Helen Bee Greener charts the ups and downs of sharing a life with an omnivore…
If my partner had a fiver for every time someone’s asked him whether he eats meat every chance he gets, he’d probably be able to retire to a beach mansion in the Bahamas by now. For it seems that in every relationship where there is a vegan and a non-vegan attempting to co-exist, the non-vegan will find themselves the subject of sympathy and fascination. The vegan is curiously cast in the role of oppressor; as if every night they prise cheese and ham toasties from their partner’s undernourished fingers.
I once had someone ask me if I ‘make sure’ I ‘provide’ my partner with meat. I mean, glossing over the fact that they assumed I did the cooking, it’s a concept that needs all kinds of unpicking.
It can be, without doubt, a delicate operation coming to terms when two people at different points on the ethical spectrum share a home. Leaving aside the practicalities of shopping, cooking, socialising and so on, it is the emotional baseline running through your relationship that risks bearing the long-term strain of compromising over something so intrinsic.
It is, assuredly, not a natural balance; but for many it is something they get to grips with early on, finding common ground and accepting differences. This reflects my own experience, living for more than 16 years with a sausage and cheese-loving full-on non-vegan. I can say hand on heart that it is perfectly possible to have a happy, long-term relationship seeing things with very different goggles on. I did, and I do.
How to work out a system?
Where to begin? If you agree to have meat in the house, will they cook it themselves? Will they eat vegan meals? Will you buy two sets of kitchenware? Will they agree to replace cow’s milk? Are they willing to give alternative foods a genuine try? What concessions are to be made day to day: all alcohol that comes into the house may need to be vegan, for example; similarly cleaning products and shared toiletries. These can be a big bone of contention, as they represent a broader ethical standpoint.
It still drives me nuts that, despite valiant efforts to replace basic items with supermarkets’ own, Superdrug and Lush alternatives, there is always a bottle of Unilever shower gel staring at me from across the bathroom. After 16 years. Some things are what they are.
Some things are absolute madness and make you realise we’re only just scratching the surface. Condoms, for example. They contain milk and lamb intestines. Which seems excessive and unnecessary in 2018. There are, however, vegan alternatives even for condoms – for certified ethical ones try Glyde www.glyde-condoms.com
My own experience of living with a non-vegan has shown me that the importance of simply acknowledging effort cannot be measured. I am, for example, enormously thankful for the immediate patience and kindness my partner showed to my beliefs. He has never ridiculed me, nor has he brushed my needs aside for his own convenience. I appreciate his efforts to learn more and to make change where he can.
Changes such as where we buy our household cleaners (www.astonishcleaners.co.uk), ethical pet food alternatives and eliminating palm oil from our shopping have been welcomed with no argument. We share everything in the kitchen except frying pans and griddles, of which there are two – one each for vegetables and meat; and he is fastidious about ensuring he doesn’t mix them up. It’s been an experiment in trial and error, but both open minds and boundaries go a long way.
It may be – and I’ve had such moments – that one day you realise some boundaries are too loose. Being laid back and accepting is fine, but it may strike you that using money you’ve put in to buy Christmas chipolatas isn’t a source of festive joy. Biting your lip starts to hurt after a while.
The thing is though, it’s not all about us. Though it can never be wrong to campaign for or live a life that supports compassion and sustainability, we all co-exist in society together. Compassion doesn’t begin and end with animals. Just as we may feel frustrated by the compromises we make within our homes and social lives, conversely our loved ones may feel frustrated by the burgeoning change of focus in our communities. They may begin to feel judged or, frankly, irritated. There may be more frequent trips to vegan restaurants. We now have a greater knowledge of what alcohol is vegan, so some pubs may be deemed too limiting.
Equally, the changes made by a non-vegan day-to-day cannot be overstated: how many times have our partners patiently endured hunger while we pore over multiple restaurant menus before finding one that serves something we can eat? How much time have they spent watching us read labels in shops?
They make concessions too, and there can be no moral high ground. If most vegans are honest, we wouldn’t be admitted to such a place. There may be a preconception that vegans smugly polish our halos; but it’s far from true. Sometimes achieving 80% is a Best Effort Day.
Taking positive steps
Regardless, there are difficulties. It is hard to understand, sometimes, how the soft-hearted, animal-loving person you live with eats the way they do. It’s the nature of the beast, and there are moments of genuine confusion. Even when steps are taken – they choose high welfare meat, RSPCA chicken and free-range eggs (which bring their own issues) – there is still generic cheese on toast, and milk of unknown origin, and tuna in sandwiches. Endless pepperoni pizzas pumped in and out. And it’s not that small gestures aren’t acknowledged; it’s that we feel a futility in it – and it can be frustrating.
But, in reality, the changes non-vegan partners make are not insignificant. They’re wonderful. They’ve taken a voluntary step to try to make a difference; and, most importantly, the person we love is listening. The step may be small, but the gesture is immeasurable. They care. What if more people cared? What if everyone took more steps?
When all’s said and done, you will either be OK with it or you won’t. It is, at times, an acute exercise in compromise and patience being vegan at all, let alone finding your rhythm with a non-vegan partner. If a vegan struggles with those practicalities that is their right. As with everything, patience is key. Patience to find balance with the person you are meant to be with, be they vegan or non-vegan. Which is lucky, when you think about it, because vegans are patient people.
We have always had to work slowly and steadily and look to the future. And we do it because we believe all animals deserve the right to love their families and live happy lives. We need to do the same for ourselves. Encourage and support those we love without judging them; as we hope they, in turn, will support us.
About the author
Helen has worked as a journalist and writer for more than 15 years. She has also written case studies and funding bids for charities, raising considerable sums for a variety of causes. Helen lives in Kent with her partner and rescue cat, and has been vegan for 19 years.