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Letter #25: Closeted Vegetarian

My wife hates vegetarians. They never did anything to me but I like to play along with her and joke about how sad they are and how they’re missing out. But secretly, I want to be a vegetarian.

Eating food that my wife and my mother-in-law cooks is an important part of our culture. I’ll come home early from work Thursdays to cook dinner. But every other weekday my wife does the cooking. Sundays we eat at her Mom’s.

My wife once joked, “if you ever become vegetarian, I’ll divorce you!” I laughed and said, “You don’t have to worry. They’re gonna have to pry this pig foot from my cold dead hands!” But deep inside, I knew it was a lie. I’d rather eat broccoli. What should I do?

You should tell your wife that you’re considering being vegetarian.

Normal people treat people they know differently from strangers. It’s very common for people to make fun of those different from them as long as they don’t happen to know any members of the group. This is true for both serious issues and minor ones. If their child comes out as gay, most people will reconsider their homophobia. If their best friend is a huge fan of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, they might start defending people who like it and keep the “inner goddess” mockery to conversations that their best friend isn’t in.

Your wife is likely to have a lot of questions about your vegetarianism. You will probably want to think of a simple explanation of your reasons: for example, you might say “I read about factory farming and discovered that animals are held in horribly cruel conditions which we’d never subject a cat or dog to.” You’ll want to have answers to common questions, like where you’ll get your protein and how you can still join in with family dinners. You might want to think about how to reference values your wife has. For example, if your wife believes in prioritizing her husband over her family of origin, you might mention that when you ask her to defend your choices to her mother. If your wife cares about climate change or loves animals, you might mention those issues.

There’s a pretty big chance that your wife’s response is going to be “oh my god, I’m so sorry,” because she loves you and cares about you and doesn’t actually want to threaten you with divorce. But for some people — especially if disliking a particular group is part of their identity — it can take a while to adjust. Most of the time, people will come to accept your new feelings! But the transition period can be rocky.

You might want to plan how to set your boundaries in the difficult transition period. If your wife insults vegetarians, you might want to say something like “I want to be a vegetarian, that hurts my feelings.” If your wife is behaving in a cruel way and won’t stop, you might want to say “I don’t like being treated like this. I’m going to leave and come back when you’re calmer.” Having a plan ahead of time can make it easier to handle.

(Of course, as with any script, adjust for your own relationship and manner of speaking. Do, however, make sure to avoid attacking your wife — that will likely make her defensive.)

It may help, given the importance of food in your culture, if you’re willing to compromise. For example, maybe you can practice Vegan Before 6: you eat a vegan diet for breakfast and lunch, then eat whatever your wife and mother-in-law cook before dinner. Or maybe you can cook only vegetarian meals yourself, while eating your wife and mother-in-law’s cooking. (If you do that, be sure to invest in a good vegetarian cookbook! You’ll need to convince them that vegetarian food can be just as delicious as food with meat.) Or maybe you cut out chicken and fish, while continuing to eat pork and beef. This sort of compromise can make you seem cooperative with things your wife cares about, while still allowing you to reduce your meat consumption. Once your wife understands that food is still important to you and you are not a laughable and pathetic human being, you may be able to reduce your meat consumption further.

Finally, it is possible that after a while your wife will not adjust to your desire to be vegetarian. Some people don’t. In that case, you’re going to have to take a long hard look at your options. You can decide to stay in a relationship with your wife and eat meat, even though you have objections to it. You can stay in a relationship with your wife and put up with her hostility: she can’t force you to eat meat if you don’t want to. She can get angry about it, but you can actually just do things that make your wife angry. (In this case, the broken record technique — calmly repeating variations of “I don’t want to eat meat” (or whatever) without getting caught up in your wife’s hostility— will be your friend.) Or you can decide that you don’t want to stay married to someone who is cruel to you about desires that are important to you.

This is kind of a depressing note to end the letter on, so I want to reiterate that if your wife is generally a kind and loving person she is going to respond to you wanting to be vegetarian with support— even if her knee-jerk reaction is hostile. People generally treat their loved ones with far more care and compassion, and far less mockery, than they do strangers they have never met.

Good luck!

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An advice column project run by Ozy of Thing of Things. Send in letters to thingofthingsadvice@gmail.com. Letters may be edited for space.

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