Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Cat or no cat? My fiancé, “Bill,” and I are in our late 40s and each have two teenagers. We have been dating for more than three years, and it’s the best, healthiest relationship either of us has ever had. We have great communication and have had little conflict—until now. We are currently looking for a home for ourselves and our kids. The biggest issue we are having is their cat. Bill got the cat years ago when his kids’ mother died and they came to live with him. They love this cat (even though it is a struggle to get them to take care of it). However, my daughter is very allergic to cats! Granted, she commutes to college and, when she’s not socializing, spends most of her time in her room, but the cat will be in all the communal spaces.
If we rehome the cat, Bill is afraid his kids will be traumatized by yet another loss and will feel that he has chosen me and my daughter over them. If we keep the cat, I am afraid my daughter will be sick and uncomfortable and feel that I have chosen Bill and his kids over her. I also secretly feel that Bill just doesn’t want to have an uncomfortable discussion with his kids should we decide to rehome the cat. He keeps sending me articles about how people mourn the loss of pets more than people, which pisses me off. I don’t know how to resolve this without creating resentments on either side, and I don’t want us to start our combined life together with conflict.
A: It’s always hard when someone tries to offload the work of a difficult conversation by simply sending one articles. I’d encourage you to go back to Bill and say, “I’d rather we talk about what we want and what we’re willing to compromise than send each other any more articles about statistics or how other people feel about their pets. I get that this is really hard for both of us, and I want to find ways to talk about it together that are practical, constructive, honest, and loving. Here’s what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid that if we keep the cat, my daughter will feel sick and uncomfortable at home and like I’ve prioritized you and your kids over her. Can you tell me more about what you’re afraid of?” If you start by acknowledging your fears and concerns, it will help you feel like you two are making a difficult decision as a couple, rather than two opponents trying to get each other to give in. It may be that your intuition about Bill is right and that he simply doesn’t want to have a tough conversation with his kids. But it may also be true that he genuinely loves the cat, and loves the joy it brings his children, and is pained at the thought of finding another home for the cat, especially since it carries memories of their mother’s death. (What’s the cat’s name? You don’t mention it.) I have to say that finding a new home for an adult cat is very difficult. Most people want kittens, and a lot of adult cats don’t get rehomed at all but either eventually get put down or spend the rest of their lives in a shelter.
I don’t know how much longer the cat has to live. It may be another year or two; it may be another 10. If your daughter were much younger I’d have a different answer, but since she’s already in college and presumably going to start living on her own in the next few years, I think there might be a bit more room to compromise on your end. (You might also float the possibility of Bill’s kids taking the cat with them when they move out themselves in the next couple of years.) In the meantime, you and your daughter can also visit an allergy specialist and find out whether there are any treatments in the way of pet-specific air filters, medications, etc., that might help alleviate her symptoms. Beyond that, you and Bill will just have to keep talking and hold off on moving in together until you can figure out a way forward. My main advice is to talk to him rather than make assumptions about his motivations.