The op-ed page of the New York Times included this great headline, “Stand up for your cats“. In the essay, Julia Baird heaped praise on celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Kesha who are cat lovers and proud of it. Swift, for example, “posts their pictures on Instagram and has been featured in commercials where she is swarmed by fluffy cats…”
Cat lovers have research on their side. For example, a 20-year study showed that people who had ever owned a cat were less likely to die of a heart attack than those who never owned a cat. (I don’t have a cat now but I did when I was a child.) Another interview and questionnaire study of people with serious mental illness documented the many ways that people thought their pets (not just cats) had helped them with their recovery. Also, as I noted here previously, research has shown that writing about your pets and what you love about them can be a great way of bouncing back from a painful rejection experience.
Baird wrote her essay as a way of pushing back on all those awful stereotypes of the pathetic cat lady. She is also high-fiving the “young female celebrities [who are] refusing to be portrayed as on a perpetual, sad manhunt.” A great example she mentioned was Rihanna, who responded to a question about what she looked for in a man with, “I’m not looking for a man. Let’s start there.”
Stereotypically, cat people are single people. By itself, the perception of singles as cat-people (or pet-people) doesn’t bother me. What does rub me the wrong way is the interpretation that is sometimes offered for the supposed link between being single and having a pet – that singles have pets as “compensation” for not having a spouse.
Now maybe that interpretation actually is true of some single people, just as some married people have a pet as practice for having a kid. (This is not hypothetical. I knew a couple who admitted to this. The two of them also liked to quip that they hoped the kid they planned to have would like the dog they already did have, because it would be a shame to have to get rid of the kid. I’m pretty sure they meant that as a joke.)
But why do I so rarely hear an entirely different and (I think) more plausible explanation – that single people who have cats have them because they like them? Because they are caring people who love animals and would want to have pets in their lives regardless of their marital status?
The compensation interpretation is not limited to pets. Single people’s close relationships with siblings, parents, and friends have also been described as compensation for not having a spouse, sometimes even by academics.
That, to me, is a way of saying that unless you have a spouse, none of your other adult relationships count as genuine or as valuable in and of themselves. A similarly dismissive explanation dogs (sorry) single people who are devoted to their jobs or to some cause or interest that they pursue passionately – they are just compensating for not having a spouse.
The most fundamental problem, I think, is that too many Americans simply cannot believe that any adult would actually like being single and choose to stay that way. Until that nut is cracked, deluded amateur and professional psychologists will continue to see compensation under every single person’s cat dish.
Cute kitty photo available from Shutterstock