If you experienced a divorce in your 20s or 30s, you and your husband no doubt discussed, if not debated, the issue of custody of, and visitation with your kids. But now that you’ve reached your middle years, it’s likely that your kids are grown and flown. If you’re divorcing your husband—the first one or from a subsequent marriage—or even if you’re breaking up a non-marital domestic partnership, you still may be facing a custody issue…of your pet or pets.
People can get very attached to their cats and dogs, and this is even truer of certain mid-aged people who, no longer raising children, pour their affections and attentions onto their household pets instead. If the husband (or male partner in a non-marital situation) is less attached than the wife (or female partner)—or vice-versa—deciding who will get to keep the dog(s) or cat(s) is pretty easy. The problems start when both are very attached to the animal. (For the sake of this article, from here on out I’m going to talk about one dog, unimaginatively named “Fido.” The principle is the same, though, whether it’s a dog, a cat, or more than one animal.) Problems also crop up when one or the other of the couple uses Fido as a pawn.
A pawn, you ask? Yes. The male half of the couple knows the woman is very attached to Fido, so he demands to keep the dog himself, not out of great love for the dog but to make the woman unhappy for breaking up with him. Or, again assuming the breakup was her idea, not his, he uses the dog to keep her in his life to some degree, or even try to get her back. Either he tries to hold on to the dog so the woman will have to come to his house to see Fido, or he wheedles that if she wants to have Fido fully in her life again, she could reunite with him. Or he tries to use her visits with Fido as an opportunity to get her into bed.
Of course, if the man is more principled than that, or if he was agreeable to the breakup, custody and visitation of Fido need not be problematic. Arrangements can be quite similar to those pertaining to children: The man may get custody on weekends while the woman has Fido during the week, or vice-versa, or they may alternate weeks, with him having the dog one week and her having the dog the next.
The point is that, as any animal-lover will tell you, Fido is a family member, not a mere possession and, that being the case, squabbles over custody are perfectly understandable. But squabbling is unfortunate, and if you can work things out amicably, you certainly should try.
First of all, understand that, unless the man is using Fido as a pawn, his desire to keep Fido may be just as valid as yours. Second, understand that it is not foolish for you two to be seriously attached to what non-animal-lover friends may try to tell you is “only a dog.” There is nothing “only” about a dog (or cat)! Third, there are amicable solutions—such as split custody or visitation. Fido may be baffled to find himself living one week in his old familiar house with one of you, the next week in a new environment with the other of you, then back again. It is probable, however, that he will adapt with no resultant behavior problems unless he is very high-strung, or unless he is used to having someone around most of the time (such as if one of you normally worked at home) and now spends alternate weeks alone all day in one of the two houses.
But “Who gets custody of Fido?” is a very real and legitimate question for pet-loving couples—marital or otherwise—who break up. Especially for couples of middle age. Don’t be embarrassed or feel foolish at talking about custody and visitation. And remember that there are solutions.
Cynthia MacGregor is the author of 54 conventionally published books and over 50 e-books, not to mention ghostwritten books, articles, and many other kinds of writing. She also does freelance editing. In addition, she is the proprietor of a website for single parents and the producer and host of Solo Parenting, a TV show for single parents airing in the West Palm Beach viewing area. Busy and happy, she says, "There is no one in the world I'd want to trade lives with."