Dogs and Marriage, Part 3:

My high-maintenance dog shows me what a high-maintenance wife I can be

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The moment I knew I loved my husband was the night we met. I wasn’t looking for romance then because my mother, with whom I had a contentious relationship, was dying. But I couldn’t resist my attraction to Erik. I also couldn’t withhold the warning that given my impending loss, I likely wouldn’t be my best self in the weeks to come. It was a risky move for a first date, but I was too distraught and, at 34, felt too old to waste time on a man who couldn’t handle what I was going through. “We’ll go through it together,” Erik said.

Since then, my husband continues to be the man who sees me through tough times and loves me warts and all. In 28 years, he has learned to accept — not always happily — my least desirable behaviors because he understands the emotional baggage that triggers them. Such understanding undergirds our love for each other and now, for Bernie, our rescue dog.

Rescues are mysterious. Neglect, abuse or other trauma commonly leave them with psychic wounds and difficult behaviors. The group that rescued Bernie in Tennessee knew very little about him except that he was a starving stray, who at some point had spent too much time in a crate. Still, he greeted us like we were old friends, jumping up to give nuzzles and licks. Not until we brought him home did his less-than-desirable behaviors — some puppy-driven, others from trauma — emerge, and did I see how much he and I have in common.

I was never homeless, locked away or starved, but as the daughter of an alcoholic mother, I experienced my share of emotional neglect, and — mostly psychological — abuse. My mother’s erratic moods and our growing poverty, which sent us searching for affordable housing every few years, nixed any chance of a stable home life. As a result, I’ve always lived with some anxiety, fear of abandonment and emotional hunger.

My husband knows this about me. He recognizes that when I’m defensive or argumentative, overly demanding or needy, some internal demon is at work. He knows that I feel stranded when he withdraws into his emotional man-cave and, despite our decades together, assures me of his love.

Bernie also gets anxious when I leave a room that we’re in, however briefly, and follows on my heels wherever I go, bathroom included.

Minding anyone’s emotional baggage can be exhausting. It can also be illuminating.

The first time Bernie barked at the broom, for instance, I snapped at him. Then, I speculated that a broom-wielding person may have beaten him. When his frantic pacing at mealtime unnerves me, I imagine the starvation he likely endured. His growling during playtime horrifies me, but I figure it’s his way of appearing tougher than he feels. When I scold him for barking at phantom sights and sounds, Erik says, “You do your share of barking too.”

In Bernie’s watchfulness, as in my own, I see vigilant preparation for danger. For him, the danger may have been a broom or other stray dogs; for me, it was an alcoholic mother who kept me guessing about what I’d find when I got home. We both startle easily and don’t like surprises. We can both be overly reactive, demanding and impatient. Loving us takes empathy and tolerance.

Fortunately, we share many positive traits. We’re both exercise junkies and love meeting new people. We’re not lazy. In fact, we have trouble relaxing. We thrive on being productive. I love to work, as does Bernie, whose part-time job entails tugging colossal maple tree roots out of my back yard.

Most important, we are resilient, survivors committed to self-improvement, doing what it takes to love well and be loved.

Yet, there are days when, exhausted and frustrated, I wonder why I chose this lab-husky mix. Then, I recall what one rescue group volunteer said. “There is no perfect dog. There is only the dog that is perfect for you.”

Bernie, like my husband, is the perfect guy for me. He is a work in progress. But then, so am I.

Public health writer/editor and author of the memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness, and Hope.”

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