The question: I’m a vegetarian but my boyfriend is an avowed meat eater. The complications are both practical and philosophical. Is there a future for us?
The answer: Every couple is faced to some degree with fundamental differences in terms of beliefs and values. Successful couples are able to respectfully negotiate, comprise on or resolve difficult issues. Many couples, however, are unable to work past major differences despite their best efforts. Others attend to differences in a very mindful way, yet for a range of reasons may decide that they are too great to overcome.
Dr. John Gottman, an internationally renowned marital researcher, has written an excellent book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (which I often recommended even to couples who aren’t married or co-habitating). In this book, he defines issues that lead to relationship conflict as falling into one of two categories: solvable issues or perpetual issues.
Your first task is to identify whether your dietary differences comprise perpetual or solvable issues.
Perpetual issues relate to conflicts that will never disappear from your relationship. They stem from fundamental differences in personality and beliefs. Beliefs regarding the value of all life forms, including animals, for example, may be a perpetual issue for the two of you that leads to different dietary choices. If you are vegetarian because of your beliefs about animal rights, this is likely a perpetual issue.
Solvable issues, on the other hand, are logistical or practical concerns that have workable solutions. The manner in which you and your boyfriend handle grocery shopping and meal preparation, for example, would be a solvable issue. If you are a vegetarian because you think it’s healthier, and there is no other underlying values driver, this is likely a solvable issue.
Every relationship has perpetual issues. So the make-or-break factor is not whether an issue is perpetual or solvable, but rather how the solvable ones are worked out and how the perpetual ones are managed and ultimately accepted by each partner.
It sounds like the two of you need to have a discussion about where you stand with respect to your dietary differences, as well as your associated underlying values. Certainly the two of you could have a successful, happy and strong relationship in spite of your differences. You would need to both find ways to accept that you have different beliefs, and not directly (or inadvertently) hope that the other will change these fundamental beliefs. Differences need to be approached with a healthy humour, and you have to both make an active choice to not allow this difference to taint your relationship.
You would need to agree that neither of you will force your respective beliefs on the other, nor expect the other to change their beliefs over time. Express respect and support for each other’s position. Finally, focus on the other elements of your relationship and of each other that you love, care for and respect.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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