The first time Beverly, a holistically minded nurse, met Jacques, a cheese-eating, wine-drinking Frenchman, they bonded over worms: An enthusiastic composter, Jacques offered to help Beverly start her own foray into vermiculture. But after a few dates, their very different lifestyles quickly began to emerge. "Jacques likes to joke that I've never seen a vitamin I didn't like," Beverly says. "And I kid him that he's never met a sausage he didn't like."
In addition to gently teasing Beverly about her daily supplement regimen, Jacques also refused to join her in her morning exercise ritual and dug in his heels when she suggested alternative ways he could reduce his high blood pressure. At one point in the beginning of their relationship, Jacques was battling a cold. Instead of following Beverly's suggestion to rest and eat lightly, he insisted on going out to eat and ordering steak tartare. Beverly recalls, "I had to just sit there and think, 'Oh my god, what am I in for?'"
Beverly and Jacques aren't the only couple facing the challenge of conflicting lifestyles. "We're in a period of history where there's a whole new culture coming. It revolves around what we eat and how we spend our time—doing yoga, meditating, recycling. It's a culture of consciousness, and it's slowly supplanting the old culture," says Robert Alter, a psychotherapist in private practice for 30 years and author of It's (Mostly) His Fault (Warner Books, 2006). Whenever there's a societal transition in progress, Alter says, you'll find clashing levels of acceptance and resistance.
These shifting priorities can lead to a host of thorny issues for couples, from power struggles at the dinner table to a deeper-seated disconnect. Although how we love and respect ourselves and others is "a flagship idea," says Alter, "lifestyle issues are symptomatic of a deeper division in the relationship, where one partner isn't fully respecting or connected to the other," Alter explains.
But before you throw in the (recycled paper) towel, try some simple yet profound ways to take the drama out of your domestic situation, a setting that may at times mirror the oppositional pull of yin and yang. Whether you're beginning to date or have been married for decades, you can still create a relationship where you and your partner respect each other's lifestyle choices—even if you don't practice what the other preaches.
The hardest thing for couples to learn is that blame, criticism, and nagging just don't work. "Be careful about getting fixated on the fact that what is right for you is right for someone else," says Judith Ansara Gass, MSW, a teacher of consciousness for 30 years and leader of couples retreats. "That attitude doesn't allow for the inner authority we all have as sovereign human beings." Instead of wasting energy worrying about what your partner is or isn't doing, focus on your own state of mind. "Ask yourself, 'What are the underlying issues here?'" Gass suggests. "'Am I getting afraid this relationship won't make it if this person won't shift?'"
Once you've identified your driving fears, you can address them head-on instead of fighting over how much organic carrots cost. "It's much better to deal with your fear directly than to criticize your partner," Gass says. "Say, 'I love you and I love what we have here, but I'm really scared this isn't going to work. From my heart I ask that you be willing to experiment with me.'"
Be the change
If you've addressed the deeper issues and are frustrated that your partner still isn't interested in living more holistically, focus instead on your own choices. "Be true to your convictions, and keep doing what you know is right," says Gass. And remember, you can still invite your partner to join you—whether it's eating at an organic restaurant, attending a yoga class, or composting. If he or she declines, follow through with your plan. "Be willing to be autonomous and courageous in your own choices," Gass says. "The most effective strategy is to become radiantly centered and calm and resourceful. That will translate much better than pestering someone."
For example, if you're hoping your partner will ditch the doughnuts and eat more nutritious foods, "talk less and cook more," says Ellie Krieger, MS, RD, and coauthor of Small Changes, Big Results (Clarkson Potter, 2005). "If you can appeal to his or her taste buds, you will be more likely to convert your partner."
And if your partner tends to be sedentary, Krieger suggests trying invitations—not guilt trips. "Say, 'Hey, let's go play Frisbee,' not, 'You should get to the gym more,'" she says. Or simply remain steadfast in your own exercise routine—a tactic that worked for Beverly. "I would try to get Jacques to exercise with me, and it was total resistance. I would just go do my exercises and be happy while he sat on the couch." Eventually, Jacques was inspired to get back into Pilates, something he had dabbled in years before. He bought a Pilates machine so that he could do his own exercises while Beverly did hers. "It began a real shift," Beverly recalls. "He could start feeling a difference in his physique. Now he exercises almost every day."
Alternative remedies can also be met with resistance from holistic-lifestyle skeptics. In this case, Krieger suggests appealing to your partner's intellect. For example, if your partner has a condition or an illness that you think might benefit from alternative therapies, try sharing a magazine article or a chapter from a relevant book. But don't demand compliance, she says. Your challenge is to find ways to be an effective leader.
Another important way to "be the change" is to make green lifestyle choices. Although you can't control how your partner treats his body, you do have say over what happens in your home. "Ask your partner to recycle," Gass suggests. "If they don't, dig their stuff out of the trash." This is where your leadership skills come in, as well as your commitment.
Perhaps the most influential way to set an example is in small acts of mindfulness. Krieger recommends saying grace before a meal—and it needn't be religious. "Just taking a moment to appreciate the food can lead to becoming more conscious," she says. Beyond mealtime, invite your partner to go on a hike, and make it an opportunity to explore your surroundings together. Awakening the senses is a great way to cultivate mindfulness, Krieger says.
Even with the best intentions, your partner may never fully be on the same path you are. But as long as you can respect each other's choices and communicate, it's OK. Alter defines the "relational space" between two partners as being filled with all of your interactions—conversations, gestures, even silences. If you're telling your partner about the yoga workshop you attended and he rolls his eyes, "You get major alienation," Alter explains. The solution: Model the desired behavior. If your partner wants to talk about the delicious bacon cheeseburger and fries he had with his buddies, show you're interested by asking, "What did you talk about?" and "What did you do after that?" "All these 'trivial' questions are wonderful because they're creating good feeling in the relational space between you," Alter says.
Most important, find other activities you both enjoy—a sport, listening to music, going to the theater, anything. "The more shared rewarding activities that couples can do together, the better," says Alter. When you're pursuing these activities, he explains, "you're talking to each other, you're asking questions about each other's lives, you're showing interest in each other." Try to remember that the holistic lifestyle isn't a destination; it's a journey that lasts a lifetime. If your partner isn't moving as quickly down the path as you'd like, make it a point to appreciate the changes that have happened. Just ask Beverly. "I really try and look at the whole picture," she says. Three years later, she and Jacques are still together, and Jacques has reduced his hypertension medication, slowly lost weight, and learned to love his daily protein and omega-3 breakfast shake. And the changes aren't evident to Beverly alone. "When we were in France the last time, we were out to dinner with his old friends," she recalls. "They said, 'Wow, Jacques, you really look younger.'"