The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is your partner worried about climate change? You might be surprised.

(Illustration by Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; iStock)
6 min

She’s from Florida. He’s from Michigan. He’s vigilant about recycling and turning off the lights. She’s not as consistent. She accepts climate change is caused by humans. He doesn’t. They have been married for nearly 15 years.

“I’d say that we have very different political views,” said Melissa, who lives with her husband and children in Northern Virginia. She shared their perspective on the condition that only their first names would be published, citing privacy concerns. “If the climate change topic comes up in the context of politics, it can get pretty heated.” (No pun intended.)

When it comes to climate and the environment, our love lives are nuanced. Sometimes, there are black-and-white disagreements about the changing climate. But researchers say some differences also lie in a gray area where one partner isn’t completely dismissive of climate change but instead just apathetic.

In a survey of a non-random sample of couples in the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal and other countries, researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found about 4 in 10 partners shared climate beliefs (in response to questions like, how worried are you about global warming?), while about 3 in 10 shared similar climate behaviors (e.g. are you willing support elected officials to help reduce global warming?).

The results showed much lower levels of agreement than the team expected to see in romantic couples, said lead author Matthew Goldberg, who also acknowledged the sampling method to recruit participants is not representative of any specific population or group outside of romantic couples.

“There are lots of cases where people really care about this issue and aren’t talking about it,” he said, adding that while the survey is limited in its scope of participants, more testing could reveal more couples in this scenario.

But those differences don’t necessarily need to tear couples apart.

“There were a lot of cases where one person is really alarmed, the other person’s kind of disengaged or not really engaged in the issue,” Goldberg said. “That’s an ideal scenario because usually folks that are in the middle are more willing to change because they’re less committed to their beliefs. It’s less crystallized in their minds.”

You also may not realize just how different you are from your significant other.

The study also found that many couples were unable to accurately pinpoint their partner’s beliefs and behaviors on climate change, which Goldberg said may be because people assume their partner has the same view as them, or because they don’t talk openly about it. That part wasn’t so surprising to him — previous research from the group showed that around 67 percent of Americans “rarely” or “never” discussed climate change with friends or family, even though around 64 percent reported being “very” or “somewhat” worried.

Such differences on climate change topics can manifest in larger ways in relationships. Therapist Andrew Bryant has seen a rising number of relationship issues relating to climate change since starting his own private practice in Seattle in 2012. Similar to the Yale survey findings, he said most of his clients are aware of the climate and ecological crisis and said he rarely deals with a couple on opposite ends of the spectrum. Bryant anticipates that issues around the topic of climate change — for individuals and for couples — may only increase as global warming worsens.

“There’s going to be an overall increase in the frequency of people struggling with these issues of anxiety and depression and grief related to climate change,” said Bryant, a clinical social worker with an interest in climate mental health at North Seattle Therapy and Counseling. Climate issues are more likely “going to cause challenges in relationships as well as individual struggle.”

Most of the issues that he has seen relate to lifestyle choices: whether to have a child (or another one); to eat or abstain from meat; whether to spend money on solar panels; or if you should go on certain vacations because of the environmental footprint.

“There isn’t necessarily a solution except talking about what each person is experiencing and listening to each other, trying to find some understanding about where the other person’s coming from,” Bryant said.

No Valentine date? No problem. These snakes can impregnate themselves.

For those with a partner with moderate views on climate change (they are neither alarmed nor dismissive), relationship scientist Marisa Cohen said it can help to approach conversations from an educational perspective — an effort to explain your beliefs to your partner and to understand if your partner is open to expanding their own view.

But when two people’s views are more diametrically opposed, open conversations and shifts in viewpoints can be harder, Cohen said. For instance, Cohen discusses a form of cognitive bias called the horn effect, where one person may judge someone based on a single trait (such as who you voted for) and then infer a whole slew of negative qualities that changes your perception of that person. Even a suggestion to shift to a diet with less meat might be rejected if someone has a negative view of the person making the ask.

Animals and humans are shifting how they select mates as greenhouse emissions raise global temperatures and warm our world. (Video: Brian Monroe, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Of course, relationships can have different degrees of agreement, too. Melissa and her husband — who were not part of the Yale survey — are not diametrically opposed but also don’t completely align. She described herself as somewhere between concerned about the climate crisis and cautious. She said her husband, Bill, is not dismissive of all environmental concerns, just on causes of global warming.

Yet Melissa and Bill converge on certain environmental actions. Bill loves the outdoors and wants to take care of the environment. He grew up recycling and said he wants to reduce trash in landfills, litter in parks and financial waste. Melissa has shifted her behavior in that direction, too.

When more heated topics arise, they choose to keep it civil. For them, that includes setting boundaries.

“Being able to practice that acceptance is just, ‘Okay, we’re going to leave it where it is. We’re not going to engage in conflict around this particular topic because we’ve just come to the conclusion that we’re not going to see eye to eye,’” said Cohen, who adding that setting up boundaries and practicing acceptance are among the most important lessons she discusses with her clients in sessions. “It’s definitely not easy to do.”