I‘ll be offline much of the next few days for the Passover holiday. This is a subject we’re talking about in the Adapting-in-Place class, and one that comes up a lot – how do you make environmental changes with a spouse who isn’t on board? What happens when this strains your marriage?
I get emails more or less constantly on this subject: “I want to prepare for peak oil/live more sustainably/change my life to deal with climate change and my spouse (and/or the rest of my family) don’t want to, or don’t think it is important enough.”
This is something I’ve heard over and over – marriages struggling when partners have different ideas about what the right thing to do is. I’ve known several that have broken up over this issue, and a couple of others that are teetering on the brink. And besides the fact that divorce is always sad and traumatic, there are real and serious reasons that people are better off going into hard times with stable marriages and good support systems. Divorce impoverishes everyone, adds to stress levels, tends to reduce the quality of life for children and makes joint decision making difficult. How, for example, will two intertwined but hostile divorced families, decide whether a move to a cooler climate or a more walkable neighborhood is appropriate? Taking care of our primary relationships is really important.
On the other hand, I also understand the perspective of someone who feels frustrated and angry that they want to make changes they think are essential, but can’t because of a spouse or partner. Eric and I have not always worked in perfect tandem, let us say. And yes, these critical daily life things really do matter – 300 million Americans using all the water, coal-fired electricity and gasoline they want make a huge difference. So yes, it does matter how you do the laundry or what you buy. That doesn’t, however, make it easy to change.
I’m not at all sure I’m the right person to give advice here, but as long as it has been asked, never let it be said that I didn’t have something, however useless to say . We will assume for the purposes of this discussion that the marriage was basically loving and healthy, and that if it isn’t – if there are deep, insoluble problems, violence or other bad stuff, you’ll either involve professionals or reconsider being married. We’ll also assume (which I think should be obvious, but just in case it isn’t) that when I say “marriage or family” I mean “the person or people you love, care for, share stuff with and live your life with” regardless of gender, number or formal legal relationships.
I’m pretty lucky on the marriage front. My husband is a confirmed pessimist, and deeply opposed to change of any kind, but he’s also a professor of astrophysics, and he teaches things like planetary biology, environmental physics and geophysics. So when we met, Eric was already generally aware of peak oil and climate change, and concerned about them, although not enough to overcome his basic sense that change is bad .
Either fortunately or unfortunately, my husband married a perennial optimist who adores change, gets bored easily, and believes in personal solutions. He has described being married to me as hanging on for dear life to a runaway freight train, and he regularly observes that if it were left up to him, (we’ve been together 15 years) – he thinks he might have been ready to pop the question by now.
Had I warned him when I was harassing him into getting married that a decade later he’d have four kids, 27 acres and be a farmer, I’m pretty sure he’d have run screaming into the night. Right before my talk at the Community Solutions conference, while on the phone with my beloved, I told him I was praying for courage when I got up there, and Eric answered (with the exaggerated patience he uses when he thinks his wife is completely over the edge), “Honey, do you think you could pray for something you don’t already have an excess of…like common sense.” (This made me laugh so hard I couldn’t talk for a while, which was helpful for me, and probably restful for him. It also illustrates why I am married to him – because he always makes me laugh.)
All of which is just a way of saying that I not only have had the experience of disagreeing with my spouse about what should be done and when and how fast, but I also have some sympathy for him. The problems in marriages often come from both sides. I say this also as a person who has been divorced (brief, early marriage, still friends – hi Matt!) and who is the child of several generations of divorce. I have no illusions that dealing with this stuff is easy. Which leads me to axiom number 1 about the sustainable marriage.
#1 The Problem Might Be You
Let’s say you recently discovered peak oil, and you are aware that energy shortages are likely forthcoming. Or perhaps you are concerned about climate change and want to make radical emissions cuts. You want to preserve the future for yourself and perhaps your family. And it doesn’t seem like you have a lot of time. Now your spouse has looked at a few of these things, but they haven’t the dozens of hours researching that you have, and after obsessively reading websites and trying to figure out what to do, you go to your spouse of a decade and tell them, “Ok, we have to get a farm. And goats. And grow all of our own food. We have to get rid of your jeep right now and get a hybrid. And reinsulate the house, and start a community garden. The end of the world is coming. Stockpile food. Give up your hobbies. Stop going to movies. And I’m way, way, way too stressed to have sex.” Now I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this really does sound crazy .
I think a lot of people, confronted with the realization that the world is changing and that they have to change too, panic. It can be difficult for even the most loving spouse to absorb the new material, or deal with the fact that their darling has decided that they have to change their entire life and lifestyle *right now.* If there are kids, this can be even tougher, both because kids sometimes don’t want their lives to be changed, and also because it can be very hard for parents to envision a future in which their children are deprived or in any way impoverished. While you may believe that the climate change/peak oil future means impoverishment anyway, and that it is better to prepare ahead, your spouse may just be hearing “My husband doesn’t want my kids to be normal/have as much as we had/be safe and secure.”
I think the first and most important thing to recognize is that in any troubled marriage, some of the problem is almost certainly you. And since someone has to compromise, it might as well be you – at least half of the time, maybe even a little more. Remember, even if this stuff hits you like a ton of bricks, other people absorb things differently, over time. Back off a little. Let things go if you have to. Sometimes it isn’t important to be right. You may be right, but the cost of being the right one may not be worth it.
So take a deep breath, go slow, and try again in a few days or weeks. See if maybe it is your approach, rather than your partner’s intractability. I say this as someone who really likes to win arguments. It has taken me some time to recognize that it isn’t always worth winning, and sometimes, winning is losing.
But let’s say you have backed off, or that you approached the issue calmly to begin with. How do you get a reluctant spouse to consider changing? This leads me to axiom #2.
2. The Best Techniques Are the Ones that Already Work
My husband is cheap. As a graduate student, in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, he managed to accumulate a savings of 18K over 5 years – never making more than that in a year, and paying nearly half his income in rent. Eric never met a dollar he didn’t want to put away. And I’ve found over the years, one of the best techniques to get him to do things is with the enticement that it will save us money.
In other cases, you might connect with a spouse by emphasizing the excitement to be had, or the good physical exercise, the better food, the weight loss, the shared time together, the more relaxed lifestyle, the family bonding, the spiritual benefits. Remember, your spouse isn’t you – they aren’t necessarily motivated by the things that motivate you. So if you are driven by the desire to live ethically, remember, that your spouse might be more driven by the desire to live beautifully – and if you can phrase this in aesthetic terms, as a way of extracting greater quality from fewer resources, you might be more persuasive.
I’m not suggesting you manipulate your spouse, or at least n
ot do so sneakily (do any marriages exist where there isn’t a sort of mild mannered, friendly, self-conscious mutual manipulation?). But my observation is that carrots are usually better than sticks, and honey is better than vinegar, and if you’ve been paying attention to this person you love at all, you’ll know what kind of honey to offer.
What if that doesn’t work? Then comes aphorism #3.
3. Treat It as a Hobby
If you simply can’t get your spouse on board, but you want to make changes, you may have to accept that the onus for doing this stuff is on you. In that case, what you want is for your spouse to accomodate you as much as possible. And for that, you need to present your new sustainability project as your wacko hobby.
The thing is, as long as you present this as a moral imperative, your spouse will keep arguing with you (or at least mine would – because, after all, if this is an imperative, there’s no getting around it. But if you present your passion for off grid living as your crazy obsession, that your wife/husband can roll his/her eyes at and tell his/her friends, “yeah, some people’s wives/husbands collect classic cars or reenact the civil war, travel around the country attending chili cookoffs or decorate their entire home in pig themes – my nutcase spouse believes that we’re entering a period of energy depletion and rising global temperatures and wants to do the laundry with a hand washer and put solar panels on the roof. At least it is better than Lee’s husband who insists on taking all their vacations to places where he can photograph radio towers. Sigh.”
The beauty of this is precisely that many people, even most, have obsessions that cost their family money and time and about which their spouses mostly roll their eyes and complain. But generally speaking, the eye rolling and complaining isn’t too serious. This is what you want, if you can’t get outright cooperation.
That is, the goal is to have your spouse complain with a certain of amusement that this is the price they have to pay for loving you. What you do not want, under any circumstances, is for your spouse to feel that they truly do have to pay a high price for loving you.
It goes without saying, however, that you can only have one nutjob hobby at a time. So if you are going to be obsessed with preparing for environmental depletion, you have to give up your giant collection of salt and pepper shakers shaped like cartoon characters, your first edition buying habits or the three half-rebuilt boats on your front lawn. Sorry, but no spouse on earth has to put up with more than one crazy hobby. Two is reasonable grounds for divorce .
Axiom #4 is: Give it Time and Get them Involved with Community
Give it time seems to me self evident. Remember, the evidence that we were going to run out of cheap oil has been in front of all of our noses for decades – but a lot of us chose not to know. The evidence for climate change has been mounting for 30 years and more – but a lot of us chose not to know. And then, one day, it clicked. But it is important to remember that you, just like your partner, were in denial. And just because their denial hasn’t collapsed yet doesn’t make them bad, any more than you were.
The thing is, the longer they live with you and the more they are confronted with evidence and reality, the better the situation is likely to become. I know several people whose spouses initially felt that they simply couldn’t handle hearing all the bad news all the time, but who gradually have come to be more comfortable with this. Some people learn things slowly and gradually, and you need to give your partner time. This can be really hard when you feel like we may only have a short time of relative prosperity to prepare. But remember, you can begin preparing on your own, where you are, with what you have. You can start learning to dehydrate food, chop wood, grow a garden anywhere, even if just in a window box. You can buy less, do less, live more gently anywhere.
The other thing that works well, I think, is to involve your spouse in a community. That is, take them to a local environmental group, a peak awareness group, or a local conference. Let them make friends. I think it can be hard for people who have found community on the net to imagine how seperate from this your spouse may feel without any such community. And some partners just aren’t the net type – Eric isn’t. He likes hands on, direct contact with people. The first time my husband met another homesteader he was thrilled, because he finally saw, viscerally, that there were other people like us.
Sometimes all someone needs is a support network, or to see that they aren’t the only weirdo around, or to add some people to their circle of friends who will validate what they do. Or perhaps they need to hear things from someone more authoritative than their spouse. I know this is hard for us to understand, but occasionally the fact that your spouse has seen you naked, scratching your ass means that they might not be inclined to take every word that comes from your mouth as though it were conveyed from on high. It can be helpful for them to hear the same information from people who wear clothes and whose baby pictures they’ve never seen.
Axiom #5 Give Credit Where Due
I think this is really important. Because it is easy for the person interested in sustainability to say “you don’t care about the environment.” And the other person ends up eternally cast as the bad guy, which no one likes. If you want your spouse to appreciate that you are trying to preserve a future for yourselves and your kids and future generations, you need to appreciate both the things they do that are already environmentally sound, or the places they are willing to make changes, but also appreciate *why* they are reluctant or concerned.
By this I mean that it is not only important to thank your spouse for doing things that matter to you, but also important to understand that their motivations are legitimate. For example, the spouse that doesn’t want to see your children singled out and rejected because they can’t got to McDonalds any more, or who doesn’t want to “look poor” and be pitied has a legitimate concern, and deserves to be appreciated both for what they care about and what they do.
It is hard to make changes for your children, to live with less in a society that values more, to say to your friends “we’re not going to do this thing we’ve always done.” Your spouse is not bad because they are worrying about these things. The appropriate solution is to come up with ways around these problems, or find communities that share your values, but this takes time, and it takes understanding. And when a spouse does, despite their fears, make an effort, they deserve to be loved and appreciated because of it.
I think people who are environmentally conscious like to cast themselves as independent thinkers. I hate to tell you, but we’re just as susceptible to peer pressure as everyone else – we’ve just chosen different peers. Or at least, I am. I know when Colin Beaven (aka NoImpactMan) decided to turn his electricity off, it made me feel competetive, which leads me to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, I too pay attention to what other people think of me. I’m going to bet that you do too, at least a little. So don’t give your spouse a hard time for caring what her buddies or his mother think of this project. Everyone lives in the world, and has to deal with it.
The hardest issues are the really big fundamental ones. And of course, a lot of these are deeply tied up with peak oil and climate change. That is, things like “what kind of home shall we live in?” “What shall I do to make a living and how much money should we have?” “What standard of living will we have?” “How often shall we visit our families?” “Should we have children?” “How many children?” These are tough questions, and a couple that has been on the same page until now may find that they are unable to resolve them. Which leads me to the hardest axiom, #6.
6. Sometimes, it is Better to Lose the Game and Win the Series
The above is the only baseball metaphor I’ve ever used or am likely to use . This one is awfully tough, and while I’ve got experience here, it isn’t something that I really want to give airplay on the blog. But suffice it to say, early on my husband and I had a really, really bad time. And in the end, the thing that I think salvaged the relationship was that when we reached an impasse, I gave in, and did something I thought was not the right choice, simply because I loved him. I could have fought it as a scorched earth battle, but I would have lost my not-yet-husband, and more importantly, it would have established a precedent that meant that next time, he would never have an incentive to give in. That’s not why I did it – it wasn’t a tit for tat thing – but ultimately, the marriage could only survive if both of us were willing to cede to the other for the other’s benefit sometimes.
Now all of this assumes that your marriage is worth the price, but if it is, I’d say that you should give in on at least half, and preferrably more than half of the tough issues. That’s not to say you should do things you think are morally wrong, but at the very least you should recognize that someone has to give way sometimes.
Things get more complicated if there are children involved. What happens if you think that they choice, say, to stay on the Gulf of Mississippi might lead to the death of your kids? Or what happens if you feel it is absolutely wrong to bring a child into this world, and your spouse wants a baby? In those cases, you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I can only hope that you and your spouse both love each other enough to find compromise ground – maybe to move to higher ground in the region, or to adopt together. I don’t pretend it is easy. But again, I think the best possible precedent you can set for one another is to have a long history of saying to one another, “Ultimately, I care about you and your happiness enough to make some compromises.”
Axiom #7 – Make it Fun
Extracting the most joy and quality of life from the fewest resources is really cool. Period. No debate. It is true that our culture hasn’t much validated the optimization exercise view of life, but that’s simply because growth capitalism requires the exact opposite model – discontentment is required to live, and more is always necessary. But the more you can make your spouse see how much pleasure there is in changing your life and living sustainably, the happier that life will be.
There’s really no reason to spend your spare time fixating on the darkest parts of this, and the spouse that says they don’t want to hear it all the time may just be protecting their own mental health (Eric refused to read _Heat_ for a good long time, for example). Instead of focusing on “the end of the world is coming, do this now.” How about “fresh salsa from the garden is so much better than this jarred stuff, and I’ve heard that bread made from wheat you grind yourself is much, much tastier.” Or “I miss the smell of line dried sheets.” Or “wouldn’t it be fun to walk together to the store and pull the kids in the wagon?”
My friend Robert Waldrop says he almost never talks about peak oil at all – he talks about good food and good health, supporting local farmers and saving money. I think that’s the right message for every spouse – tell them what is good about this, and why they should be excited by it. Hook them into a community of people who are in the same place as they are. Let them roll their eyes, and watch their faces when they taste the bread and the fresh strawberry jam. Kiss them hard, and share the taste. The rest will come with time in many cases, and if it doesn’t, what you have may still be enough.