Monday, September 14, 2009

Conditional Love

My in-laws have a dog, a six-year-old Weimaraner. I didn't grow up with dogs. I grew up with cats, rabbits, fish, and a rat. My family didn't get a dog until a year or two before I left for college and he was a mess, so I didn't really connect with him.

The Weimaraner is a source of frustration for me. She is spoiled. She sleeps in my in-laws' bed. People vacate couches and chairs for her. She barks for her breakfast and dinner. She runs the household. When we would visit, it was a source of amusement. "Oh, that dog."

And then Donald and I moved in.

I am unwilling to kowtow to the dog. I will not get up from my seat to give her space on the couch. I started implementing lessons from Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. She doesn't lick the dirty dishes in the dishwasher anymore if I'm around. Donald corrects her when she barks at him when he is putting food in her dish. We took her for a walk together this past weekend, taking turns at correcting her for pulling and wanting to be first. Our arms are sore. She seemed to be getting it by the time we got home, an hour and a half later. We thought we had tired her out.

I have written about my obsession with the garden. I spend hours happily trimming damaged leaves from the tomatoes, clearing out weeds from between the bean plants, and picking green peppers. I care for the garden with love and I am protective of it, which is why I'm glad that it is surrounded by a deer fence consisting of three feet of chicken wire along the bottom, covered with seven feet of black mesh fencing. Metal fence posts are placed at the four corners and midway on all four sides.

The dog broke into the garden on Saturday. After the walk that was supposed to have worn her out. After I had shown her affection, something I reserve for special occasions because I do not want to reward her bad behavior. She tore out two tomato plants and mangled several heads of lettuce. And then she barked because she was stuck. She had torn a hole in the black mesh fence just above the chicken wire big enough to worm her way inside the enclosure. She had no idea how to get back out. I wanted to skin her alive.

I manhandled her out of the enclosure. Donald and I got more black mesh fencing and placed a double thick layer over the hole the dog made. We secured it tightly. Our mistake was letting her watch us. The next day, when the dog had been outside for enough time that we wondered where she was, we found her in the garden, again. This time she had pulled two green tomatoes from the vine. She couldn't find her way out this time either.

The Dog Whisperer says that dogs live in the moment, that past and future do not matter to them. I want to believe him. I do not understand why this dog would do such a thing. She is not hungry. It seems vindictive, like she is punishing me for withholding affection, that she knows how much I love that garden and is motivated to destroy it just to hurt me. I truly felt betrayed. I had been nice to her and this is the thanks I get?!

I just had to force myself to take several deep breaths. I'm still a bit worked up.

After letting go of my anger, I realized that my affection/love for the dog is conditional. If she upsets me, I withhold affection as a punishment. It's not an effective way to function for either of us.

I shared my realization with Donald, and he said, "Wow, I'm glad you don't do that with me." I said, "I don't do it to people! .... anymore."

Unfortunately, I did this to someone when I was younger. It was my little sister, the same one I helped move to a new place on the spur of the moment last month. We haven't always had such a close relationship.

My sister and I are seven years apart, with our brother in the middle. When she was about 7 years old, we moved to a new house and all three of us shared a room. She had always been very independent and pushed the rules constantly. This, of course, conflicted directly with my belief that my parents were always right (I was a strange child) and contributed to my unease when I saw my parents relax on the rules that my sister flaunted instead of enforcing them. Thinking I was helping my parents, I took on the role as a third parent, trying to enforce the rules myself. Obviously, this didn't work and ended up compromising my relationship with my sister for many years.

I believed that I was acting with good intentions. What came across was disapproval of my sister. She could not win with me. Even if she did something right, I was expecting her to do something wrong. If I did something "nice" for her (which often consisted of "helping" her clean her room when I had ulterior motives to control her space), I felt betrayed when she didn't appreciate it.

I eventually figured out that this mode of operating would never improve my relationship with her. I had graduated from college and I was complaining once again to Donald about something my sister had done or not done. He called me on it. He helped me see that the quality of my relationship with my sister was my responsibility and that I was judging her before she acted. I was stunned by the truth and grateful to Donald for showing me the error of my ways.

I called my sister and apologized for the years of unhappiness between us. She was gracious enough to accept my apology and we have become friends in the subsequent years.

I have told myself for so many years that I am really careful and aware of my affect on other people. I wonder whether that has ever been true. I am seeing more as I look at my life that I have embodied many of the things that I abhor in other people. I understand now why many people in high school thought I was aloof and self-righteous. I may be more aware of myself now, and I still have a long way to go.

So why am I conditional with the dog? Is it because she isn't my dog, and therefore I have no responsibility/right to train her the way I want to? Will I be different with a dog if Donald and I get one? Is it different with dogs because we are supposed to be superior to them? Whatever it is, my method is not working.

At least now I can see where my judging comes from. I am very competitive. I am self-conscious. I have lived my life acting in line with the belief that in order for me to be the best I can be, I must be better than everyone else. I talk about myself non-stop because I am trying to convince myself that I am right and therefore of value. The historian in me wants to know how this happened. I think it's time to let that go and simply be in the now.

I listened to Susan Scott's webinar on Transformational Idea #3 today and again found immediate relevance to my struggle. She spoke about the fact that individuals approach every interaction with their own context and perceptions and that we assume our interpretations of what someone says or does are correct. She asked her listeners to think about what we are choosing to believe. She also asked, "What are you practicing?"

As Susan says, our beliefs drive our behavior and our behavior drives our results. What I practice has a direct impact on the direction my life is taking. Progress in my life/career/etc. is dependent upon my progress as an individual.

She also said, loud and clear, "Stop talking about it and do it." Here I go.

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