts of it difficult to read because the reality of animals being abused is so painful. I am glad the “kicker” received help, but I don’t know how forgiving I’d be about his mistreatment of my dog.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 6:52 pm
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    Very interesting but difficult to read because of the topic. You did a wonderful job explaining things- and unfortunately dogs are abused by some people for many different reasons. Thanks for tackling such a difficult subject!

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    • February 14, 2016 at 7:49 am
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      You’re welcome. It’s important to bring such issues to light. I just hope that those who need to see this article, do, and I’m not just “preaching to the choir” as they say.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 7:12 pm
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    Wow this is a very interesting topic here! It sounds like the book is a good read.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 8:40 pm
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    Yes, this is definitely difficult to read in places, but sadly the reality for so many animals. When I worked at a shelter, I saw many of these situations play out between partners, families, etc.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 10:00 pm
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    I guess I never realized how many people/pet problems there are. This sounds like an excellent resource for so many professionals, including dog trainers.

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    • February 14, 2016 at 7:48 am
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      I think it should be essential training for vets, trainers, psychologists…especially since so many animals get caught in the middle.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 10:11 pm
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    This is such great information and so much to this subject. It’s too bad our animals suffer as a result of our relationships Thank you for creating these posts and sharing.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 10:17 pm
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    I have seen so many of these defenses in people! I think it is all a part of having such a complicated psychological component to you. As a person suffering from bipolar disorder, I’ve learned that in order to be healthy, you have to teach yourself to be aware of your emotions. When you encounter something negative, it is best to try and figure out where that feeling is really coming from. We humans tend to blame everyone else for our problems before we discover our own role in them. Healing takes place when you can make peace with yourself. It is very unfortunate how often pets get mixed up in all of this!

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    • February 14, 2016 at 7:47 am
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      Well said Robin. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. That’s really what these defenses are all about – protecting our egos by looking outside ourselves for the cause of the problem. And yes, sometimes or maybe even many times when dealing with a “difficult” person or a bully, the problem may be outside ourselves, but often in our relationships, if we are honest with ourselves, we contribute in some way.

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  • February 13, 2016 at 11:21 pm
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    It’s a dangerous world – “its me or the dog” is so unfair to present to anyone. This sounds like a vicious cycle and the idea animals suffer so much as a result of two people separating is so sad. So many animals end up in shelters as a result. Thanks for bringing attention to this.

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    • February 14, 2016 at 7:43 am
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      Unfortunately, many people choose the ultimatum giver – meaning the dog or cat goes to a shelter or to the needle. How sad.

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  • February 14, 2016 at 12:37 am
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    This is a great post. Our emotions and relationships really affect our pets.

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  • February 14, 2016 at 4:43 pm
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    Great post, tough topic. I’ve been there. We worked through it. It’s my hope others can as well.

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  • February 14, 2016 at 9:37 pm
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    Great post with important info. It’s sad that humans’ emotional and psychological issues can lead to animal abuse. Hopefully this book will be very helpful to them!

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  • February 14, 2016 at 10:35 pm
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    This was fascinating reading, much of it disturbing. I’m glad the few example couples got therapy for their problems! Thanks for sharing these incredible insights!
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

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  • February 14, 2016 at 10:56 pm
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    This was very interesting. I’m thankful I haven’t been connected with anyone who has given me an ultimatum or anyone who has abused pets.

    Reply

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