It’s time to throw those ideas about crazy cat lady spinsters to the curb. The fact of the matter is that owning a pet—whether it’s a dog, cat, bunny or goldfish (okay, maybe not a goldfish)—is actually the best training ground that exists for a relationship with another human. Don’t believe me? Consider this:
You learn how to put another’s needs before your own. Whether you’re factoring when Fido’s going to get walked, calling the cat-sitter or making sure your pet gerbil didn’t escape (insert your own Richard Gere joke here) (since he did) (that was mine), having a creature whose very survival depends on you teaches you how, at least temporarily, to forgo your own needs for once in the interest of another living thing. And what could be a more important skill to master for a love relationship?
Bodily functions become no big deal. Much as I wish it were not the case, romantic relationships—particularly when they include cohabitation—involve exposure to another person’s bathroom habits. And scooping dog turds into plastic bags and shoveling litter—not to mention bringing stool samples to the vet—is surely going to be prepare you for the moment when the guy or girl you’d like to remain attracted to pollutes the bathroom.
When you start to open your heart to love, you’re all the more likely to keep opening your heart to love. Since only fellow pet owners understand quite how extreme adoration of a furry creature can get, I’m here to tell you that when you’re nuzzling and gazing at anything with love eyes—and feeling your serotonin rise a result—you’re teaching your heart how good it feels to love. While it may be easier to love something furry because you always have the upper hand, it’s also great training ground.
You can’t help but become responsible. You know the saying about how if you can keep a plant alive for a year, then you’re ready for a pet and if you can keep a pet alive for a year, then you’re ready for a relationship? While it may not be entirely accurate (I’ve killed most plants I’ve had in my life and have managed to keep two cats alive for over a decade), there is some truth to it. It’s just a fact that having to feed and clean up after and oversee the health of your pet prepares you to feed and clean up after and oversee the health of your relationship. (It’s also just a fact that I have an anti-green thumb.)
You learn to compromise. Some pets (exhibit A: most cats) are not going to do what you want them to do when you want them to do it. Even ever-faithful dogs may not agree to every last training trick you have in mind. Which means that at a certain point, you simply have to come to understand and accept the difference between what you’d like your pet to do and what he or she does. When my cat Toby decided to express her distaste for one of our living situations by peeing in a succession of my favorite handbags (expensive, impossible-to-clean ones being her favorite), I quelled my fantasies to find a nice couple in the Berkshires who might want to adopt a cranky, 10-year-old cat and worked to soothe her until she stopped. And while I have to imagine that the guy I end up with isn’t likely to take to purse peeing, it’s a guarantee that he’ll do something to drive me batty. So won’t it be useful that my compromise muscle has gotten so much exercise?
Anna David is the author of the new Kindle Single Animal Attraction, which is about how her relationship with her cats impacts her relationships with men. She’s also the author of the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009) and the memoir Falling for Me (HarperCollins, 2011). She conceived of and edited the anthology Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010), is the Executive Editor of addiction and recovery website The Fix, and has written for The New York Times, The LA Times, Vanity Fair, Cosmo, People, Premiere, Us Weekly, Details, Playboy, Redbook, Self, and Women’s Health, among many other publications. She appears on NBC, Fox News, CNN, and other networks discussing either relationships or addiction. Her next book, which she’s writing on the actor Tom Sizemore, will be released in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.