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What to Do When Cats Cause Conflicts in Relationships

Counseling experts give tips for healthy interaction and negotiation over animals.

Kezia Willingham  |  Feb 3rd 2016


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

Those of us devoted to cats place cats’ well-being high on the list of priorities. Once you’ve committed to welcoming a feline — or several — into your home, you have no intention of stepping away from them, even if it means sacrificing relationships with some humans, such as relatives who hate cat hair and refuse to visit your house.

Relatives are one thing, but when it comes to romantic partners, the desire to eliminate potential conflict around your pet is even stronger. Even though you are fiercely devoted to your feline(s), you might also want to share your life with a human partner. Sometimes that can be difficult.

I got involved with cat rescue late in life after I woke up from a dream with a vision of a cat. I knew then that I must adopt one. At the time, I was married with two biological children of my own and a stepson who spent every weekend and school vacation with us. We seemed to have the perfect family for a kitty.

What’s healthy?

Because I am clearly not proficient in navigating a successful marriage, I spoke with some experts on the subject to learn more about this topic.

First, what is a healthy human relationship? Alice Boyes, a psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today and has written extensively about signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships, said that a healthy pairing is “about the positive bond between two people” and that healthy couples “can deal with conflict in a loving way.” She said that, ideally, an attachment is a “positive bond with a partner that provides a safe place to return to at the end of the day.” Healthy couples are “intertwined and think about each other when they are not together, characterized by a loving interdependency.”

If you share a cat, it's healthy to share responsibilities for her. Couple and their kitten by Shutterstock

If you share a cat, it’s healthy to share responsibilities for that animal. Couple and their kitten by Shutterstock

Cat conflict

So, how might a healthy couple navigate conflict around a pet cat? Carrie Cole, who holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology, is a licensed professional counselor supervisor, and who is a certified master trainer by the Gottman Institute, provided an example for the following hypothetical situation.

Catster: What if one person refuses to clean the litter box, and it is not a mutually agreed upon decision?

Carrie: If there has been an agreement that this would be a shared responsibility and one partner has not been holding up his or her end of the bargain lately, it’s time to have a conversation about it. It’s best to start out gently and focus on the situation and your personal experience about it. … It’s very important to avoid using the word ‘you’ if at all possible. If your partner feels attacked or blamed, he or she will not be receptive to your needs.

Talk to us about conflict in relationships.

There are two kinds of problems in relationships. Some problems are solvable, and some will be perpetual. Perpetual problems can become gridlocked if either or both parties become entrenched in their own positions. These can lead to some very painful arguments.

Don't attack your partner -- try listening instead. Kittens playing and fighting by Shutterstock

Don’t attack your partner — try listening instead. Kittens playing and fighting by Shutterstock

To break the gridlock, each partner needs to be open and receptive to hearing the other’s position. A suggestion is to interview each other where there is one speaker and one listener at a time. The speaker has the best chance of truly being heard if he or she is deeply introspective about what this issue means to him or her personally and stays focused on self rather than the partner — that means no blaming or attacking. The listener has to be willing to put aside his or her agenda or perspective and just listen to the partner.

What are some warning signs that indicate conflict is not something that can be worked through and might be part of a larger issue of a more pathological nature?

There are some indicators that the relationship needs some help. John Gottman identified four killers of a relationship. He calls them the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ because they are that deadly. They are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

Married couple and cat by Shutterstock

Married couple and cat by Shutterstock

Criticism is attacking and blaming your partner. Defensiveness is avoiding responsibility. (“It’s not my fault.”) Contempt is any way that you tell your partner that you are superior to him or her, or that the partner is defective, like name-calling. Contempt is emotionally abusive and is the deadliest of them all. Stonewalling is shutting down and not talking.

Only a small percentage of the population is truly pathological. There are a lot of books that can be helpful to couples. Two of my favorites are written by Gottman: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and What Makes Love Last?”

About the Author: Also known as the Breadwinning Laundry Queen, Kezia works as the Health Coordinator for an urban Head Start program by day and writes for Catster and Dogster on the side. She lives in Seattle with her family, which includes a pack of rescued cats and dogs. You can follow her on Twitter @KeziaWillingham.