Trauma Bonds and Pets

Pets and Us

The majority of Americans are pet owners, and of those, a full 97% consider their pet a family member. How do we choose these family members, and what do our choices tell us about our past trauma?

Choosing a pet combines that nebulous feeling of interpersonal connection with a variety of factors including cost, lifestyle, and housing rules. I’d like to delve into how and why we may feel connected to some animals more than others, and how we choose animals that unconsciously repeat the emotional patterns in our romantic relationships, and even our early traumas. 

Unconscious Choosing 

As I’ve been spending time with Dr. Carolyn Elliott’s Existential Kink, I find myself returning to the Jungian cornerstone of her argument: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” What draws us to one dog over another, or to a show cat over a shelter cat? Maybe you’re drawn to the dog who is wounded and scared, and you think you can be the one to love him back to health. Or, maybe you’re drawn to the one who is aggressive, thinking she just needs a little extra care and she’ll be fine. You can save her. Your love can heal her. 

Of course, I’m all for having and loving pets. They are linked to all kinds of health benefits (both mental and physical), and they are comforting.  I do believe in the transformative power of love and compassionate care. The purpose of this inquiry is to notice patterns of the underworld of our psyches, because we need to know our unconscious emotional patterns to regain control of our lives. 

My Story 

I’m drawn to Chihuahuas. There’s a deep part of me that has always said they are my breed. Fancy is my 15 year old chihuahua, purchased at a pet store at a discounted price. (And, yes,  I know she’s not the politically correct shelter dog). The owner told me how she’d been dropped by a customer’s child who was playing with her, and then the pet store owner had been rehabilitating both her and her broken leg. Now, she’d been shaking and traumatized in the pet store cage for 3 extra months. 

Of course, after hearing that story and meeting her, I went home with Fancy. We named her after Reba’s song, and she definitely got more chances than I originally expected to give her. She found her forever home, and from day one she was fiercely determined to guard her home– and, by extension, us– aggressively. Many kids, teenagers, and neighbors have Fancy horror stories to tell. She consistently drew blood so much that I decided to have her canines filed down (a $1500 procedure). She can still draw blood; it’s just more like a painful deep pinch. 

Why would I intentionally create a beautiful stay-at-home mom life so carefully and still live in a state of low-grade hypervigilance waiting for my 8-pound chihuahua to strike again?

For one, low-grade hypervigilance mimicked waiting for the next unexpected  blow in my romantic life, as well as the trauma in my early life. Despite the love I felt for Fancy, the wariness I brought into my life when I adopted her was quite a genius way to keep myself in familiar territory, on guard, distracted, and separate. I unconsciously adopted a dog that, in some ways, continued my unconscious trauma cycles. 

Pets and Trauma Bonds

Pets surprise us in all sorts of unexpected ways: being sweeter than normal on one of our bad days, nipping the mail carrier out of the blue, becoming an escape artist overnight. But if a pet is continually exhibiting behavior we find upsetting, or even alter our lives around, it’s worth probing the question of why we choose the pets that we choose. Are we unconsciously trapping ourselves in a pattern of violence? Codependency? Distress? 

When really digging into our relationships with our pets, we may find echoes of our own trauma bonds. Though they may manifest differently, trauma bonds are often defined as containing elements of coercive control, manipulation, codependency, and sabotage, while being mixed with intermittent moments of calm. This pattern of highs and lows increases an unhealthy “attaching” between partners where the bond is strengthened through production of an addictive chemical, oxytocin. While almost all American pet owners consider their pets family members, we might all do well to reflect on who these chosen family members are, how we interact with them (in both healthy and unhealthy ways), and why we choose them. 

The Power of Conscious Choice

Until we uncover our unconscious fears and desires, we are bound to our old trauma and are therefore more susceptible to repeating it. As Gabor Maté said, “trauma is an invisible force that shapes our lives. It shapes the way we live, the way we love and the way we make sense of the world. It is the root of our deepest wounds.” Change is always possible, and by recognizing our patterns, we are able to make positive growth in a new (healthier) direction.

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