"I know this sounds ridiculous, but Ted and I fight constantly about our dog," says Robin, 27, an executive in a university's public-relations department. "We've only been married for a year and a half, but Penelope, our six-month-old English springer spaniel, has become the focus of constant arguments: how to discipline her, what she should eat and how often… The bottom line is, Ted and I rarely talk, rarely make love and rarely have fun anymore.
"We knew we'd fallen into an unhappy rut and thought Penelope would be a bond. I'd get home from work around eight-thirty or nine. Ted had already eaten and was usually zoned out on the couch, well into a six-pack.
"Ted and I met seven years ago when I took a summer job pumping gas at the station where he worked. Everything about Ted attracted me — he's incredibly sexy, funny and bright. For a time he took refuge in a nondemanding job while he figured out what he wanted to do. Now he's back in school studying for a degree in business.
"My father disapproved of the relationship, but he disapproved of everything I did. My parents are both British, though I was born here; my mother is an administrator for a parochial school, and Dad is an industrial engineer. He had a Victorian upbringing, and he laid out tough rules. I could never please him.
"I'll never forget a conversation I had with my dad at the end of my freshman year. I chose English as my major, but he wanted me to study math or science. When I told him I'd made the dean's list, all he said was, 'Any idiot can get a 4.0 in English.' He even threatened to stop paying my tuition unless I switched majors.
"Ted and I had a perfect summer romance, but when I returned to school, the disparity between where we each were in life proved too great, and we broke up. Still, I never stopped thinking about him.
"We bumped into each other at a party the year after I graduated. It was totally electric between us. We both knew this was it. A few months later, we had a storybook wedding.
"But it wasn't so perfect after all. Within months Ted was complaining about my hours, and I began to notice his drinking. Then we got Penelope. That first night we put her in the cage at bedtime, but she yowled pitifully. Ted didn't hear a thing because he'd had so much beer. But I couldn't bear to listen, so I picked her up and brought her into our bed. In the morning, just as Ted was stirring, I put her back in the crate.
"I did that every night for two weeks. When Ted found out, he was furious. We didn't have sex for months as long as Penelope was in the bedroom. But whenever I put her outside, she wailed at the door. I thought he was being so immature to deprive me of sex because of the dog.
"Then there was the question of discipline. If Penelope had an accident in the house, Ted would yell at her. For pete's sake, she was a puppy! If we're watching TV on the couch, Penelope will jump between us and snuggle next to me. I can't believe a grown man could be so jealous of a little dog.
"Like all puppies, Penelope went through a phase when all she wanted to do was chew — the couch, the legs of the chair, shoes. Ted would lock her in the crate, and I'd sneak down and let her out. I just couldn't stand to see her upset.
"Maybe I'm jumping the gun here, but I've been thinking that if he's treating our dog like this, what kind of father is he going to be?
"Ted's drinking has also become a tremendous issue. When he's drunk, he ignores me. I know I criticize him a lot for it — just like my father criticized me — but I'm so angry, I can't seem to help it.
"I can't figure out how things became so complicated, but we can't go on like this."
"I am jealous of that dog," says Ted, 26, a tall, handsome man with a quiet manner. "I know it sounds nuts, but Robin always puts the dog's needs ahead of mine. When she gets home at night, she rushes in to kiss Penelope. If we're watching TV on the couch, Penelope wheedles her way between us. And it's absolutely ridiculous to have the dog in bed with us.
"It's hard to believe the marriage could disintegrate so quickly. My own parents had a great relationship, though money was always a problem. My dad, like Robin's was strict. Mom, who worked in a doctor's office, stuck up for me and my younger sister. When we got into mischief, she'd say, 'You shouldn't have done that; don't tell your father.'
"I was a shy kid who hated school. I was good in math and music, but my childhood dream was to be a Marine. When it turned out the Marines rejected me, because of my bad knees, I was devastated. I had no direction for a long time, but I'm finally back in school and plan to be a stockbroker.
"Robin is right: I drink too much. One Sunday afternoon when I was about sixteen, my dad and I were watching a football game. He said he wanted to prep me for the Marines, and he handed me a drink. I started drinking way more than my parents ever knew. I guess I'm still finding solace in the bottle, but my wife's nagging doesn't help.
"I'm as unhappy as Robin is. She very subtly puts me down, and that grates. I feel bad that my wife is making most of the money. I wish I could contribute more. I want to buy her things, take her on trips.
"For some reasons Penelope has become the focus of most of our arguments. It's not just that we have different styles — what Robin is doing can confuse the dog. Penelope had to stay in the crate at night — otherwise, she'd never learn to separate from us, and she'd destroy the house when we're gone. And you don't feed a dog from the table. Penelope is getting fat, and that's unhealthy. It's not good for us or the dog to lavish attention on her every minute. I just can't figure out how to get out of this mess.
The Counselor's Turn
"Despite their current distress, I had high hopes for this couple," said the counselor. "Robin and Ted are affectionate, and they both have a playful sense of humor and similar values. But the daily bickering over Penelope masked their real struggle, which was for control.
"I wasn't at all surprised to hear that Penelope had become a wedge between Robin and Ted. Pets are often a vehicle for acting out childhood or marital problems. Fortunately, animals can also break down defenses and open the way to explore personal problems.
"Robin automatically identified with anyone else's pain. As a child, she channeled her feelings of unworthiness into academic excellence in an attempt to win her father's approval. But he always found ways to cut her down. As a result, Robin grew up feeling unloved. Constantly aware of the imbalance of power at home, Robin unconsciously replicated that imbalance in her own marriage. Robin was focused and ambitious, while Ted would probably have drifted along for some time. Her family was wealthy, his blue-collar, and professionally she was miles ahead of him.
"While Ted initially described his hardworking parents as living a happy, white-picket-fence life, it was clear that Ted's father was — and is — most likely an alcoholic. What's more, Ted later revealed that his mother had been a chronic spendthrift who often asked Ted to rip up letters from creditors so his father wouldn't find out. When his family filed for bankruptcy when he was thirteen, Ted felt partly responsible.
"Clearly, the seeds of inadequacy were planted during Ted's early years, and they flourished after his dream of becoming a Marine was shattered. Ted needed Robin to take care of him; she needed to care for someone. When Penelope arrived, the precariously balanced relationship collapsed. Fighting over Penelope allowed Ted and Robin to sidestep the issues they should be working through with each other.
"At one session, I explained to Robin that the way we treat our pets often echoes the way we were treated as children. 'Since Penelope evokes your maternal, caretaking instincts, perhaps you interpret Ted's withholding affection from her as harshness toward you,' I said. This didn't crystallize for Ted and Robin until one evening a week later, when Ted was tussling on the floor with Penelope. Robin, sitting on the couch, exclaimed with delight: 'Look at little Robin having so much fun with Daddy.'
"During the next few sessions, Robin was overcome with sadness as she re-experienced the emptiness of her childhood with her father. To help them understand the feelings that had been stirred up, I asked each of them to make two lists, one headed 'What Penelope wants' and 'What Penelope needs,' and a second listing of what they each wanted and needed. Robin had no trouble with the Wants list, but she struggled with the Needs, because as a child, her needs were dismissed.
"At this point, they began to make rapid progress. Although Robin jokingly referred to Penelope as her inner dog, she took the connection seriously and made an effort to support Ted rather than force him into the position of disciplinarian. She now comes home earlier and greets Ted with a kiss before she turns to Penelope. The dog is no longer allowed to eat from the table, and she sleeps in her own bed.
"Meanwhile, when Ted realized that he had routinely relied on alcohol to assuage his feelings of insecurity, he called AA and began attending on a regular basis. He is no longer drinking.
"When these two were able to discuss their financial situation, they agreed that even though Robin was earning most of the money, Ted would handle the checking and savings accounts. 'That way,' said Ted, 'it feels more like our money.'
"They also had to learn to do things together. Watching TV was not a good idea, they decided, since it encouraged Ted's drinking. Instead, they began taking walks and riding their bikes. 'We've become a couple again,' Robin said, 'and Penelope, thank goodness, is once more just a dog.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Nanette Berman Cohen, C.S.W., a marriage and family therapist in Plainview, New York. The story told here is true, although the names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 1997.