Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pet peeved.

First, the disclaimer. If you're a regular on this blog, you know that I am presently fostering a pit bull named Benny, which we acquired when our youngest son moved back to Vegas and sought to get set up in an apartment without the added complication of having to declare a canine roommatea pit, no less. Benny is a delightful animal, and I'd have to say I love the little guy as much as I've loved any dog I've ever "owned." That said, Benny is, in fact, an animal. Hence the main point of this post, as follows.

Recently an acquaintance recounted a conversation that took place at work during lunch. The gals on staff, most of whom happened to be pet owners, became embroiled in one of those oh-so-droll reckonings of the relative merits of men vs. dogs. G
uess which species won? Eventually the discussion turned earnest and introspective, however, at which point one of the women said, "If I had to get rid of my dog or my husband, that's a no-brainer: So long, honey...."* Or words to that effect. A loud chorus of agreement rose up from the other participants. My acquaintance, who remained on the sidelines, did not get the sense that her coworkers were merely being glib or conspiratorial in that special Sisterhood way. To the contrary, they meant it.

On the surface of things, I'm sure that there are quite a few women and not a few men
among the general population who would endorse the above sentiment. The more charitable interpretation is that these men and women have not thought the matter through. The less charitable interpretation is that there is something wrong with these pet uber-lovers. To be blunt, anyone who thinks (or more likely, feels) that way is not a fully evolved human being.

Oh, I know all the arguments in favor of dogs. They're unconditionally loyal, sometimes even when hit. They always offer a pleasant greeting and a warm nuzzle or lick "hello." Unless they're genuinely sick or hurt, they don't have bad days, they don't judge us, and they don't withhold affection because they're trying to prove some passive-aggressive point.

To which I would add: A dog never borrows your car without asking permission and then drives it drunk. He doesn't run up your charge cards or hit on someone else's wife (though he may, on occasion, hump her leg). You know why? Because he's a FREAKIN' DOG. That's why.

I ask you to consider that having this kind of relationship with a dog is really just one step removed from having an imaginary friend. The analogy is both pointed and pertinent, for the people who tend to feel this way about their dogs are often, in my experience, people who have galactic problems negotiating their way through the world of living homo sapiens. This tendency also, in my opinion, bespeaks more than a modicum of narcissism, as it displays an inability (or simple unwillingness?) to deal with complex, multifaceted relationships that may not always provide a "good experience" or an adequate "personal reward."

In SHAM, I made reference in several chapters to the fact that marriages nowadays
in order to be regarded as viable and worth pursuing by at least one of the partiestoo often must be constructed in an extremely self-serving manner that sustains that party's happy-meter in an acceptable zone as that individual takes the pulse of his/her personal fulfillment seemingly by the hour. (Have you seen Bridezillas lately?) Minor slights and upsetsi.e. the kind that dogs are unlikely to create, but that interaction with other humans will almost inevitably generatebecome legitimate reasons for one or both partners to "walk," or cheat, or start going out with the gals/guys more, etc. There is little negotiation or constructive engagement on differences of opinion. There are only lingering resentments that are expressed, as aforementioned, in chronic passive-aggressive hissyfits. If not worse.

I could go on and on, but it's late, so I'll close thusly: Grow up, people. Recognize that if adult relationships aren't always peaches and cream, it's because you're dealing with other human beings, which is to say, in the grander sense, you're dealing with the people who help move civilization forward through understanding, compromise and recognition of the other person's point of view as well as his or her right to have it. Rather than effectively regressing to the level of a dog yourself by becoming a cooing, nuzzling thing that seeks only love and playfulness, spend a bit more time learning how to get along with your fellow man so that we can all, maybe someday, enjoy better, more fulfilling adult relationships
the kinds of quality adult relationships (and this is key) that ultimately can provide so much more happiness, validation and intellectual stimulation than anything you'll ever get from happy, goofy Fido.

After all, I don't think a snail ever hurt anyone's feelings, either. Would you want to see the DMV run by snails? (No wisecracks, please...)

* There is, of course, a popular reality show called It's Me or the Dog.


Steven Sashen said...

I would NEVER give up my Sea Monkeys!

roger o'keefe said...

Pressed for time Steve, but this is a great post. One of your best in a long time on many levels. I say that as one of your "uber" dog lovers. This kind of incisive riposte on our cultural missteps is what made me a Shamblog lover in the first place many moons ago.

Debbie said...

"I'll close thusly: Grow up, people."

Thank you Steve. This is a fantastic post.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger and Debbie, thank you for rejoining the fray. Seems like it's been a while. But that's my fault, of course, for failing to keep people duly engaged.

Plus, there's such a thing as "real life," right? ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, while I will agree that choosing one's dog over one's spouse says more about the chooser than the spouse, I have to admit that I actually like my dogs more than I like many people.

As you know, I don't shy away from the complexities of human interaction, but the truth is that some people are just assholes, and I don't see much reason to engage them. If nothing else, my dogs teach me to be aware of my own anger and the effect it can have on others. I don't beat them or anything, but do have some regrets about yelling at them at times when they didn't deserve it.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I don't necessarily disagree with your premise ("the asshole syndrome"), but the wide application of such instant categorization of the people with whom we must deal is worrisome to me. I am sure that Arafat always considered Begin an asshole. How do we move past that? Just fall back on petting (or training, or hunting with) our dogs?

RevRon's Rants said...

I know of very few people who willingly socialize with people whose company they find distasteful, unless there is some compelling reason - other than social stimulation - to do so. That's not a broad-brush characterization,, but a specific observation.

You and i have argued extensively, yet I enjoy your "company" (despite the fact that each of us considers the other dead wrong on certain issues). On the other hand, there are people with whom I might share a similar political or ideological mindset, yet whose company I do not enjoy at all (and who likely do not enjoy mine, either). I feel no special calling to engage such folks, just to fulfill some arbitrary notion of propriety in human interaction.

Tyro said...

Great post, thanks Steve.

In "Predictably Irrational", Dan Ariely talks about how people often make mistakes when trying to decide what will make them happy. They think all-inclusive beach vacations will be relaxing because there's no stress when in fact we're happiest when we have to work a bit and we have goals (even if it's just finding a cheap hotel).

It sounds like something similar is happening here. We think we'll be happy if the stresses are gone (and humans are more stressful than dogs) but forget that this may make life easier but it isn't deeply rewarding or even pleasurable. For that we need someone that can challenge us and can appreciate our efforts.

But even though they may be making a very human mistake, it would still make me wish for more thoughtful co-workers! :)

(As an aside, Ariely called this desire to work "contra-freeloading" and said almost all animals tested had the same preference. The only lab animal which didn't were the rational economists of the animal world: cats.)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: And also, neither of us would consider sleeping with the other.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Dan Gilbert says much the same thing in "Stumbling on Happiness," which was prime source material for my long Skeptic article on the modern-day phenomenon known as "happyism." We have these fanciful visions of what we think will make us happy...but when we get there...?

a/good/lysstener said...

Steeeevve! This is one of my favorite posts of yours too. And like Roger I say that as a lifetime lover of dogs. I do consider dogs more reliable, lovable and honest than most men, but then it's like you say, dogs are just wired that way.

Question: Why aren't more MEN wired that way? ;-)

Anonymous said...

While I totally agree with your point about the importance and necessity of behaving like adults and working toward adult relationships, however hard and complex they are, and however imperfect, I think you may have missed the real point about women and dogs.

To wit: I believe that women have very fierce protective instincts because of their mothering role, and these instincts are brought to the fore by helpless creatures who love and depend on them. This includes children and dogs. I can't speak for others, but I know that I myself turn tigress if anyone or anything threatens something that I love and that depends on me for protection. If I came home and found thieves in my house, my instinct would be to turn, run to the car, and get away. But if I found thieves in the house who were hurting my dog, you can damn well bet that I'd rush in there and launch myself on them, even if the result was my death.

I really think it's ultimately as simple as that.

RevRon's Rants said...

Alyssa, I'd venture that just as few women as men are "wired that way."

I can only reflect upon the fact that it wasn't until I got to the point where my man parts weren't writing checks that the rest of me was unable (or unwilling) to cash that I finally met someone who was truly "wired right." It's perhaps one case in which the Law of Attraction might have a touch of validity.

Noadi said...

I love my partner, would do just about anything for him. Except for give up my dog, that's a deal breaker. Lucky for him, he loves my dog too.

To be serious though there was an assumption in this post that really bothers me and you might want to think on it for a minute. You've made the assumption that all adults need or should have a partner. Some people would honestly prefer the company of a dog or cat over sharing their life with another human being. While I'm in a relationship with someone I care about I've never felt like I needed a relationship the way most women I know seem to feel they need one.

Steve Salerno said...

Noadi, good to hear from you again. Wow. For whatever reason, this post is really bringing the savvy old veterans back into the ball game. ;) It's good to see.

I don't know if I truly made that assumption in writing the post--that everyone needs a partner, even regardless of whether or not they have a dog. But...think about that for a moment. Why would a genuinely healthy, well-adjusted human being not need, or at least want, a human partner? Of some form or gender? Does that not strike you as a sad maladjustment in itself? Or do you really think I'm taking a major leap in saying that?

Frances said...

Why would a genuinely healthy, well-adjusted human being not need, or at least want, a human partner? Of some form or gender?

Now, I think that last part makes it so it depends on what you mean by "partner". If "partner" runs the whole gamut from marriage all the way to friendships and roommates, then it speaks to how we all just need each other. But I do have a problem if what you're implying is that to be well-adjusted, we need romantic relationships.

This is what has bothered me from day one about the researchers saying how much healthier married people are than single people, how much we need sex to be truly healthy, etc. They ignore a huge, gaping flaw in their narrative: You can NOT control whether someone else chooses to be in a relationship with you.

Presenting yourself in the best possible light-- making yourself attractive and approachable, being in the right place at the right time-- only gets you so far. At the end of the day, it is still up to the other, free-choosing person, to decide whether to spend their life or some time with you. You should NOT consider yourself to have a fundamental shortcoming of personality or character if you do not get chosen. And it's the same kind of fallacy as in the LoA to presume that your personal shortcomings are 100% responsible for your not having a partner.

But the problem is, what if other people DO think that way? And what if this belief that you must have a partner to prove well-adjustedness, has consequences in other walks of life? There was a Michigan State University study not too long ago saying that married men were more socialized than single men. How often does this (largely subconscious) belief go into hiring and promotion decisions at work-- married men are presumed to have better social skills because, hey, they have proof that they have better social skills, due to the presence of someone willing to share a life with them-- and therefore, the married man gets a bigger raise or a promotion, or even gets hired while the single person does not. All because of some lucky serendipity that two people found each other and both liked each other, and both continued to like each other for an sustained period of time... regardless of Married Guy's or Single Guy's actual skills, character, or judgment?

This line of thinking has made me think of relationships as job requirements-- given the importance employers attach to interpersonal skills, it makes sense they would start looking at proof an applicant has them. It not only opens the door to all manner of invasion of privacy in the name of workplace cultural fit, it also imposes an unfair burden on love and relationships and serves to make love and affection into a commodity-- or yet another thing we must purchase or behave our way to worthiness of, rather than believe we're worthy of just because we're human and humans need the love of each other.

We don't need love reduced to something you've got to have in order to prove you're a healthy, socialized, and well-adjusted person. We don't need any more people thinking that way, and allowing that line of thought to influence their hiring and friendship decisions. We don't need love itself any more poisoned by emotional labor and performance anxiety. That's the very antithesis of what love is supposed to be about.

Steve Salerno said...

Frances, you made excellent points.

I'm not sure I'm saying (or even implying) that one needs to have an idealized love relationship in order to, quote, "prove you're a healthy...human being." I'm saying it just strikes me as a shame if one doesn't have it. I'm not blaming the victim in all cases. If the only people with whom you have managed to connect (and I'm using "you" in the generic sense, not indicating you, Frances) have been hurtful and destructive to your sense of well-being in the overall, then obviously you're better off without them. And in all likelihood there's nothing about you that inspired their maltreatment.

Still...isn't it sad that it worked out that way? And shouldn't we spend more time emphasizing the importance of developing healthy human connections? Not in the sense of inducing performance-anxiety; but in the sense of putting the right building blocks in place for this very worthy aspiration?

Frances said...

Shouldn't we spend more time emphasizing the importance of developing healthy human connections?

Rule 1: we need to learn how to do that without putting a price tag on it.

I have been thinking about for years what it means to develop healthy human connections. And how, tragically, there's more coercion and "admission payment" going on in the process of it, than we may be aware of.

Take the basic premise that rapport with another person demands you have some similarity to them. And so we are, through social pressure, called upon to spend as much time, energy and money as possible making ourselves resemble the people around us. Your previous post about how the job applicant should ideally get plastic surgery to look like the boss is an extreme example of some unfortunately true thinking that Daniel Goleman and friends have inspired in us. (But then again, this is a man who thinks a shining example of human empathy is babies crying in reflexive response to another baby crying.)

I know from personal experience that when I consciously tried NOT to play this game, when I purposely chose not to monkey-see, monkey-do, I got some unfortunate side effects, some severe. I expected a loss of some popularity, but I never expected to have my very character and empathy called into question for it. It's frightening to me how something as trivial as a difference over favorite TV shows can be blown up, with the right combination of words, into a damning indictment of one's ability to relate to another. And fright isn't terribly good for promoting the sense of trust necessary for loving human connections.

Sting would probably not have fallen in love with Trudie Styler if she hadn't fulfilled ALL his personal criteria: beautiful, wealthy, into yoga, wanted his children, having the patience for hours-long tantric sex. A progressive, feminist woman who, for some reason, finds that the love of her life is a member of Focus on The Family, is going to learn pretty quickly that keeping his love will require she become a fundamentalist Christian and gender essentialist, and probably to have children she may not want... all in the name of getting that all-important similarity, of course. Either that, or lose his love and give up on the relationship. These kinds of "You agree to be a certain way as a condition of my loving and supporting you" transactions and deals are more widespread than we think, and frankly they make me wonder why bother trying to socialize at all... if the admission price for a loving relationship is going to be that high, where I have to agree to become someone I may not want to be, or only want to be for a short time, not for life.

As I have said for a while now: if relationships are such vital, life-sustaining things, then why is the process of attracting and building them often so completely devoid of joy?

I think too many of underestimate the degree to which we believe that ALL ducks have to be in a row for us to be relationship-worthy... that works in progress need not apply. Never mind that we are ALL works in progress! We are human beings, and learning (and, I might add, personality changes) does NOT stop at adulthood. We are too much in love with the idea of a fixed period in childhood as our "formative years", and it gives us a green light to give up on people who haven't bloomed by a certain time in their life. But, since it saves us time and makes things simpler in our dealings with others, it must be good, right?

Frances said...

Continued from last post (due to character limit):

I'm saying it just strikes me as a shame if one doesn't have it.

It is a shame. But everything that depends on that much serendipity and decisions by other people is. It means you cannot believe with certainty that you will have a family, a social circle, or even a job; because it's not entirely up to you. We can't exactly change that, because I don't see a way that doesn't in some way take away another person's free choice.

But I believe that what we can change is the criteria with which we judge each other relationship-worthy. Which are some pretty damn fucked-up criteria, if you scratch the surface. When you find yourself thinking, "Is a healthy social support system worth THIS price?" then you know you're dealing with some pretty toxic social norms... even if they are sweetened with honey.

And that's why we can't just willy-nilly say, "we are social animals and we need other people". We need to look very hard at HOW we get our social relationships, what behaviors display "supportive" and "friendly", and to broaden the repertoire of pro-social actions if we find the "officially" friendly behaviors untenable in some way. Just like we can no longer just have happiness and stress relief as goals in themselves, without asking ourselves HOW we get happy and serene... does it involve, as with many Republicans, a voluntary switching off of empathy for the less fortunate?

We need to stop punishing and pathologizing minor glitches in communication or differences in style. We need to develop a keen eye for the REAL danger-- sociopaths and other people without conscience who use our preference for likeable, charming people against us.

And for Dog's sake, we need to ignore David Brooks. Anybody who proclaims themselves a virtuoso of social intelligence, commits exactly the same poisoning of love and affection I mentioned in my last response.

Steve Salerno said...

Frances, I could nitpick some of the nuance in your arguments...but it's beautifully put, for what that's worth.

RevRon's Rants said...

"if relationships are such vital, life-sustaining things, then why is the process of attracting and building them often so completely devoid of joy?"

I haven't found the process to be as joyless as you describe, Frances. Sure, I've been disappointed at times, and have had my heart broken a time or two, but those were frequently as much the result of my own unrealistic expectations as of the other person's flaws. And IMO, the "payoff" provided by a healthy relationship with another human is well worth the heartbreaks and disappointments we suffer while in training for the kind of healthy relationship that some people never manage to build.

Anonymous said...

OK, what is a dog?

A dog is a wolf that's been bred for tameness over thousands of years of artificial selection.

The result is an animal that displays obedience and unqualified worship, can be trained to obey every whim of it's master.

Swap dog for human and you can see that dogs fulfill for humans the same role that humans fulfil for megalomaniac dictators - to fulfill his most extreme narcissistic fantasies, to fill the gaping hole in his psyche that he tries to fill up with the adulation of others.

Now we have some clues as to why women say they prefer dogs to men, and the darkness that women are really implicitly admitting to...

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 8:13, I dunno, maybe it's just me, but I think that comment gets the all-time award for Most Leaps of Faith in a Single Bound.

Steve Salerno said...

P.S. It sounds almost...Glenn-Beckian.

Anonymous said...


RevRon's Rants said...

IMO, anon's assessment is way too cynical. I don't "train" my dogs, any more than I "train" my cats (yeah... good luck with that!). I set limits as to acceptable behavior, but there have been a number of folks who thought my limits too flexible. As a result, I enjoy the behaviors my animal family members exhibit - even the frequent outbursts offered up by our genuinely autistic feral girl, Kali, or our other rescue - Layla's - operatic reminders that it is approaching mealtime. It's certainly not about manipulating them into fulfilling some narcissistic need on my part - I take care of those myself - but rather about being charmed, entertained, and warmed by the individual personalities our "pets" have developed, and which I would hope we continually encourage.

RevRon's Rants said...

I hit enter too quickly... The point is that I don't think we're unusual in our attitudes toward our animals. Most people not only tolerate, but enjoy the little examples of aberrant behavior that make up our animals' personalities. Heck... for some, that might be their sole foray into a "live and let live" attitude. And such an approach to one's quadrupeds is the very antithesis of controlling behavior. :-)

a/good/lysstener said...

This thread makes me nostalgic for the "old SHAMblog" and its glory days. So much conversation with so many interesting points of view. Sigh.

You have to keep doing this, Steve. You simply have to.

roger o'keefe said...

Jesus H. Christ, Alyssa. Control yourself, girl!

RevRon's Rants said...

Jealous, Rog? :-)

Anonymous said...

If you want fidelity, get a dog, says lady

Elizabeth said...

Excellent, thought-provoking comments throughout, Frances.

But I wonder, must she, who falls for the member of Focus on The Family, become a fundamentalist Christian and gender essentialist, and have children she may not want?

Why can't we expect him to become an enlightened feminist, cheering on his wife career and loving her for the person she is?

I know, I know...