Arguing until they're green in the face

Why bicker over the chores when wrangling over global warming is so much cooler?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2008

Martin Sack was in panic mode. The cofounder of LunchDates had just confessed that early on in his relationship with his significant other, a passionate environmentalist, he sometimes not only tossed recyclables into the garbage, but plunged them deep into the can to avoid discovery.

"But I don't do that anymore," the dating expert said emphatically. "You have to write that down."

A bit nervous? Perhaps. But who can blame him? Those Earth-friendly types can turn unfriendly pretty fast. Woe to the less eco-sensitive spouse or partner who leaves unused appliances plugged in, lingers in the shower, or drives to the corner store to buy a Styrofoam cup of non-fairly-traded coffee.

As divorce lawyers say, those are "grounds." And yet, with all that people have to worry about these days - jobs, mortgages, health care, the war - who wants to be nagged about their carbon footprint?

Marriage counselors say that couples still fight mostly about the staples: money, sex, parenting styles, communication. But eco-therapists - yes, that's a real specialty, albeit mainly on the West Coast - are reporting that "green" issues are also emerging as fodder for dispute. In fact, 10 percent of respondents to a recent online poll said that the environment had been a "point of contention" in past relationships. Why bicker over the chores when wrangling over global warming is so much cooler?

"It's become a very touchy subject," said Diane Gehart, PhD, a professor of marriage and family therapy at California State University Northridge, who also sees couples in her private practice in Los Angeles. "All couples have value differences in some areas," she explained, "but these are more difficult to navigate because of the emotional charge."

Alix Clyburn, a blogger for National Geographic's Green Guide, likened eco-strife in a relationship to the situation that arises when one partner wants to stick to a budget and the other goes on a spending spree.

"It can get tense if one of you is trying to be exceedingly conscientious [about recycling, reusing, reclaiming] and the other person isn't trying at all," she said.

Even when different approaches to eco-issues don't rise to the level of argument, a soulmate's lack of enthusiasm can be disappointing, Clyburn added. For example: Her husband's analytic nature prompts him to challenge environmental "truths," including whether the cloth napkins she recently started using do indeed have less environmental impact than paper.

On the one hand, "I'm like, that's a good question," Clyburn said. On the other, she thinks: "spoilsport."

But the frustration goes both ways. Many partners who vowed to stick it out in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, didn't make any pledges about enduring the stench of cat-food cans waiting to be rinsed for recycling. Which is why one husband in Marion could be forgiven for throwing the Fancy Feast cans into the garbage.

"He hates the smell," said his wife, Terri Lerman, a teacher on leave from Old Rochester Regional High School. Lerman reported that her husband is also unenthusiastic about the empty cottage cheese containers and bits of Saran Wrap she leaves on the counter on their way to the recycling bin. And this spring should be interesting. "I intend to begin composting," Lerman said.

If you talk to enough couples grappling with environmental challenges, a trend jumps out: The less-green spouse will frequently stick it to the other by out-greening him or her. Clyburn's husband, for example, cheerfully admonished her for using a second rinse on the washing machine and idling the car. "He calls me out on things that aren't green," she said. "It's peevish in a way."

Speaking of peevish, perhaps no one's crabbier about environmental do-gooders than "Curb Your Enthusiasm" curmudgeon Larry David. After he split from his environmental activist wife, Laurie, he said he went home and "turned all the lights on." Take that, polar bears!

But how do you save the earth and your relationship? Respect and acceptance, says Lorelei Grazier of Arlington. She should know. She organized d2e, the sustainable living expo held in March at the Hynes Convention Center. Her husband is a car-loving "motor head" who "rolls his eyes" when she brings up water-bottle issues.

"But nobody likes a know-it-all," she said. "I am who I am, and he is who he is."

Specifically, he's a man who doesn't see a Prius as the perfect vehicle. And yet, she returned home not long ago to find a romantic surprise in the kitchen: a recycling bin her beloved had made from a nice silver trash can. "That's such a turn-on," Grazier said, still swooning. "It's like coming home to your husband vacuuming. It doesn't happen."

Some couples, of course, are so blissfully in tune with each other - and the earth - that they start their lives together exchanging green wedding vows and taking carbon neutral honeymoons, embarking on a life filled with lovely weekends at the recycling center and shopping for organic bed linens. But there's more than one route to happiness. For some, said Gehart, the marriage and family therapist, it's discovering what motivates the other person's environmental concern - or lack thereof - and working from there toward a solution both can live with.

For other couples, however, joy comes from not recycling together.

"Neither of us cares," admitted one busy working mother. She and her husband ask for plastic bags at the supermarket, fly without buying carbon offsets and use restaurant-supplied take-out containers rather than bring in their own Tupperware. Environmentally insensitive? Perhaps, but hey, at least it's something to bond over.

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