Mini schnauzer puppy

The Role of Pets in Divorce Mediation Success

By Jane Nahirny

How the human-animal bond can help you survive your separation and divorce?

When Angela separated from Tom, her husband of ten years, she hoped the situation would be temporary. She rented an apartment, while Tom and their nine-year-old cat remained in the couple’s home. As weeks turned into months, with no reconciliation in sight, she began to exhibit all of the classic signs of depression. “I had crying jags in the morning before I went to work, I couldn’t sleep, and I was gradually withdrawing from family and friends,” she remembers. “Basically, I lost my zest for living.”

Then a colleague at work mentioned that her neighbor had kittens for sale. “I went to have a look, and I fell in love with two of them,” she says. Three weeks later, the kittens were hers, and within days, her depression had started to lift. “Suddenly, there was someone to welcome me home at the end of a long day, someone to laugh with, someone to care for again…They were a great, drug-free solution to my depression — kind of ‘pet Prozac,’ actually,” she smiles.

Angela’s story is far from unique. Numerous studies over the past 20 years have documented the positive power of pets on both our mental and physical health. A 1993 report in the Harvard Health Letter highlights some of these benefits: lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. The report also points to the fact that companion animals have more consistent behavior than their human counterparts. In other words, they offer their owners a genuine sense of unconditional love.

Simply put, animals provide an emotional anchor for individuals who have sailed into troubled waters. “They give people something to focus on other than themselves,” explains Carolyn Clark, director of HABAC (the Human-Animal Bond Association of Canada). Pets also make you feel needed. “When you’re feeling depressed, you may want to just stay in bed and pull the covers over your head,” she says. “But if you have a dog, for instance, you know that it needs to be fed and walked. So there’s some sense of stability and continuity there…there’s someone who needs your care.”

Pets and kids

As Fiona discovered, companion animals can also help ease a child’s passage through divorce. According to the Delta Society, an international resource for the human-animal bond, pets appear to “lessen the loneliness that occurs when children provide their own self-care, and children with a strong pet bond score higher on empathy for other children than do children without pets. This may have significant implications for the future — if these children can reach adulthood and retain their empathy, they may have an easier time coexisting with others, and be less apt to suffer from loneliness.”

Chris was thirteen when his parents separated. “After Mom and Dad told me they were splitting up, I remember thinking that I was now the ‘man of the house’ and had to take care of my Mom and little sister Claire,” he says. “I had been brought up to think that ‘real’ men didn’t cry, so I resolved not to cry in front of my ‘womenfolk.’ Luckily, I had Max — the most wonderful Golden Retriever — to lean on.”

Chris says he used go up to his room when he needed to cry, wrap his arms around Max, and sob his grief and fear into Max’s fluffy neck. “He really saved me,” remembers Chris. “He always seemed so sympathetic, non-judgmental, and loving — he’d just lick away my tears and stay with me as long as I needed him.” Chris would also take Max for long runs when the teenager needed a physical outlet for emotional distress. “Racing through the ravines near my house was a lot better than putting my fist through the wall — which I really wanted to do some days.”

Do you know someone who may be looking to adopt a pet?  The Humane Society of Charlotte is a non-profit organization whose mission is dedicated to protecting animals and teaching people how to care for them. Visit their website or call 704-377-0534.