A few months into quarantine, I finally moved into a pet-friendly apartment, and a short while later, brought home my new cat-friend: Beth. As in the beginning of any new relationship, there has been a bit of a learning curve as she and I adjust to each other’s routines, boundaries, and habits.
And the more I get to know her, the more I learn about the intricacies of human relationships as well. In my burgeoning relationship with my feline companion, I’ve seen many of the relationship theories in action, from Dr. Gary Chapman’s five “love languages ” to Dr. John Gottman’s concept of “bids for connection," to Dr. John Bowlby’s theory of different attachment styles.
Patience and vulnerability
When I first brought Beth home, she hid in my closet for a very long time. And when she finally did emerge to begin sniffing around and exploring, I had to sit perfectly still because any sudden, unexpected movement would send her flying back to her chosen hiding place. I chuckled as she reminded me of past men I’ve dated, or even myself, when attempting to forge a new relationship. Like my cat hiding in the closet, I remembered being deathly afraid of being hurt again and taking a long time to emerge and get to know a new person.
I also marveled at the bravery and the resilience it took on her part to begin exploring and adjusting to a new home. This reminded me that probably many people I have gotten to know over the years have felt the same way—overcoming their fears and trusting me not to hurt them when starting something new.
But the vulnerability goes both ways. Now that we’re much more comfortable with each other, sometimes she’ll grasp my wrist with her two paws and pull it towards the spot on her head that she wants me to scratch. Allowing her to show me what she wanted meant letting her claws hold my very vulnerable hand and trusting that she wouldn’t scratch me. I can think of so many times while forging dating relationships when taking a deep breath and asking someone for what I really wanted was an exercise both in trusting him and in letting myself be seen and vulnerable.
Bids for connection
As time went on and we adjusted to each other’s routines, I noticed one day when I got home that Beth had begun meowing. For the longest time I had just assumed I’d adopted a quiet cat, but all of a sudden she had begun to try to tell me things! Now she will often approach me when I’m in the middle of something, or right when I get home: meowing and seeking attention.
Dr. John Gottman is a psychologist renowned for his research on marital stability and couples therapy. He refers to these kinds of attempts to grab the attention and affection of another as “bids for connection.” They can take the form of any verbal or non-verbal attempt of one partner to connect with the other.
When Beth approaches and meows at me while I am in the middle of cooking dinner, I have three choices for how to respond. I can “turn towards her” or “acknowledge the bid,” “turn away” (by ignoring or missing the bid), or “turn against” her (rejecting the bid, perhaps in a dismissive or hurtful way). With Beth meowing during dinner prep, turning towards might look like following her to the carpet where she will likely flop down and want a belly rub. If I rub her belly for a minute before returning to chop some mushrooms, that would be acknowledging her bid for connection. Turning away might look like ignoring her completely so that eventually she would give up meowing at me. Turning against could be something openly hostile like shouting at her, “Leave me alone, I am busy right now!”—which honestly would frighten her a great deal.
I’ve tried my best to honor these bids for connection and turn towards her when she makes them, even if it means minorly inconveniencing myself here or there, because I truly do want our relationship to flourish. And by responding to her bids for connection consistently, we’ve built the trust that if she voices her needs, they will be acknowledged and met the best I can, either in that immediate moment or the future. In creating the habit of turning towards Beth when bids for connection are made, I am acknowledging that those desires are heard and understood, which cements an underlying foundation of trust.
Clarity, communication, and boundaries
As with any relationship, sometimes we’re on different wavelengths, and Beth wants attention or space when I want the opposite. Sometimes she will approach and meow to be petted while I’m writing on a deadline. Or I want to snuggle while watching TV, and she’s already curled up in her spot for bed. In both of these instances, we’ve developed ways to turn towards each other while still maintaining boundaries. If she wants to cuddle while I’m writing, I will pet her for a little while before returning to my work, and lately I’ve developed the habit of patting her on the back twice to let her know petting time is “over” before I return to writing.
Conversely, when she wants to sleep, she will put one paw over my wrist and lower my hand to the floor to say she’s “done” being petted and wants to sleep now. It took a couple of tries before I understood what this single paw meant, but now I recognize it immediately. Knowing what her boundaries are and deferring to them helps me appreciate the moments when we are on the same wavelength—and to recognize that even if we aren’t in sync at any given moment, it doesn’t mean we’re fighting or on the outs. There are always opportunities to connect and get back in the same zone after some time spent away from one another.
Before owning a cat, I really thought that time spent together meant accomplishing a task together: a discussion, cooking a meal, or watching a show, but I’ve come to appreciate sharing space with another and yet engaging in our own separate activities as a valuable way of spending time together. I’ve translated my experience living with a cat into the clearer language needed to communicate to people when I need my own time and space away. And I’ve learned to pay attention to those little cues in my friends and family: when they’re letting me know they’re tired, done with a conversation, busy or too frustrated to mentally handle talking right now. I’ve also begun to stop taking rejections like these so personally, but instead see them as a deepening of shared meaning through communication.
This brings me to the concept of “love languages.” According to Dr. Gary Chapman, there are five ways that we gravitate towards giving and receiving love in relationships: quality time, words of affirmation, physical touch and affection, acts of service and gift giving. You can even take a short quiz here to find out which best represents you!
It was a few months into living with Beth before I realized that I could apply the concept of love languages to our relationship. Since then, I’ve found that physical touch and quality time are expressed when I play and cuddle with her. I also realized that gift giving is another way I can communicate affection to her, and I made a point of getting her a special treat of sardines in anchovy for our three month adopt-iversary.
However, a real shift occurred when I began to make a point of initiating play and cuddling with her, and I’ve learned to take the initiative in my human relationships as well. Often knowing and recognizing a partner’s love language is a great start, but when we begin to lead with these languages, connection can really be taken to a deeper level. I know from personal experience how tricky and challenging it can be to “rewire” one’s brain to think in the love language of one’s partner—especially if their language is not one you naturally gravitate towards! But just like learning any new skill, practice and patience are of the utmost importance here. I know that I have appreciated the growing opportunities to slow down, reflect, and then act in love.
Attachment styles, consistency, and security in the relationship
According to psychologist and pioneer in researching attachment Dr. John Bowlby, there are four different attachment styles, or ways that humans connect on a relational level: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. One’s style of attachment, Bowlby argues, is mostly formed by upbringing: the caregiving style of one’s parents and any occurrence of trauma. Securely attached individuals trust both themselves and others to meet their emotional needs, and are able to participate in relationships without sacrificing their wants for the sake of harmony.
An anxious attachment style means that an individual does not trust themselves to be able to emotionally regulate and will often seek validation from others, which can result in giving up their own desires for the sake of relationship peace. Avoidantly attached types do not trust others to be emotionally available and will try to meet their own needs alone, rarely asking for help or letting others know their needs or desires at all. People with a disorganized attachment style cycle between anxious and avoidant behaviours, desperately seeking connection but not trusting others to meet it, often evidenced by a “come here, go away” pattern.
My favorite thing about attachment theory is that it proposes that a person’s style can change and grow as she does. Because I myself am not naturally a securely attached type, I have appreciated the chance to practice these healthier attachment patterns with Beth.
A huge part of building our relationship over these last three months has been consistency and honoring promises to myself and others, which can often be a struggle for insecurely attached types. For example, Beth and I have developed a bedtime routine that we both know and recognize, and she will sit patiently waiting for me outside the bathroom as soon as she sees me begin to brush my teeth. Once this routine starts, she knows that I will soon come out of the bathroom to brush her fur before climbing into bed. Once I climb into bed she also settles down for the night. It bookends the day and makes her feel comfortable and secure knowing that she can trust that this routine will continue.
Similarly, last month I was part of a live online theater show, and she learned to recognize that when I was setting up my laptop and ring light in the same spot in the apartment, it meant I wouldn’t be available for the next three hours. She would rarely come over and interrupt me during this time of the day, and I think this was due to the fact that she recognized the routine. Sometimes I would even set up early, so that she would know what was coming later in the day and not be caught unawares.
Translating this practice to my personal life (or human life), I have seen firsthand the fruits of communicating honestly and proactively with people. Whether telling a man after a date that I would like to see him again in clear language (I literally just used those exact words!), or managing expectations with friends (“No, I can’t continue hanging out after this, I have a Zoom call I’ve got to get ready for.”) it has made a world of difference when it comes to my own relational communication practices.
I’ve been so grateful for this chance to practice building a healthy relationship with my cat, using all of these different tools and practices that I knew in theory. And I can say that welcoming an “other” into your life can be a beautiful growth experience—whether it’s a pet or a person!
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed Dr. Chapman's "Love Language" and Dr. Gottman's "bid for connection." We have updated the article and regret the error.