A few weeks ago, my husband Michael forwarded me the NY Times article, “Therapists Report Increase in Green Disputes“:
As awareness of environmental concerns has grown, therapists say they are seeing a rise in bickering between couples and family members over the extent to which they should change their lives to save the planet.
In households across the country, green lines are being drawn between those who insist on wild salmon and those who buy farmed, those who calculate their carbon footprint and those who remain indifferent to greenhouse gases.
Wondering if Michael was trying to tell me something by forwarding that article, I cornered him one Sunday afternoon while he was minding his own business and quizzed him on his feelings about my plastic-free ways and whether or not he felt I judged him. Here are just a few snippets of our half hour conversation.
[This video uses YouTube's new Closed Captioning feature.]
Michael’s an awesome guy. And it turns out, we really don’t have many disputes in the green arena, just different areas of concern and opinions on how to tackle green issues. But I wondered about other couples. So I questioned a few green blogger friends and even a few of their partners. But first, I wanted to follow up with one of the interviewees in the actual Times article because, as it turns out, she lives not far from me in Marin County.
Chrise de Tournay is the founder of the EcoMom Alliance and was more than happy to add to her comments published in the NY Times. She said that while her husband is out in the world working to make big changes to address pollution from the maritime industry, he feels that the small changes she is making in their home, like insisting that containers be recycled properly or setting up a gray water system, are unimportant on a large scale and that he really doesn’t want to bother.
But for Chrise, these changes do make a difference. As a full-time mom, there are a few things she can do on a public level: support environmental legislation, write letters to the editor, vote with her purse. But it’s in the home where she has the most influence, and she’d like her husband to back her up on green measures that affect their family. Chrise says,
If I weren’t running a home, I might be out doing huge environmental policy work, but we have to start where we are. These small changes add up. I’m a mom. And I want my home to be a teaching home for our children….
What he sees as little, I see as doable. I like to feel I have some power.
She also wonders if asking her family to recycle or to turn off lights and faucets is any different from asking them to pick up their shoes and socks. In a home, there will be power struggles whenever one partner asks the other partner to change.
From my experience, making green changes myself doesn’t lead to arguments. It’s when I ask someone else to change that power struggles ensue. This seems to be the case in other homes as well. When I put out the question on Facebook, I got a terrific reply from my Facebook friend Jesse, who told me that to get her partner to adopt new practices, she tries to make them fun, and he “gets swept away” by her enthusiasm. Jesse decided to interview her partner and emailed me his responses.
He says she makes it easy to want to make green changes because she “wasn’t a downer.”
She wasn’t like: “Oh I used 4 kilowatts of energy today! I’m such a bad person! It’s the 11th hour!” She made it fun, like “Guess what! I found a used table at the thrift store, so we don’t have to buy a new one! And I want to try tilapia, I hear it is better for the environment.” It’s nice. When she says it like that I am happy to try tilapia.
He also says that Jesse’s learning about environmental issues has been gradual, and he’s been involved in the process all the way. And he goes on to say:
I do the green living stuff because it is important to her, because I want to make her happy. But even when I am away from her I try to be more green because it is now ingrained in how I go about my day. Like at the office I do double sided copies to try to save paper. And I wash out my lunch containers and bring them home. And I pushed my boss to have a recycling program at work. And I come home and say ‘I did this good green thing at work today’ and she is happy and hugs me and tells me how great I am.
Michael actually said similar things during our conversation. And in fact, he has been the one spearheading all kinds of recycling at his law firm. In addition to setting up and monitoring the recycle bins in the office, he has also signed up for the Terracycle program, which he mentioned in the video, as well as Tyvek envelope recycling. See? I really am proud of him.
Putting the question to the green blogosphere, I found another woman who had interviewed her partner. Karen Cannard, who blogs at The Rubbish Diet, learned that her husband sees both benefits and drawbacks to his wife’s waste-free lifestyle. For example, he never has to take out the trash anymore. But a few issues bother him, for example the clutter of stuff she refuses to throw away:
Well, I find it really annoying that things destined for the black bin are snaffled away and relocated to a corner of the house in a way that resembles a mini waste-transfer-station, and that they are then left to hang around on a long-term promise of being taken off to a charity shop.
I’d better not let Michael see this article. He forgot to mention that little issue during our conversation. You should see the growing pile of stuff in our front room and back hall to be returned to stores or taken to Goodwill or the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. It’s never-ending. And I don’t even buy many new things anymore!
Lisa Sharp, from Retro Housewife Goes Green, allowed me to interview her husband Justin. He also sees pros and cons to his wife’s green lifestyle. While he writes with a *grin* that she is an “eco-friendly pain-in-the rear,” he also says that he’s happy she gets to do something she loves. While he hates having to give up using paper towels, he does appreciate some of the green changes that he sees as benefiting him:
anything that affect me personally health wise and my well being. Some examples are organic food, especially taking HFCS and conventional meat out of my diet, not using chemical cleaners, and reusable water bottles. Reducing energy costs is also something I have seen as beneficial.
In fact, saving money seems to be a benefit of green living that many partners appreciate. Nancy Baldwin from Surviving and Thriving on Pennies writes that her green enthusiasm was harder for her partner at the beginning of their relationship, but in the ten years they have been together, they have practically become of one mind. Here’s her description of an incident that occurred early in their relationship:
One day I decided to string up some wire so I could hang up some towels to dry. When my boyfriend (not married just yet) came home, he wasn’t happy about it. I explained to him how this could save us a little money by hanging them to dry but all I got was a funny look on his face. So he explained to me it wont save us much money, looks really bad, and I used his stereo wire that was super expensive so my saving money idea really ended up costing us. This was the beginning of our green life.
But over the years, he has enjoyed making the green, money-saving changes, buying an energy-efficient car, riding his bike to work, buying furniture on Craigslist, and to use his handyman skills to repair and refurbish the things they have rather than buying new.
Jenn Sturiale from Tiny Choices wonders if women in general are greener than men. Perhaps men are no less eco-minded than women, but like Michael, have different priorities or different ways of viewing what living green means.
If you and your partner are at odds about what green living standards should be practiced in the home, all is not lost. Sierra Black from ChildWild, in response to the NY Times article, has come up with a great list of tips for how to negotiate those issues. In addition to setting a time to talk, being specific, and starting small, she thinks it’s important to be realistic.
You and your partner have to live together, but you’re not the same person. It’s appropriate to ask your partner to cooperate on household items that affect you both or require resources from both of you. It’s important for each of you to be able to make your own choices about issues that are more personal.
And Courtney from The Greenists says that the best thing we can do is lead by example:
…while this is important work we’re doing here, there’s no need to start fights with people about it. As someone whose boyfriend recently rained down The Shame upon her for owning an electric blanket, trust me — everyone will be happier if you practice a little restraint.
Remember: You can’t control what other people do, you can only control what you do.
What kinds of issues around green living do you face in your home? Are there other issues that those in same-gender relationships or non-traditional living arrangements face? And what methods do you use to navigate this sometimes sticky subject?
Here are a few other bloggers who responded to the NY Times article with thoughts of their own:
Lisa from Condo Blues: Going Green: What Happens When Your Family Doesn’t Agree?
Jenn from The Green Phone Booth: Greening the Spouse: Welcome Challenge or Hopeless Cause?
Jenn Savedge on Mother Nature Network: Drawing a green line in the sand
A version of this post appears on Blogher.com.