About a year ago, my boyfriend and I adopted a puppy named Romy. He hates when we have sex. Or, more specifically, he hates when we touch at all. This—according to a series of exorbitantly priced animal behaviorists—is called “possessive aggression.” Put simply, Romy is possessive of my boyfriend, so when I get physically close to him, the dog growls and snaps at me like I’m Yoko coming to break up the band.
As you can imagine, this has done wonders for our sex life. Last week we were staying in an Airbnb, and Romy had finally settled down for a nap. Naturally, we took this as an opportunity to bang in safety. But as soon as we got into bed, Romy suddenly appeared behind me like a waiter when you’re having an argument, and started gnawing at my leg. I put him in the other room and attempted to resume proceedings, but he continued to bark so loudly that all I could think about was my diminishing Airbnb rating, which unfortunately is not my personal kink.
At this point, my boyfriend and I resigned to having the worst sex ever, and decided instead to treat it as a dog-training exercise. Fun! So I filled my fist with salmon, then continued to sort-of fuck while occasionally throwing pieces of fish at the ground to distract the dog from biting me. Is this what people mean by “sex is different after kids”?
Despite having been dog parents for over a year, I’m still continually surprised by how challenging it is, and how much it impacts our relationship. And since adoptions of “pandemic puppies” have skyrocketed this year, I know that lots of couples are asking themselves the same question: Is getting a pet good for your relationship?
For most of my life, I didn’t understand pets. Why, I wondered, would someone willingly enslave themselves to the needs of some random animal? I’d see people walking their dogs and think, “It’s strange that people parade their loneliness around on a leash.” I, on the other hand, was far too cool for something as basic as unconditional love.
Unsurprisingly, when my boyfriend suggested getting a dog, my response was a resounding “You’re embarrassing.” But then, there was something exciting about the commitment of raising a puppy together. No matter how secure you are in your relationship, it feels good to know that your partner plans to keep you around for at least the length of a dog’s life. And we all know the best reason to become a parent is because you’re flattered that someone asked you.
The shelter was full of super sweet, seemingly well-adjusted dogs. I wasn’t interested. But then I spotted this snow-white, three-month-old puppy, visibly shaking at the back of his crate. The lady at the shelter told us he’d been found alone on the street in Shanghai. Something about how visibly traumatized he was made it clear that he was a great choice for a first dog.
The feelings I had after adopting Romy were parental cliches: immediate and overwhelming love paired with nauseating dread that I’d somehow kill him within two hours. Since I was young, I’ve been terrified of being inadequate—in relationships and otherwise. It’s Brené Brown 101: By loving someone imperfectly, it reinforces your anxiety that you’re not worthy of love. So when we first got Romy, if I made a mistake—forgot to feed him or stepped on his paw or whatever—it set off a total shame spiral: “I suck at this! The dog clearly wishes he was still homeless!” Or, worse, my boyfriend became a projection screen for my insecurities. “Admit it, you think I’m a bad dog mom, and that I should be sterilized!” Of course, my narcissistic self-flagellation pre-existed Romy, but he fanned the flames. Annoyingly, it seems that every big step in our lives—a relationship, a kid, college, whatever—is just a new stage for our childhood traumas to audition their many talents.
The sleep deprivation didn’t help. Did you know that a three-month-old puppy can only hold its pee for four hours? Me neither. For months my boyfriend and I took turns waking up in the middle of the night to walk the dog. It felt like we’d had a baby—except one who would never figure out how to feed itself or say anything or make any money.
During this time, I often called my friend Lucy to rant. Lucy and her wife Ann are self-described “dog lesbians”—as opposed to “cat lesbians,” or as they’re more commonly known: “lesbians.” They adopted their dog Coco after being together for a year. “I think a dog can be a litmus test for where you are in your relationship,” Lucy told me. “When we first adopted Coco, we fought a lot about our different parenting styles. Ann thought I was too soft—that I treated him like a ‘human infant’—and I thought she could be too harsh.” It took months, Lucy said, before they learned to talk through their differences without reaching a volume generally reserved for Kimberly Guilfoyle.
But sometimes it’s more the “get a therapist” stuff that can really set you off. Lucy explained, “Growing up, I never had a family unit, so Coco brings me a lot of joy because it feels like he completes our family—like we are three, and I find that really comforting. But Ann has less of a need for that, so it can make me feel silly for being like ‘my family!’ about a dog, as if I’m playing make-believe.”
As we create our own families, we’re often haunted by the ghosts of unhealthy family dynamics past. Having grown up Catholic, my idea of “family” goes hand in hand with sexual repression. I’ve long feared that settling into domesticity means sacrificing your erotic identity. Given this particular anxiety, the fact that we got a dog that literally bites me when we have sex is a little too on the nose. (Who would have thought that this little Chinese dog could embody centuries of Catholic guilt?) But getting Romy forced me to articulate this worry—to my boyfriend, and to myself—and begin to get some perspective on it.
In other words, sharing a pet can be a catalyst for tough conversations about the ways in which you’re each damaged, allowing you to discover each other in new and different ways. Lucy told me, “There’s certain things that Ann is just better at than me when it comes to taking care of Coco, and vice versa, and that’s so nice because it enforces the idea that you’re stronger together, and that someone has your back. It has generated so much more love in our home.”
I’m not going to lie: getting a dog—particularly a trauma dog with a slut-shaming problem—has been hard. Despite Romy going on Prozac for his anger issues (yes, dogs take Prozac, this is America), life post-dog is less spontaneous in myriad unsexy ways. Gone are impromptu nights out until 4 am and lazy mornings in bed looking at before/after celebrity plastic surgery photos—RIP two of my greatest joys. It also hasn’t been great for my self-esteem that our dog only bites one of us (sexist).
But then, there will be these desperately cheesy moments where I’ll look over and see Romy and my boyfriend rolling around in the brittle California grass and think, “Wow, you guys are the coolest people I know.” And whether or not you plan to have kids, in these instances it’s impossible to not catch a glimpse of what parenting an actual human together could look like. For me, the biggest takeaway has been that mutually loving something is really powerful. Sure, I miss sex where the pain is strictly consensual. But now, every evening at 5 pm, the three of us take our antidepressants. As a family.