Food was at the heart of my courtship with my now-husband Ben. We traipsed New York City in search of the best slice, signed up for macaroni and cheese festivals, and, later, he’d delight (sometimes) in my vegetarian cooking. Even now, he’ll request a Beyond Meat burrito for dinner.
While we both love food, we don’t see eye to eye on the ethics behind it or, perhaps better put, I have a real passion for the environmental and humane aspects behind my eating, while his take is more along the lines of, “I love hot dogs.”
I’ve been eating vegetarian for more than a decade — well before Ben and I first met — while Ben’s appreciation for a fine Jersey pork roll has maybe only strengthened over the years. Still, the respect we have for each other’s food autonomy has allowed us to find compromise, and even love.
Friends used to ask how we managed when it came to sharing dinner, but our story is hardly original. Interest in plant-based eating has grown a lot in the past two decades — though it’s tough to quantify, some data suggests that the number of vegans in the US grew 300 percent from 2004 to 2019, making up 3 percent of the country’s population, while around 5 percent of adults in the US consider themselves vegetarian. And as that continues to blossom, personal values around food will continue to bring people together or keep them apart. In some relationships, sharing the decision to eat strictly plant-based matters a lot less than sharing a similar worldview; in others, abstaining from meat is the worldview.
In talking with about a dozen vegans and vegetarians who are in romantic relationships with omnivores — admittedly, a very small sample size — I’ve heard a variety of approaches to how these mixed-diet couples handle food. Overall, I’ve noticed that the plant eater typically takes on one of three roles: The compromiser, who might bend their own rules for the sake of their relationship; the converter, who works to guide their partner toward a different diet; or the contentious, who butts heads with their significant other because of their contradictory eating plan.
While I’m not vegan, I’ve learned that all three of these relationship types can be considered controversial in certain corners of the vegan community. Some vegans don’t want to swap spit with a meat eater, the most fervid claiming that the act alone is unethical. Others question how vegans could justify romance with an omnivore, who is often referred to as “omniscum” or “death breath” on online communities like Reddit.
But there are many veg-people who don’t subscribe to this thinking, who share passionate and fulfilling lives with meat eaters who they consider their better half.
Cindy Gooden, a 32-year-old vegan based in Los Angeles, was raised in a vegetarian household and stuck with the eating style well into her adult life. However, when she first started dating her now-fiance, Juan, meat began making its way onto her plate.
“The accommodation at the beginning came more from my end,” Gooden said of Juan and her eating choices. Juan, whose parents immigrated to California from Mexico, grew up eating a lot of meat, Gooden said. “I figured it’d be easier to eat what was put in front of me than to make a fuss,” especially when visiting his extended family. Plus, going out to restaurants and trying new things, like the Korean barbecued meats she’d never tasted as a kid, was fun to experience together.
Five years into her partnership with Juan, Gooden is now wholly vegan. While she’d dipped a toe into Juan’s omnivorism at the start of their romance, Juan’s willingness to cut out meat has been less generous, and this doesn’t come without conflict. For starters, “we have to put in a lot of effort into finding a restaurant that offers things both of us we want,” Gooden said, adding that she’s eager to support restaurants that provide multiple vegan options on their menu (rather than a single hockey puck veggie burger), while this isn’t a deciding factor for Juan.
Gooden does most of the cooking at home, and Juan “likes my vegan meals a lot, but usually what ends up happening is that he will very rarely eat the meal vegan,” she said. “He’ll add cheese, chicken, or an egg to [the meal] without ever trying it as intended.” To his credit, Juan has slightly adjusted his habits, swapping in chicken for much of the beef he used to eat, which Gooden says is a positive change because beef is more environmentally taxing than any other animal protein. Gooden believes that Juan “understands the moral aspect [of veganism] and agrees with it. He just hasn’t overcome this psychological hurdle of letting go of this thing that he loves and that’s such a big part of his life.”
So how does the couple reconcile? “We kind of haven’t. He’s vaguely aware that it irritates me. But it goes back to the fact that, at this time, he’s not really willing to go there,” she said.
It’s important for vegans and their potential partners to understand why they’re vegan, Marisa T. Cohen, a relationship scientist, coach, and author of From First Kiss to Forever: A Scientific Approach to Love, told Vox. Not eating animals can be something as simple as a personal food preference, but rejecting animals as food can also be more indicative of a certain type of lifestyle. If two people share diametrically opposed values around eating, Cohen said, the relationship is going to be complicated. “It’s sort of like being married with different politics today; it’s very challenging to coexist.”
For many veg-based eaters, not eating animals is more than a preference or quirk — it’s an ideology. For example, the Vegan Society defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” This is not the same as a gluten allergy or a distaste for olives. For some people, abstaining from animal products is as much of an identity as religion or deciding who to vote for. Cohen says this is why relationships with two different kinds of eaters have the potential to be so fraught.
Gooden, however, said she would never let veganism be the thing to end their relationship.
“There are so many more dimensions to our relationship, and when it comes to the other things that make a good relationship, he knocks it out of the park,” she said.
Ideally, Gooden would like Juan to go vegan, and she’s not giving up on making it happen. “I will never stop trying to convert him, but it has to be his choice. I have made some progress, and slowly, I’m making little chips in his armor.” Every time Juan goes for the vegan butter over the cow’s milk kind in the refrigerator, for instance, “that’s a win — not for me, but for the animals and the environment,” Gooden said. “Every single individual choice has a direct impact on the industries we’re trying to displace.”
Conventional relationship advice often guides couples to work to accept each other’s differences. But in some factions of veganism — or any impassioned kind of activism, for that matter — recruitment is just another part of the greater cause. From this perspective, sharing a romantic relationship with a non-vegan could just be part of that work.
A.J. Smiley, a 30-something from Cincinnati, Ohio, said that she’s “heard it argued that dating non-vegans is the more vegan thing to do,” since “your influence may end up converting [them].” This was exactly the case for Smiley, who has been with her now-fiance for the past nine years. She went vegan two years into their relationship, but because her partner has a host of food allergies, she “didn’t want to push him too hard into guilt-tripping him into veganism.”
Still, once Smiley made the switch to veganism, she insisted on some house rules. For example, she didn’t like when her partner got pizza topped with two different meat toppings, so one of these rules was that he could only eat one type of dead animal at a time. “It came to a head one night when he [had two different toppings] anyway,” Smiley said. “He kind of held his hand in front of his pizza and laughed and said, ‘just don’t look at it.’ I got serious and laid out to him about how serious this was to me — it’s not a personal aversion, it’s a moral stance.”
This incident was a critical one for the couple, and Smiley said after the discussion her partner “got more respectful and would eat vegan with me.” He even read Jonathan Safran Foer’s famed Eating Animals, which Smiley said made her partner think “about the journey whatever animal he was eating had gone on to become his meal” for the first time. Then the moment came: Halfway through a burger at McDonald’s, Smiley said her partner felt physical repulsion. By the time he’d gotten home from the fast food joint, “he was committed to veganism.” He’s stuck to this commitment for the past five years.
For others, navigating food values in a relationship has not ended so well. “One of the reasons why my ex-husband and I broke up was because he was such a picky eater and didn’t want to try my vegan food,” Diane Vukovic, who’s been vegan for about 20 years, said. “We would have split anyway, but the fact that he was such a dick about me not cooking meat for him certainly didn’t help. Because of this experience with my ex, I realized how important it was for me to be in a relationship with someone who likes the same food as me.”
Dean Moore, a 54-year-old from outside Buffalo, New York, is in the midst of confronting what it means to be at opposite ends of the food spectrum with his wife of 31 years. He said when he announced two years ago that he was going vegan, she said, “Great, now you just fucked up my life.”
Moore said his marriage has been “rocky” for longer than his 20 or so months of veganism, but “when I said I was going vegan, that kind of manifested a lot of the issues that we had and have been having all along. It exacerbated and flowed it up to the surface.”
Sharing a food philosophy could very well be an element to success in love, said Karine Charbonneau — a.k.a. Vegan Cupid — a vegan matchmaker and founder of FindVegLove. “Relationships are already complicated to start with, so when both people are vegan you are starting on the same level playing field — no issues about where to go out for dinner, whether your kids will be raised vegan, etc.”
Charbonneau said she has connected thousands of vegans in her 10 years of matchmaking; while she believes it’s possible for a vegan to make it work with a non-vegan partner, she’s found that “a lot of people say they’re able to form a much deeper connection with someone who shares that part of their lives.”
Things might be easier in my own life if my partner ditched meat for good. But I’m not sure it’s ease I always want. Part of what I like so much about Ben is how seriously he takes his own ranking of the Best Pizza in New York (there’s a math equation involved), or the excitement he and my dad share for beer-can chicken and their willingness to sit in traffic together to get soup dumplings. And, yes, it’s even his fondness for McDonald’s, which reminds him of his Bubby and being a kid, that I find endearing.
We might not share a stomach, but that’s part of the thrill of enjoying food together. He once cooked a recipe for a kimchi beef burrito he loved so much that he insisted on making the same dish a week later with fake meat so that I could try it. Now it’s one of our staples. While we can both agree the new faux chicken nuggets we sampled tasted awful, only he has the authority to claim they were an affront to real chicken nuggets everywhere.
There is a piece of me that wishes Ben wasn’t so meat-crazed, but it is only because of our differences that Ben will test a dish for accidental bacon before I take a bite. And I love him for that.
Kate Bratskeir is a writer and the author of A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Food Shopping. She was formerly the food editor at Mic.