Angela Gonzalez shares her Carrollton, Texas, home with Peaches, a Pomeranian she adopted from an animal shelter in 2002. When a new boyfriend tried to squeeze Peaches out of the house, it was he, not Peaches, who got the heave-ho.
"First, he didn't think she should sleep in my bed," recalled Gonzalez. "Then, he said I spent too much time brushing her. Then he suggested a shock collar to make her quit barking; I told him I wouldn't do that. Then, he told me to find a new home for her. That was it! I love Peaches too much, so I split up with him."
Gonzalez is not alone. Sixty-seven percent of women would end relationships if their partners clashed with their pets, according to a 2013 survey from Petplan, a Newtown Square, Pa.-based pet insurance company. Forty-nine percent of men said they would choose their pets over their partners if conflicts ensued.
But choosing your pet over your sweetheart doesn't always have to be an either/or situation, said Santa Ana, Calif.-based psychologist Teri Wright. First, consider his or her attitude, especially at the beginning of a relationship.
"If your new partner just doesn't 'get' pets, it says a lot about him if he's willing to learn," Wright said.
But if your suitor makes an "it's me or the pet" ultimatum right away, that's another matter, she said. "He has to understand that you are not going to divorce your pet for him," she said.
"(If someone) asks you to give up something that gives you joy, like your pet, there's something wrong with him," Gonzalez said. "He's trying to control you. Give up your pet, and you wonder what he'll ask you to do next."
Although the men in Petplan's survey reported being less loyal to their pets, Kenny Lamberti, program manager for the Humane Society of the United States' Pets for Life program, said the situation is gender-neutral. He has seen plenty of men tell new girlfriends their pets are part of the deal.
"Especially with men and dogs, our pets are our sidekicks," he said. "It's happened to me with previous girlfriends too. I'm not giving up my dogs; they're my buddies."
Ironically, he added, the girlfriend is more likely to balk at the extra-large breed, which is typically a gentle couch potato.
"If you have a Jack Russell terrier, it needs lots of exercise and lots of attention," he said. "But if you have a mastiff, he takes one walk and wants to relax the rest of the day."
Ideally, added Wright, partners discuss the pet from the outset. "Even if your new partner is (an animal) person, he may not understand that you can't just leave for the weekend without planning, that veterinarian bills are part of your budget or you want the pet with you in bed or on the couch," she said.
Although an owner may need to make a few reasonable concessions (maybe Brutus sleeps on the couch when your flame spends the night), if someone refuses to co-exist with your pet, consider that a red flag.
"How he treats your pet tells you a lot about him," said Sharon Wirant, an animal behaviorist with the ASPCA, a national animal-welfare organization. "If he's not compassionate with your pets, he may not be the right person for you."
Take a hard look at the newcomer who truly hates your pet, said Wright, and consider asking, "What else does he hate? Is this a pattern of negativity or a matter of personal preferences? How rigid is he?"
The dynamic that you and your partner have with a pet can also lend some insight into how you both may approach parenting, individually and together.
"There's an element of parenting that comes with a pet," Wright said. "(You and your new partner) have to agree on the rules you're going to establish with the pet and how they are going to be enforced.
"How a couple copes with this says something about how they handle problems in general," she said.
What's key for both individuals in the relationship is to practice patience.
"When I hear, 'I'm not a cat person,' or 'I'm not a dog person,' I say, 'Try,'" Lamberti said. "The pet is important, and it's (the pet's) house."
Both the pet owner and the new flame need to work together with the pet. Lamberti suggests that the new sweetheart befriend a pet by giving it treats, initiating walks, showering affection or other actions the pet considers positive.
"Do it slowly. Be patient," Lamberti said. "Don't expect the pet to love you immediately just because you bring him a treat."
Pet owners shouldn't despair if the pet refuses to warm up to their new love. Consider hiring a behaviorist. "A pro can help you break it down into steps 1 to 10, so you don't go directly to 10," Wirant said.
These days it's not always about one person and one pet who have to establish a bond. Sixty-two percent of households now include at least one dog or cat, said the HSUS, so combining pet households is increasingly commonplace.
"More often, we see both partners bringing pets into the relationship," said Lamberti. "Too often, one of the pets loses. The top reasons people cite for relinquishing pets to shelters are moving and finances, which are intertwined with combining families.
"The biggest mistake I hear from people with pets who are combining families is (that) they go too fast," said Lamberti. "For you, moving in with a new partner is exciting. Your cat may go along with this, but for your dog, this is a scary time. Be very patient. Let everyone get to know everyone — very slowly."
Families and pets can begin by meeting on neutral ground, Wirant said.
"Make play dates at parks to give your dog a chance to 'date' your new friends too," she said. "Then play outside at home. Then go inside, but supervise the dogs carefully."
All family members — people and pets — should respect the dogs' favorite places to sleep and its toys, said Wirant.
"Most important is (respecting) their routine," said Wirant. "Slowly introduce the new dog's routine while giving all the dogs plenty of attention."
Combining cat households is a little easier, Lamberti said, because "cats can find secure places to hide from new people and pets."
Despite the gender disparity about choosing between pets and partners, most women (68 percent) and men (73 percent) say their dogs and cats bring them closer to their partners, according to the Petplan survey. Ideally, said the experts, a couple adopts the pet together.
The addition of a 2-year-old Siberian husky named Maya "turned them into a little family," said Rebecca Hjorten of her relationship with her fiance, Gavriel Kohlberg. "It's not just us anymore."
"You learn a lot about your partner when you have a pet," said Hjorten. "You have to share responsibilities and agree about rules, like when you have kids. Together, we've dealt with Maya's behavioral problems."
Hjorten and Kohlberg are New York physicians, so Maya goes to doggie day care during the day. "When we're not working, she's always with us," said Hjorten.
"It's so nice to come home to her after a long shift. Dogs increase our oxytocin (hormone), which makes us feel happy. They give us so much."
When fear is the issue
If resistance to a pet from a new partner is based on fear, a pet owner needs to be empathetic and "try to understand why," said psychologist Teri Wright. "Maybe there's a history of unpleasant or scary interactions with animals or a lack of experience with them."
A great way for a newcomer to bond with a dog, for example, is to participate in a dog-training class, she added. No dog is too old to sign up. Training helps establish roles — and wears out the dog (in a good way).
If the animal is overly aggressive to the point that fear is justified, it's the new partner who may want to reconsider the relationship.