Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to email@example.com.)
The first time Justin introduced me to his cat, it bit me. Sorry, he bit me. He is a boy, because an animal is a living thing, not an “it,” as I often have to remind myself, and his name is Timmy. Justin and I had just gone on our third date, and he’d invited me over to his place to hang out for a little bit longer. This was a big deal: After a long stretch of dating mediocre men, I’d finally found one that I really, really liked — and I really, really wanted him to like me back. But when Timmy narrowed his pale green eyes at me and sunk his teeth into my hand, I knew it was his way of calling me out on my most offensive, unattractive secret: I don’t like animals.
I didn’t have pets growing up, which means that my first and longest relationship with any animal as a kid was with Buddy, an ironically named German Shepherd that was twice my size and lived with my parent’s friends in Pennsylvania. Every visit, without fail, Buddy would chase me around the house, and I’d cower in random corners, my terrified wails mixing with his barks. My experience with Buddy set the tone for years to come: I spent my childhood avoiding playdates with friends who had pets, meticulously planning my Halloween trick-or-treating routes to avoid houses that had an animal behind the door, and losing out on babysitting jobs because I’d refuse to look after anyone’s dog or cat.
As I grew up, I didn’t get over my dislike, but I did grow more insecure about it: Only a serious asshole, I told myself, wouldn’t feel compassion for a snuggly, helpless creature. Other people seemed to feel the same way — I often felt more judged for not liking animals than I did for any of my worst qualities. So I felt my insecurities multiply tenfold when I realized that Justin, who I was desperate to impress, was a passionate animal lover. Not only did he have Timmy as an adult, but he also grew up with multiple dogs of varying sizes that, as I discovered during an early Facebook-stalking session, were featured in approximately one million of his photos. I also saw pictures of him cuddling with pets belonging to his friends and, to my obvious horror, past significant others, and his Facebook wall was filled with those same people sharing animal videos. The further I went down the rabbit hole, the more I felt a gnawing sense of dread: What kind of animal person would want to date someone who straight-up hates pets?
The experts agree that it’s definitely an obstacle. “I do know animal people tend to fall for each other and speak the same love language,” matchmaker Susan Trombetti, CEO of ExclusiveMatchmaking.net, tells me. Some animal people also tend to draw borders around their dating pool: Trombetti says she’s met one woman, for example, who said her dealbreaker was any guy who didn’t indicate in his dating profile that he loved cats. Alessandra Conti, Celebrity Matchmaker at Matchmakers in the City, has a similar story: One of her clients, a single woman with a Shih Tzu, insists that all of her potential suitors must love dogs. “If someone did not like animals,” Conti recalls, “she assumed that they were a psychopath or just pure evil.” Yikes.
Conti says that her years on the job have taught her that “you simply cannot pair an animal lover with someone who does not like animals.” “When people have had the experience of having to take care of a pet,” she explains, “they tend to understand the responsibilities [of] maintaining a long-term relationship.” And people like me can be tougher sells: “When someone openly proclaims a dislike for animals, I notice that they tend to be a bit colder in their demeanor, and a bit more resistant to change,” she says. “They tend to be a bit more controlling when it comes to their lives and their paths, and less forgiving in relationships.”
I’ve always considered myself both a warm person and a good girlfriend, but listening to Conti, I wonder if she has a point. Even I have a hard time believing in the goodness of my heart when I don’t shed a single tear after the dog dies in a movie, or when I roll my eyes at my friends cooing over a random pup we see on the street.
So, in an effort to avoid the whole psychopath-or-just-pure-evil vibe, I did my best to get used to Timmy, and even to warm up to it (I mean, him). Whenever Justin inevitably brought Timmy over to me to say hello, I’d try my best to give my most effusive reaction. I would hesitate to pet him — even all these years later, Buddy had still left me a little skittish — but I’d make an effort to wave at him or talk to him in some kind of cutesy animal voice. Timmy mostly just glared at me in response, so it was clear that he saw right through my bullshit. But I couldn’t tell if Justin did, too.
In the end, I was the one who outed myself. One day, after yet another failed interaction with Timmy, something snapped. I felt a wave of shame wash over me, and when Justin and I were alone in his bedroom that night, I started to cry. Finally, I mustered up the courage to tell him the truth — and he didn’t seem bothered by it at all. “You just never grew up with animals!” he said. “I totally understand.”
I should have known he’d react that way. He was an animal person. That meant he had to have a heart of gold.
That day was a turning point for me in more ways than one. Ever since confessing my big secret, I’ve felt a newfound freedom to warm up to people’s pets on my own time, released from the threat of being branded a cold, unlovable jerk if I mess up. As a result, whenever I do have an effusive reaction to an animal, it’s actually genuine. And being in love with Justin helps — if animals make him happy, I can’t help but feel happy around them, too.
I’m not completely changed, of course. I still wince at big dogs whenever I walk past them on the street, and I don’t think I’ll be running to the ASPCA to adopt a pet anytime soon. But when Justin brought home another orange cat named Duncan, I felt something almost like affection. When Duncan’s rough little tongue licks my finger, or I watch Justin pick him up to smother him in hugs and kisses, I can feel myself coming around to animals. Sometimes, when Justin and I are having a lazy Sunday morning in his bed, Duncan will even nuzzle into my cheek when he wants attention. And I oblige, every single time.