Why Do Some Women Get More Comfort From Pets Than From Men?

Is your dog more comforting than your husband?

Posted May 01, 2013

When you're really honest with yourself, who comforts you? Or should I say, whom do you allow to comfort you?

You always cry on your dog.

One of the many reasons I adore my ex-husband is that he starts so many sentences with: "So, it turns out you were right about …"

Today he called to say it turns out I was right on two counts: the woeful emotional inadequacy of husbands and the healing love of a good dog.

My ex is often alerted to my inalienable rightnesses by our paper of record, The New York Times, which is what prompted this morning's most recent example.

Limitations of human males

According to The New York Times, it turns out I was right about how limited most husbands are when it comes to providing emotional support for their wives and I was right when I insisted we get a dog, though he began our married life with no canine history to speak of.

I'll get to the Times part in a minute. First, the dog. Even before we got married I knew I'd change him. I'd make him into a dog person. It was an intense campaign. The main wedge issue was poop and its implications. I just knew all I needed was the right dog. So, 13 years ago I forged ahead and found us the sweetest, most delicious big, black bear of a dog at the Humane Society shelter near our starter (and ender, it turns out) home in Oregon.

Limitless dog love

I guess technically we rescued Bernie, (Bernard Malamutt), but really, he rescued us. Part black lab, some Chow, lots of bear and a bit of panther all wrapped in one huge, handsome dog. He looks like the perfect version of some wonderful, expensive, shiny, mink-coated breed. But he's all mutt. He's got this great natural David Cassidy shag. He howls like a wounded moose when he whiffs a ball or bone underneath the couch. Otherwise he's like the rest of us of a certain age – just likes a soft cushion beneath his tender hindquarters to rest on.  

Bernie is almost 14 and we thought he might have cancer but we found out today that he doesn't. That prompted the call telling me the two pieces of good news. Bernie is okay, and I was right about husbands. The husbands part comes from, where else? The New York Times. The part where I was right was buried deep within the story, so it is to my ex's credit that he saw it, that one phrase, and then felt compelled to call and tell me I was right. He knows I always feel a little thinner when I'm right, so it's a nice gesture.

Dogs listen best

A blogger I read alot, named, Susan Kuchinskas wrote a terrific post last year on an Associated Press and Petside.com survey that found most Americans think their dogs are better listeners than just about anybody else. She wrote that the survey found: "One out of three married women said her pet was a better listener than her husband. For married men, 18 percent felt the same way."  

This week, in a Times special section about animals and humans called "The Creature Connection," the greatest science writer EVER, Natalie Angier, wrote the following paragraph:  

"People are passionate about their companion animals: 70 percent of pet owners say they sometimes sleep with their pets; 65 percent buy Christmas gifts for their pets; 23 percent cook special meals for their pets; and 40 percent of married women with pets say they get more emotional support from their pets than from their husbands."

And there it is. Something we all know is true for far too many, dare I say most married women…..that they "get more emotional support from their pets than from their husbands."

Gifts of a good divorce

I thanked him for the little gift of rightness and the big gift of our dog and I'm sure I was also thanking him, in many ways, for our shared life behind us and the unknown intertwined life that lies ahead. I am grateful for our friendship and for the tenderness between us.

It is that tenderness that allows me to think a little more deeply about my attachment to my rightness. I know for certain that I, and so many women like me, feel we didn't get the kind of emotional support we needed in our marriages. The truth is, or maybe the question is, did I even give him – the husband not the dog – a chance? I must have. I had to have, right? Yet, nearly losing our dog this week brought a lot of foggy moments into clarity. When I think back, I can picture myself putting my face into our dog's soft fur, sobbing and sobbing, mourning all of my, all of our losses. I can't recall an image of myself putting my face into his – husband's not dog's – shoulder and unleashing that level of pain. Maybe I should say, sharing that level of pain. The truth is, I let the dog comfort me far more often than I let my ex-husband comfort me. Am I alone in that?

Yes, yes, he (husband, not dog) is a guy with all the limitations their gender suffers from, but he's a good guy who wanted to be there, who saw me and loved me and pushed himself to be his better self. Why did I cry in the bathroom with the water on? Or wait until he left the house and then fall, face first, onto the dog?

Maybe I wasn't so right

Sometimes an unexamined life is way better. It was all so much easier when it was his fault. So let's go directly to the source. The New York Times. Here's what Natalie Angier wrote about why we love our pets. But as I read it I see she's really explaining why so many women sob face-first into their pets.  

"Pets are reliable from one year to the next, and they're not embarrassed or offended by you no matter what you say or how much weight you gain. You can't talk to your teenage daughter the way you did when she was 3, but your cat will always take your squeal. And should you overinterpret the meaning of your pet's tail flick or unflinching gaze, well, who's going to call you on it?

"Animals can't object if we mischaracterize them in our minds," said Lori Gruen, an associate professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University. "There's something very comforting about that."

If I ever love a man again, and he loves me, I hope I am brave enough to cry into his shoulder first. I could give it a try, right? What have I got to lose? If the guy can't take it, there will always, always be a dog who can. 

Here are more thoughts on grief and healing:

Moving Mind and Body: Can exercise heal you?

This is your brain on grief 

Why does Charlie Sheen make $32 million a year and we don't?

The Hierarchy of Grief: Who hurts the most?

How to help grieving friends

So, what DO you say to grieving friends?

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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