I often say things that confuse people. A couple of times, I have bewildered some child by saying, “I can remember when you were a kitten.” What I was alluding to was that I had known her parents for a long time. They, like several young couples I knew, were childless until they got a pet and then, before long, a baby was on the way. It seemed to be a pattern.
Those were pretty non-scientific anecdotal observations but it seemed to me that something about pet ownership (maybe the cat dander or fleas?) stimulated a parental instinct in couples. I thought that maybe all the cuddling and caring and training, the sacrifice and love, gave them a taste of what it must be like to have a family. It could also be that getting a pet indicates something about your relationship. Harry Benson of Britain’s Marriage Foundation cites a study which suggests that getting a pet is a sign that a couple has the right stuff to become parents. “Research on cohabiting couples show conclusively that getting a pet is a better indicator of staying together than having a baby,” he said. That is so amazing I am going to have to write it again – if a couple gets a cat they more likely to stay together than if they have a baby.
I think I can understand why. Very few people accidentally have kittens or end up with a puppy because the power went off one night. Pets usually result from a thought-through, long-term commitment. Not many people would bring a pet into a home where they suspect the relationship has a limited shelf life. But babies don’t come from commitment, they result from passion. Even in the 21st century, babies just ‘happen’. Having a baby might become a huge commitment but it is not necessarily deliberate one.
Even though I know single parents can and do raise awesome children, I earnestly believe a loving stable relationship between parents is the optimum nurturing environment. Romantic love and sexual fizz are fantastic but the bedrock for a relationship that will last is commitment. (I really wanted to say ‘kittens’ but I know it would never get past my editor). Heart and glands play their part but commitment springs from character and grit.
Children thrive in a home headed by a committed couple. Heartening indicators of true commitment have been highlighted in various studies. A poll of 3500 British couples rated buying a house together and getting married as key signs of commitment. So was getting a joint bank account, though altering your will in favour of your partner rated even more highly. Another study showed couples who invested in household appliances were more likely to stay together. (Interesting thought – do some couples quit when their whiteware starts to wear out?)
Do you want a great relationship? I wish I could say buying a new fridge and labradoodle should do it. Humans are a little bit more complicated than that. But part of the answer will definitely be commitment. The rest of the answer will vary from couple to couple and will take quite a bit of thinking but walking a dog is a great way to think.