I am not big on conflict. In fact, I prefer to avoid it if at all possible. One of my most conflicted relationships was also a very special one to me: my marriage. Even though my husband and I are no longer together, we still experience a fair amount of conflict when we communicate. One of the biggest sources of this is my feline family members. For whatever reason, cats symbolize something to each of us that seems to polarize us more than anything else.
It’s been almost a year since the fateful night that he walked out and he still won’t stop nagging me about my cats.
"Promise me you won’t bring any more animals home," he demanded the night he left.
I refused. “If you are going to give up everything we’ve worked for because of a cat, then that says a lot about our marriage,” I said. “I’ve given up a lot of things for you, and I would expect that you could do the same for me."
"Fine. If I leave now, I am never coming back."
"Go ahead,” I said. “But remember that. It is a choice you are making."
The truth is, extra tension (there was always a level in our tension in our relationship) had been building ever since I adopted Starry, a young black mama kitty who was my first foster. It culminated with my husband leaving after he more or less gave up talking to me about what was bothering him. And when he did bring up Starry, it was the same thing over and over.
We’d have the same argument every month or so. After you’ve said the same thing more than once, it gets old. Really old. After everything has been said and neither person’s perspective is changing, it just seems futile.
I thought after we broke up that I wouldn’t have to have that conversation about my cats anymore. But I was wrong.
The other day our six-year-old son came home from visitation with his dad and told me, "I know why Papa left. It’s because we have too many animals. We need to drop some off at the shelter."
"Papa can choose not to live here anymore, but we are not dropping any of our animals off at the shelter,” I told him. “They are part of our family and we do not give up on family when times are hard or just because there is a lot of work to do."
Our cats and dogs, all rescues, are big parts of the life I share with my children. They mean a lot to my kids and myself. They make us laugh, cuddle with us, entertain us, and provide a sense of structure. Our dogs help us feel safe and guarded in our home.
When my ex tells our son that he would return if we gave up some animals, I can’t even imagine what kind of message this sends to our child. Or exactly how it makes him feel inside to hear his dad say it — pets, to me, are the same thing as family members.
Even though our marriage was a lot of work and involved me making many sacrifices, I didn’t just walk out and give up. I wouldn’t do that. I would never leave my kids and my house. I would never have walked away from my husband like that either. The only thing I did that facilitated the separation was to explain to my husband that I could not continue with our marriage as it had been.
I always felt kind of like there was a black cloud of doom hanging around when my husband lived with us. It frequently felt like there was something going on that I couldn’t place, which left me on edge. The issues that most bothered me were his refusing to speak to both me and my daughter when he was upset (which was often), his beguiling mercurial moods, and his not being honest about his intentions, thoughts, feelings, or whereabouts.
I don’t think healthy marriages are based on dishonesty, manipulation, and revenge. Rather, I believe in honesty and working through challenges. I have certain level of comfort with hardship. I know that there are always good times and hard times in any relationship, because that is how life is: good and bad, easy and hard, fun and scary.
I guess I can’t help but wonder why my ex keeps bugging me about my cats. Does he think I am going to give them away because he wants me to? Does he like to have the same conversation over and over again? It is fun? Is he just trying to get under my skin?
The one thing all of this says to me is that I know I can never get back together with him. I would be delighted to share my life with someone who shares my passion for animal rescue. And I do — with my kids.
My life feels like it has a deeper value for bringing abandoned animals into my world. This is one of the nicest blessings about animal rescue. You know that you have made a tangible, concrete difference to living beings in a world that sometimes feels precarious, overwhelming, and uncertain. The animals ground us give us a reason to look forward to being home. We are always missed when we are gone, and they are happy to see us when we return.
I can’t say the same feeling of joy was there during my marriage. I’ll take rescue cats any day over a marriage filled with conflict and tension.
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About the author: Kezia Willingham works for Head Start by day and is a freelance writer on the side. She lives with her family, which includes 6 cats and 4 dogs, in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in xoJane, Literary Mama, and the Seattle Times. You can follow her on Twitter.