Kristen Roupenian’s short story, “Cat Person,” has gone viral with its depiction of the inner life of a young woman as she endures a cringe-inducing sexual encounter. The story has become a rallying point for women who have endured bad hook-ups. But “Cat Person” also contains lessons for both men and women who want a richer, healthier dating life: for anyone who wants to avoid reenacting the ill-fated affair between Robert and Margot.
Texting is not a substitute for conversation.
The story is set in motion when Robert meets Margot at a movie theater and gets her phone number. They start texting almost immediately, sharing jokes and friendly banter. Gradually the texting seems almost intimate, complete with morning greetings and evening kisses courtesy of pucker-faced emoji. Margot even jokes that Robert is the man she plans to marry. The illusion of easy intimacy is shattered when Margot and Robert finally get together and suffer through an evening of awkward silences.
This kind of connection through texting is all-too-common in today’s dating world. We build relationships out of shared memes. We are all polyamorists in the digital age, each of us taking two lovers: one virtual and one actual. Unfortunately, that virtual lover is still just a mirage, a high definition substitute for the real thing. If we want our relationships—and even our one-night stands—to be more satisfying than the unfortunate coupling of Robert and Margot, we have to spend more of our time in the unmediated world of flesh and bone, learning how to communicate without emoji to help us.
Avoid playing power games.
Robert and Margot both have an unhealthy tendency to get involved in power plays. Margot is exceptionally attuned to the shifts in Robert’s moods, intuiting when she has wounded him with a mocking comment and feeling great pleasure in her ability to then sooth his ego. She is fascinated by her power to both hurt and heal. Robert also uses words to play on Margot’s vulnerabilities, teasing her for what he takes to be her artistic affectations. He is at his best when Margot breaks down and cries because she is too young to get into a tony cocktail lounge. He can be warm and supportive only when he has the upper hand.
We live in a time that is hyper-conscious of power—and with good reason. Power DOES shape the nature of our relationships, sexual or otherwise. There is a big difference between a boss asking you out for a drink and an acquaintance you met at a movie theater. But in a healthy relationship, there should not be a constant obsession over who has power. Lovers should be able to freely interact, gliding in and out of control as the situation requires. Relationships need to be constructed around trust and respect. A first date built around sizing up power relations is not likely to end well.
Sex is more fun if you don’t act like you’re in a porn video.
After several drinks at a more déclassée bar, Margot goes back to Robert’s house for what must be one of the least stimulating bouts of sexual intercourse ever depicted in literature. Both characters struggle to get aroused. Robert seems to be reciting lines from a porn script and Margot only gets excited by the sight of Robert staring hungrily at her naked body. Both Robert and Margot go through the motions until Robert finally comes and Margot asks for a ride back to her dorm.
Sex is not an audition for the erotic movies playing in our minds. There is no need to put on a show. All we need to do is share an act of mutual pleasure: discovering what turns on our lover, revealing what turns us on and discovering turns-ons we were never aware we had. Come to think of think of it, this would be a recipe for better pornography as well.
Communication is essential, especially during sex.
Not only is the sexual encounter awkward but for Margot, it’s completely unwanted. She is repulsed by Robert’s big hairy body and put off by his inept attempts at love-making. The only reason she goes through with the act is that she feels it would be inappropriate for her to ask Robert to stop. Margot believes she would be like someone who sends back an order at a restaurant after the food has already been prepared.
For both men and women, sex can seem as much an obligation as a pleasure. Men feel the pressure of always having to be in the mood. Women feel the pressure to go along with the man’s wishes. In the end, sex becomes a dreadful process of going through the biological motions for reasons that are only dimly understood. It is essential for both partners to be able to express what they do—and do not—want. You may not want to “ruin the moment,” but you will feel far worse if you participate in sex acts that betray your actual desires.
It’s best to reject someone both honestly and kindly.
Once Margot finally is driven back to her dorm, she wants to get away from Robert and never see him again. But she can’t bring herself to tell him how she feels. She sends half-baked excuses and tells him that she has been busy and will get in touch with him soon. It is her roommate Tamara who finally puts an end to the affair, sending a terse message that Margot doesn’t want to hear from Robert again.
Rejecting someone is never pleasant. It seems much easier to defer and delay. But, in the end, a simple clear break-up message brings closure for both partners. It may be disappointing for your partner but at least you’ve shown that person respect and consideration. You’ve let them know how you feel and that they are worthy of that knowledge.
Accept rejection with grace.
Doubtlessly, the most controversial part of “Cat Person” was the ending, where Robert reacts to his stark dismissal by apparently stalking Margot at a bar that she frequents with her college friends. After she is escorted out by her associates, Margot shudders in her dorm room as Robert sends a series of increasingly nasty and invasive texts, culminating in him calling her a whore.
While I personally thought that Robert’s brutish behavior was out of character, he did in fact, demonstrate the precise way not to act when being rejected. There is simply no excuse for this kind of behavior. Rejection hurts. It stings. It is the slap you feel when the fantasy of connection—like the one Robert and Margot had forged with their texts—has been shattered. The pain can be excruciating but it is of no use to lash out. All that’s left to do is take account of yourself and see what you can do to pick up the pieces . . .
. . . If the pieces were real in the first place.
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