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Loyal to the Bone

One-fifth of adults prefer their furry loved ones to their partners this Valentine’s Day.
One in five adults would rather spend Valentine’s Day with their animal companions than their human partners, reveals an international survey that polled 24,000 people in 23 countries.

According to the survey, jointly conducted by Reuters/Ipsos, younger and less affluent people are more likely to prefer pets over people, but there was no significant difference between men and women.

While on average, 21 percent of adults would rather celebrate Valentine’s Day with their animal companions, preferences ranged between nations, with the French least likely to prefer their pets over their mate (10 percent) and at nearly half (49 percent), the Turkish were most likely to want to spend that special day with their pet over their partner.

Other nations where pets often prevail over people are India (41 percent), Japan (30 percent), China (29 percent), the US (27 percent) and Australia (25 percent).

While the French are least likely to choose their pets over their mates, other countries in which people prefer their human partners include Mexico (with 11 percent choosing their pets), the Netherlands (12 percent) and Hungary (12 percent).

Age plays a factor in who seeks cuddly companionship of furry versus human loved ones, with one-quarter of people under age 35 more likely to choose their pets, versus 18 percent of those aged 35 to 54, and 14 percent of people aged over 55. Men and women, however, were equally split.

In terms of income, there was a 4 percent difference between low and high income individuals, with 24 percent of low income versus 20 percent of middle to high income participants choosing their pets.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, what do these results mean about our human-animal and human-human bonds?

“This study demonstrates that the human-animal bond is deeply embedded in all of us,” says human-animal bond expert Kristen L. Nelson, D.V.M.

“Regardless of race, nationality or gender, humans share a bond with animals that cannot be denied,” Nelson adds. “People need the unconditional love of animals.”

Marriage expert Kelley Brigman, PhD, LMFT agrees. “We get something from pets—that total acceptance—that we cannot get from our closest loved ones,” he explains.

Animals provide such total love, and demand so little in return, he adds. “Mollie [our cat] looks at me with adoring eyes. She always accepts me unconditionally, and expresses gratitude for the simplest of favors such as a little food, an occasional treat, and a pat on the head. It feels so good to be accepted completely and without question. It is so easy to meet her expectations.”

Nelson, author of the forthcoming book Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life, questions the results regarding income levels. “I do not believe a four percent difference is statistically significant,” she contends. “Therefore, we cannot conclude that people with lower incomes are more attached to their pets than those with higher incomes.”

“In my experience, a person’s income might influence how much money they can spend on their pet, but it does not influence how much they love them,” Nelson, who has worked with animals and their people for over 20 years, notes.

Brigman maintains that some differences may exist in terms of human-human bonds and income levels, with some people depending more on their pets for companionship due to marriage issues.

“As we go up the SES ladder, relationships become less utilitarian and more companion-oriented,” he explains. “Lower SES families look to their families to meet their needs for food, clothing, shelter, and safety. Higher status families look more for social, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs.”

While it may not be a question of love, it may be one of availability and dependence on the family pet, Brigman says. “Family members at lower SES—where the family tends to spend much of its time and energy focusing on the basics of life—may get less acceptance and emotional fulfillment from families and thus turn more to pets for basic emotional needs.”
Especially needy, may be children in lower income families, who may miss their parents who are forced to work long hours to provide.

“Children especially may feel the need for more attention in busy lower SES families and turn to their pets,” Brigman explains. “Children can talk to their pets about anything and hold them when they themselves need comfort thus taking comfort from the pet.”

If anything, animal companions may provide consistency and little expectation. “Even in the strongest marriages, fantasy soon gives way to the realities of life such as sharing space and resources, making a living, doing laundry, and dealing with conflict,” he explains. “New husbands and wives are often shocked when they find out they have different ideas, goals, and preferences in some areas. They are also shocked when they do not feel completely accepted, just the way they are.”

Relationship coach Janice Hoffman agrees that animals offer a unique type of love that most humans find challenging to provide, “The primary reason people prefer their furry pets is because they crave unconditional love. They are accepted for who they are,” she says. “Their efforts are appreciated by cuddles and wet kisses. They know they won’t get in trouble or be yelled at by their pets so they can relax in knowing that they can’t be criticized. In the end, quiet companionship with one’s pet wins out over spending time, money and energy that we can only hope we get right.”

The age difference indicated in the study, say experts, may be due to shifts in lifestyle. “Most people in their late 20s and 30s are getting married later in life,” says animal expert Michele C. Hollow. “They often have a dog or cat. The dog and cat give them unconditional love, and many people think of pets as their children. So, it makes sense.”

“Older people are married and would choose their spouse—though many still consider their pets an important part of the family,” Hollow notes.

Like Nelson maintains, income does not seem to have as profound an effect on animal-human relationships as the study presents. “Despite the economy, people will spend money on their pets,” Hollow contends. “The pet industry is not hurting. People dote on their pets, love them, and enjoy spending time with them.” Despite this being the case, it doesn’t look like spouses will be traded to animals anytime soon, Hollow says. “The study was 1 in 5, so there are still many more that prefer to be with their spouses or partners.”

While Hollow contends that a young age may mean the participants under 35 were not yet married, some relationship experts maintain that even when married, youth is a risk factor for divorce. “These are consistent with divorce stats—the highest risk of divorce is during the first years of marriage,” say relationship experts Patricia Schell Kuhlman, MSW and Gregory Kuhlman, Ph.D., who also note that lower SES is also a risk factor.

Furthermore, not all unions are happy ones, they note. “It’s relatively normal for relationships to go through rough patches periodically and most end at some point,” the Kuhlmans explain. “Of course, about half of all marriages will end (many sooner rather than later) and even partners who are staying together aren’t necessarily happy together.”
Therefore, the Kuhlmans add, it makes sense that “perhaps 20 percent or more of all relationships are in a distressed and/or distancing mode at any given time. “

Psychotherapist Eddie Reece, MS, LPC adds that human relationships can be very complicated, and may include issues like power struggles. “No matter what subject a couple picks to come between them, the relationship issues are the same,” he says. “Whether it’s a pet, human or activity, the actual issue is a power struggle about whose lifestyle will be the dominant lifestyle. The subplots are issues such as fear of a deeper intimacy with the partner or insecurities that manifest as jealousy.”

No matter the issue, people should never blame the household pet companion for any complications, even if the partners relate differently with the animal. “Most people would be surprised to find out how often pets are the focus of relationship issues,” Reece says. “A pet can’t cause relationship issues any more than an outside lover can. The issues happen because the couple doesn’t have the relationship skills to navigate the power struggle and all it involves.”

Despite the challenges of human-human relationships, there is still a special quality to animal-human relationships that offer great comfort to people, says Sheryl Matthys, dog expert and founder of Leashes and Lovers, an online social community for dog lovers.

“Over the years, I’ve experienced a good number of women in particular who’ve come by themselves to our Leashes and Lovers events solely in the company of their dog,” Matthys says. “While they may be seeking a partner, it’s their dog who provides them their companionship in the meantime.”

While Matthys acknowledges practical reasons for the age discrepancy—“Younger people in particular may seek their dog, for now, as people are waiting to marry, have kids, as they seek better jobs”—there are numerous benefits to a relationship with a dog.

Author of the forthcoming book Leashes and Lovers: What Your Dog Can Teach You About Love, Life, and Happiness, Matthys writes, “Dogs don’t ‘fall out of love.’ They desire us now and always. They simply want our presence. Who doesn’t want that?”

“Our dogs are honest, earnest and, most especially, never tempted nor swayed to replace us with someone else,” she continues. “Once you’re together, you’re a team, and your dog doesn’t want anyone but you. Your dog is not interested in a younger, slimmer, healthier, or wealthier version. Your dog only has eyes for you. This genuine trait is evident every time I see a dog’s owner run into a store for a few minutes as their dog waits outside with Superman-like visual prowess, staring through walls anticipating their owner’s return. Your dog is not tempted by others, and is loyal to you to the bone, forever.”

Reece agrees. “Pets love you no matter what. People actually have the audacity to want you to behave in a certain way. Your pet doesn’t care if you sit on the couch for hours eating Doritos.”

Article by Galia Myron