How marriage survives an environmental awakening

Let’s face it, some of us are just more environmentally conscious than others. 


Politically, we know how to handle that:  we propose policies at the appropriate levels of government, take a vote, and either set them or don’t. 


But what about romantically? 


According to a recent articlein the New York Times, marriage counselors are seeing a rise in the number of couples who are on the verge of divorce because one partner thinks the other isn’t “green” enough.


“Ms. Cobb chides (her husband) for running the water too long while he shaves or showers,” the Times writes, “and she finds it ‘depressing,’ she tells him, that he continues to buy a steady stream of items online when her aim is for them to lead a less materialistic life.”  He says she’s entered her “high priestess phase” – and points out that these issues weren’t on her radar when they married.


It’s not just couples – it’s parents and children, brothers and sisters, and most definitely friends, who are feeling the strain between those who aren’t environmentally conscious enough and those whose awareness has perhaps been raised too much.


“In households across the country,” according to the Times, “green lines are being drawn.”


Reporters wonder if this represents a new phase in couples counseling, but Ann Bernhardt, who chairs the Marriage and Family Therapy specialization in Saybrook’s Graduate College of Psychology and Humanistic Studies, doesn’t. 


The details of the argument may change, she says, but the dynamic is relationship 101. 


“The process of couples reaching a culminating argument is a familiar tipping point by which they test the waters of their commitment,” she says.  “Even when couples share similar values, they are not mirror reflections of one another, and the stark truth that each is a separate individual begins to coalesce.  These arguments cement that fact.”


Fairly often, Bernhardt says, these aren’t arguments about something that one member of the couple just doesn’t care about:  a  couple where one member honestly doesn’t care about the environment is much less likely to fight about environmentalism than a couple where both care … but not as much.  Thus “these arguments generally contain something that both links and separates the couples,” Bernhardt notes. 


As a result, they tend to involve one or both partners trying to use an outside ideal … environmentalism, religion, politics … as a club in a fight for dominance:  effectively saying “I’m right, and this important thing is on my side!” 


“That’s a triangulation, and fairly classic,” Bernhardt says.  And the solution is to win by losing – by accepting that your partner is a separate individual.  “That’s sometimes extremely difficult, because it creates a mourning process of the loss of the partner that one thought one new.  Pulling back projections and accepting the partner as is can feel like a defeat.”


In reality, however, it is a gain:  a chance to renew an authentic intimacy with a person, rather than a projection.  Marriage is always about finding it in your heart to love someone different than yourself.

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