Arguing about Brexit or a sudden swing towards veganism? Your relationship can still survive
Can a marriage survive when a couple is divided over important beliefs?
To anyone unfamiliar with their domestic life together, David and Linda Armstrong seem like the perfect couple. Not that such a thing exists, of course, but this devoted husband and wife, who met while at university in Manchester in the mid-1980s and have been together ever since, seem about as close as it’s possible to be. They’re in their 50s, are physically active, intentionally child-free and have travelled the world together. Yet get them on to the subject of Brexit and it’s like lighting the touchpaper and waiting for a big explosion.
Agreeing to disagree
David is a lifelong supporter of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party and, up until Linda became “disillusioned by [former British prime minister] Tony Blair over his handling of the Iraq War and other things”, so had she been. She says that, for about 10 years now, she’s “veered towards the right”, and that includes voting for Britain to leave the European Union. This greatly upsets David, who views his wife’s stance as tantamount to treason and a figurative stab in the back to all the campaigners and activists who fought decades-long battles to achieve social justice, equality and improved human rights.
Without trivialising the situation they find themselves in, they have “agreed to disagree”, which is a diplomatic way of saying they just won’t talk about it in front of one another.
“Linda has her reasons and on some level I can see where she’s coming from, not that I would ever let on,” David says. “But neither of us will back down and it’s not worth damaging our relationship over something neither of us has any real control over.”
This pragmatic approach will no doubt keep their marriage rock solid and allow their neighbours in Dubai’s Arabian Ranches some peace and quiet. But there are other couples for whom such an issue could prove so divisive that there’s no feasible way around it.
Lizzie Thomson is a relationships counsellor in Dubai who relocated to the UAE in 2015, and she says that while many marriages can end in divorce for increasingly trivial reasons, others can survive the hardest imaginable hits and seem to thrive on friction. “So long as it’s not friction to do with who they are,” she clarifies. “I’ve seen couples live together for decades even though they’re wildly different in belief systems, while others just fall apart over money problems, family pressures and other factors.
“Some couples realise soon after the wedding that they’re just not right for each other, and it’s rare for these relationships to be pulled back from the brink. It’s not impossible, but it does take a lot of effort from both sides and usually requires a professional to help.”
Respecting each other's choices
Most married couples would agree that long-term relationships are hard work at times. And many who end up marrying, especially at a relatively young age, find their wants, tastes and needs change over the years. Take the example of Matteo and Luisa Passerini, who moved to the UAE 11 years ago. They have two teenage children and, like the Armstrongs, appear totally devoted to one another. “We are,” Luisa says with a laugh, “despite our different views.”
Seven years ago, she became a vegan and Matteo says he still can’t get his head around it. He’s very traditional when it comes to food and, when he cooks (something he’s rather good at), he loves using cream, cheeses and, of course, meat.
“He works in engineering and is very active physically,” Luisa says, “so when he’s in the kitchen, that’s his way of unwinding. It was a lot easier for us when I was vegetarian [she was when they met] because I’d have everything the same only without the meat. Now I don’t have any dairy either, and that was a decision I made after seeing how animals are treated throughout their lives on large farms.
“I was also getting more intolerant to anything with milk in it, so I think I’d have ended up this way no matter what.
“I don’t try to influence the kids, either, and I don’t give Matteo a hard time. This was a personal decision, and I think the fact that I respect their choices means we remain a strong unit. I know other vegans who won’t eat anything that’s been cooked in the same kitchen as animal products, and if I was militant like that then our relationship would suffer.”
As for Matteo, he admits that ignorance is bliss. “Where I come from in Italy, the farming is very different, and I know there’s a lot of horrible things going on elsewhere. I try to buy organic and I’ve cut back on the amounts too, but I can’t do what Lu has done. I admire her determination and I never intentionally make her feel awkward. And she’s still the same feisty woman I fell in love with. She had strong opinions even then; it’s one of the things that makes her so special.”
It’s obvious after talking with these couples that mutual respect is paramount when it comes to making a success of things when there are wildly differing beliefs and habits playing out under the same roof. Thomson says that it’s a vital attribute even when couples and families are entirely aligned and that, even though things might occasionally get heated when discussing politics or choices – it’s important to see the person rather than the belief.
“A strong relationship is made up of two really good forgivers,” she says. “And being able to say sorry – and mean it – when they are upset goes a long way to heal things. When we feel strongly about certain issues and our partners are either ambivalent or totally opposed, that’s a lot of pressure that could expose serious flaws in the foundations of a marriage. And sometimes, maybe when there’s an election looming, things will get heated and things can be said in anger. The thing to remember is that if the fundamentals of a relationship are right, then such issues can be dealt with head-on.
“If a couple isn’t meant to be, the opposite is usually true.”