When your significant other has four legs and fur
By Tammy Lagorce
Alexandra Clayton has been single for two years, giving her ample time to reach a conclusion about dating: It’s not really her thing, at least for now.
“I just don’t have the energy to do it constantly,” said Clayton, 36, a freelance filmmaker in Los Angeles. But she does have time for 100 kisses a day with Roo, her 8-year-old, 25-pound “super mutt.” Her daily agenda also consists of leisurely walks and long cuddle sessions on the couch with her dog.
Recently, Clayton has spent little time on dating apps and instead has effectively settled down with Roo. The dating angst that consumed her for years is well in the rearview, she said, and life has never felt more complete. With Roo by her side rather than a human partner, “I’ve grown into a place where I’m really secure and happy,” she said.
Not everyone understands her current choice to quit pursuing a partner — family members have pointed out her age and her desire to have children. But Clayton is not alone. In an October survey sponsored by Rover, a pet-care company, nearly 250 out of 1,000 dog and cat owners in America said they had intentionally delayed dating or marriage because of their deep bonds with their pets.
When it comes to choosing a life partner, “we have three very basic brain systems,” said Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “They’re sex drive, feelings of deep romantic love and feelings of deep attachment,” Fisher said. When pets show affection and you pet them, she said, it drives up “your oxytocin levels and you’re feeling a sense of attachment.”
Elizabeth Robinson, 54, has never been married and has not dated in more than 10 years. And that’s fine with her because she shares an apartment with her rescue dog, Watson, and Legs, a cat she inherited when her neighbor died. “I know it’s really cliché to say dogs are better than people,” but sometimes it’s true, said Robinson, a professional dog trainer and dog behavior consultant in Clinton Hill, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
She dated throughout her 30s and early 40s, engaging in romantic relationships with men she still considers “lovely.” But she no longer wants to dip into the narrowing pool of available men for even a cursory look, she said.
“I don’t feel the need to keep trying relationship after relationship,” Robinson said, in hopes of meeting a human partner who might have more to offer than Watson and Legs do.
Bonds with other people are important, she said, but dogs make them easy to form. Robinson has developed dozens of close friendships through regular walks around Fort Greene Park with Watson and his predecessor, Ed, who died last year.
Clayton has found a similar network in Los Angeles.
For now, both Robinson and Clayton consider the lack of romantic intimacy worth the trade-off.
“I’d love to find love again,” Clayton said. “But I feel like I spent a lot of time contorting myself and my life for my relationships.” With Roo, her pet for the past six years, there’s no bending over backward. “He’s a happy, optimistic sort,” she said. “And there’s never any fighting.”
Robinson knows that even uncoupled, she is in good company. “A lot of people in my circle aren’t partnered and aren’t parents,” she said, adding that missing out on child-rearing hasn’t made her life feel less dimensional or unfulfilled. “We all love kids, but we don’t happen to have them.”
Coppy Holzman, 68, an owner of Boris & Horton, a dog-friendly cafe with locations in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the East Village in Manhattan, loves children, too. He has three grandchildren and three children — and he owns his business with his daughter, Logan Mikhly. (The cafes are named after their dogs.)
Holzman, who is divorced, has experienced the rewards of marrying and raising a family. But still, he understands why some pet owners choose to remain single, he said.
“Having been married and been involved in lots of relationships, I can say Boris is great,” said Holzman, who lives in the West Village with his 80-pound pit bull. “I love him to death and feel emotionally supported by him.”
Boris’ companionship has led Holzman to become more selective when it comes to human relationships. “I don’t want to say I don’t date at all, but I’m not looking for anything,” he said. “I’m not dating as actively as I would be without him — what we have seems to work.”
He recognizes the obvious limitations of being in a primary relationship with a pet. “We have loving conversations, but they’re transactional, like ‘Are you hungry?’ or ‘Do you want to go for a walk?’” he said. “I’m self-aware enough that I’m not going to discuss the news with him or anything.”
He also can’t ask Boris for help figuring out financial, health or domestic issues — which poses a challenge for people who rely on their pets for emotional support.
“If there’s a big decision to be made, I have no one to consult with,” Robinson said. On the other hand, she added, “if there’s a big decision to be made, I don’t have to consult with somebody.”
Loving Roo has been a revelation for Clayton. “You don’t have to take this traditional path in life that’s been rammed down our throats, especially as women,” she said. “It feels so nice not being in a needy place.”
People who prioritize their pets over romantic partners may find themselves desiring human companionship again — if only because dogs and cats live shorter lives than people. With pets, “you get something that’s calming you down and making you feel loved and appreciated,” Fisher said. But in forgoing romance and intimacy, “you’re only stimulating one of those three basic brain systems,” she said. “The others evolved to keep us living long and happy lives. In my opinion, it’s healthier to also get the other brain systems triggered.”
Tom Blake, a relationship advice columnist in Dana Point, California, said that “most of the people I know who are content with their pet companionships still secretly admit they’d like a human partner.” He encourages people to indulge that secret wish: “Go out and meet people. Hug your pet when you come home.”