Vegans With Non-Vegan Partners: A Unique Dynamic
Very few of us who are vegans living with non-vegan partners encounter many people in a similar situation to ours in our daily lives. What we say in safe-space social media groups, however, reveals a great deal. We can share our victories, disappointments, indignities, and questions. We can bubble with excitement when our partner orders a vegan dish out of the blue. We can mope when a partner tried Veganuary and relapsed in February or just bought a car with leather seats. We hate the smell of meat cooking in our kitchens. We ask for advice when there’s disagreement about raising our kids vegan. We sometimes need help sorting out fundamental relationship issues (lack of respect, support, and caring) versus differences concerning food choice and identity. Anguished thoughts sometimes burst in, like “Disagreeing with the person you love about what’s right and wrong is so hard” or “How do you deal with knowing your partner will never go vegan?”
As a research volunteer for Faunalytics, I wanted to find studies that could shed light on the situation of vegans with non-vegan partners. I discovered a number of works that provided insights into to our situation as well as a book published last year offering practical guidance for vegans and their non-vegan partners and family members on relationships, communication, and navigating conflict. After summarizing the discoveries I made, I’ll share implications for animal welfare groups, and end with a few tips for vegans who have not walked in these shoes.
NOTE: All of the research studies I found used heterosexual couples as their subjects. Several of the scholars pointed out that further research should be done to understand whether and how the dynamics might differ for same-sex couples.
Why Is It So Hard To Get A Partner To Go Vegan?
The study of why each person eats what they eat is a robust sub-field shared by psychologists and sociologists. The leading “food choice” model today—the closest thing to a unified field theory—comes from Jeffrey Sobal and Carole Bisogni. Their model features no less than 14 factors framed into 3 tiers to describe a person’s decisions about what to eat. The cuisine we grew up with and our early eating experiences provide “food roots.” Social, cultural, political, and economic factors, as well as families, friends, and workplaces impact the food choice trajectories of each individual, leading to lifelong evolution and, occasionally, dramatic turning points. Psychological traits (e.g., impulsiveness, anxiety), physiological factors (a study based on twins reared separately concluded that 20-30% of our food preferences are genetically determined), and each person’s self-identity as an eater (“I’m a foodie,” “…healthy eater,” “…flexible eater”) also play into our food choices.
All of these influences are not consciously navigated every time a person is hungry. We all construct rules in our heads to govern repetitive situations and make relatively instant yes/no decisions. To significantly change our eating rules would mean consciously or sub-consciously re-examining foundational values relating to food, as well as reconciling the new behaviors with our past experiences, values, models, and sources of comfort and equilibrium.
While a vegan partner might think his or her influence would trump all past influences, in reality, that happens in only some cases, and even then we don’t know how often. The wiring in our heads that determines what we want and choose to eat is very complex, tied to many other values, belief systems, and identities, and in most cases, is fiercely resistant to significant or sudden change.
Why Do Loved Ones Give New Vegans, Especially Women, A Hard Time?
There are a multitude of studies that explore the hostility most vegans experience from non-vegans. Only a few of those studies focus on the responses from family members, and even fewer on romantic partners. One study that offers insights is Jaime Hecht’s Master’s thesis analyzing “withdrawal and backsliding” among vegetarians and vegans. She conducted in-depth interviews with 14 former veg*ns (9 women and 5 men) and found that almost all of them mentioned struggles with family and with new romantic relationships. She found that the decision to compromise (i.e., eat meat or animal products) was a common theme, especially when a new relationship was starting. Interestingly, Jonathan Hasford and colleagues found that females are more influenced by the eating patterns of males when they are in the relationship-formation stage, whereas males are more influenced by the eating patterns of females as relationship-maintenance motives become active.
Ben Merriman looked at differences in responses to men and women’s adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet. He found that males’ decision to stop eating meat was usually met with indifference or even approval from family members. But most of the women met with hostility, especially from fathers and male partners. Negative reactions took the form of argument, mockery, condemnation, and sometimes efforts to derail the diet. Merriman also explored the possibility that men might suspect that a women’s ethical justification for a vegetarian diet is a smokescreen for trying to lose weight, thus allowing men to downplay the significance and meaningfulness of the decision.
How Do Couples Decide What To Eat Together?
There have been a number of studies about how couples navigate food choices when they move in together. Older studies focused on newly married couples, while later studies have widened the lens to co-habitation in general. Older and more recent works have confirmed that most couples see eating meals together, especially the evening meal, as significant in affirming their identity as a couple and nurturing the relationship.
One important study on couples’ meal-sharing processes—not focused on vegans and non-vegans, but more general—centers on gender role preferences. Lynne Brown and Daisy Miller found that for relationships where the husband and wife had “traditional” or “transitional” gender role preferences (as measured by a validated scale), the wives tended to sacrifice their food preferences to the husbands’, even if the wife did most of the food work. When both partners favored “egalitarian” gender role preferences, neither partner’s tastes dominated the evening meals consistently. Brown and Miller also found that the process established early in the relationship for managing food preferences continued to be used for years, similar to other decision-making patterns.
Caron Bove and colleagues discovered several different food-choice convergence patterns when they conducted in-depth interviews with 20 newly married couples. They found some couples where both people compromised to about the same degree, leading to symmetrical convergence. They found asymmetrical convergence in other cases, where one person compromised more than the other. They labeled still other couple dynamics as ”food projects,” where one partner attempted to significantly change the other’s choices. Typically, the target of the project resisted the attempt and resented the “harping and nagging.” Some targets eventually modified their diets, but not all. Across the board, the researchers found that all partners practiced food individualization, either via small divergences in otherwise common meals or, at the other extreme, practicing complete dietary independence from each other.
Why Doesn’t The Main Cook In A Household Have More Influence On What The Family Eats?
Numerous studies have found that most people’s notion of a proper dinner includes meat, and that men prefer meat more than women do. Further, in the majority of families, even if the woman does most of the food work (planning, shopping, cooking), her food preferences do not dominate. Typically, she subordinates her own preferences to those of her male partner and, increasingly, to her children’s.
Dynamics around cooking duties are certainly changing. Lindsey Smith Taillie shows that the percentage of men in the U.S. who say they cooked in the home increased from 35% in 2003 to 46% in 2016, a higher jump than for women (67% in 2003 vs. 70% in 2016). Yet women still cook for a much greater length of time than men (an average of 50 minutes per day for women vs. 20 minutes per day for men).
Kathryn Asher and Elizabeth Cherry, in their literature review of barriers to vegetarianism and veganism in the domestic sphere, note the changing attitudes toward children’s food preferences. Over the last several generations, parenting styles have evolved to encourage children’s independence and give more credence to their food choices. Asher and Cherry show that the older concept of women as “gatekeepers,” who make the vast majority of the decisions about what will be eaten in the household, only weakly represents reality now and may never have been as relevant as some scholars thought.
Relationship Guidance for Vegans with Non-Vegan Partners
Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows published a new book last year called Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters. She offers straightforward, research-based guidance to help vegans and their non-vegan loved ones learn about how to create healthy relationships, how to communicate about challenging topics, and how to understand that being vegan and being an omnivore bring powerful mental models with them that can affect relationships with others.
What Are Implications For Animal Welfare Organizations?
Many organizations have noted the large number of former vegetarians and vegans (Faunalytics has done excellent research to find out more about them). Many former veg*ns cite social pressures, including pressure from families, as a cause of giving up the new commitment and lifestyle. Organizations could consider more explicitly preparing new veg*ns and veg-curious people for the difficulties they may encounter not just among friends but also in the family and with their partner. Perhaps veteran veg*ns who are in relationships with omnivores could provide sessions for interested new veg*ns on family and partner dynamics. This might help prepare new veg*ns to not take personally the reactions or pushback they will likely encounter. Providing new veg*ns with strategies for meal planning that meets both partners’ needs is another option.
More generally, animal groups should be cognizant that married and co-habitating people will often come alone to events. “Family” events should be planned carefully so that those who do not have all-vegan families still feel welcome.
What To Avoid When Conversing With A Vegan Who Has A Non-Vegan Partner?
When I am at a vegan event conversing with someone I just met, and am asked whether my husband is a vegan, after I say that he isn’t, I brace for what is often the next question: “Do you cook meat for him?” (usually accompanied by wide and curious eyes). Now I can say that I don’t, but that wasn’t always the case, and I was embarrassed when I had to admit it to other vegans. I felt like an enabler when forced to say it out loud.
It’s good to realize that there’s a certain guilt many of us harbor for not being able to get our spouse or partner to go veg. We all wish our partners ate entirely plant-based, and many of us never give up trying to make it happen.
Having a vegan partner doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free relationship, of course. Several people in social media groups have mentioned past bad relationships with vegan partners, and some say that their omnivorous partner is a good deal more supportive, even of their veganism. Others have recounted how they began a relationship with a vegan, then the person decided to go back to eating animal products.
Most of us go on hoping that our partner will one day become 100% vegan. Realistically only a small number of us will be so lucky. The rest of us will continue to set an example, offer to make vegan meals to share, savor the victories, and appreciate that, like everyone else, we will never completely understand the complexities going on in the brain of the person we share our lives with.