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Can You Be A Radical Homemaker With An Unsupportive Partner?

By Shannon Hayes

What happens when one member of a couple wants to live a new kind of life— but the other doesn’t?

“But you have Bob.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that refrain about my husband since I first began promoting the ideals of radical homemaking. I rarely hear it publicly. It usually comes up in private conversations following lectures; it is whispered at book signings; it finds its way into my e-mail inbox as would-be radical homemakers confess the single greatest obstacle to changing their home from a center of consumption to a center of production: the unsupportive partner.

I’ve held hands with strangers as they cried about their marriages, read long, anonymously written letters of love and pain. My heart aches for these souls. I’ve repeatedly wanted to post a piece addressing this problem, but it has taken me two years of listening to these personal stories before I could find some universal themes in them that might be helpful for those folks who are facing similar situations.

The truth about radical homemaking is that single people can do it, and married people can do it. But if all the adults in a household aren’t on board with the efforts, it is damned near impossible. It is easy to vilify a partner who refuses to carry a water bottle, buys coffee every day in a disposable cup, discourages anyone from leaving a job they hate and still thinks Hummers are cool. But as anyone who has faced this problem in a marriage will tell you, it is not a black-and-white matter. These unions are typically made when love is true and ideals are high. The person who wants to start down the radical homemaking path cannot always write off an unsupportive partner as a jerk, file a separation agreement and simply move on. The people we love are complex. There are reasons a partner may be derisive about this radical homemaking idea and still buy the mocha frappuccino with the domed plastic disposable lid—even if they love the earth and care about social justice.

Despair. The most obvious difference between the would-be radical homemaker and the unsupportive partner that I’ve observed is that the would-be radical homemakers still have hope. They still believe that their daily choices will have an impact on the future of the world. There is enough optimism lingering in their souls that they believe changing how they live, even if it must be incremental, is still possible. They believe that, with time and perseverance, a new and better life can unfold. The unsupportive partner often wants a better world, too. But he or she has given up believing that it is possible. The act of keeping a garden, of mending one’s clothes, of any earth-saving effort, seems fruitless to a person who feels it may be too little, too late. While the wish for a healed planet may be the same, the unsupportive partner may simply be taking comfort from a consumptive lifestyle because he or she can no longer take comfort from hope.

Fear. There are so many things we are taught to be afraid of in our culture: fear of not having a steady paycheck, fear of not having our children enrolled in the best schools, fear of not blending in with the neighborhood, fear of existing without two or more cars in a household, fear of relying on family and friends for support. The radical homemaking path requires a person to confront those fears. The would-be radical homemaker has been able to do this, and has discovered that many, if not all, of their fears are little more than a hall of mirrors keeping them from a deeper, more pleasurable and empowering way of life. The unsupportive partner may still be clouded by the fears—so committed to them that he or she is unwilling to engage in a dialogue that might challenge them.

Lack of a Dream. Despair and fear alone are problematic attributes in an unsupportive partner, but everyone who considers a different life path confronts them. In order to put up half a fight in dispelling them, a person must be able to imagine what a life could be like without them. What does a life look like where one is not afraid? Where one lives with optimism that our collective individual choices will add up to a new earth community? What would a happy life look like?

Fear and despair creep their way into everyone’s life. They overtake our daily decisions without our even noticing, smothering our imagination…unless we take the time to dream. Dreaming about what we truly want for our homes, for our families, for our land and communities, and for our time is the best antidote I know for fear and despair. Each time we reflect on what we most want in our lives, we are pushed to examine the barriers that are keeping us from our dreams. And each time we examine and express them, the barriers grow a tiny bit weaker, the dreams grow a tiny bit more clear.

We dream constantly in our family. And every few years, Bob and I write down whatever the current dream is. We write down all that we want for the land—the land that we steward, as well as the land that we impact with our life choices. We write down what we want our time to be used for, what we’d like our financial resources to be, and what we want our home to be like. The dream we write is a shared one. It contains what we both want—no compromises, no negotiations. It sits up on a wall in the room where we meet every morning to share a cup of coffee or tea. And every decision we make together, whether it is a simple choice about what to get done that day, or a big decision about a financial investment, reflects the dreams that are posted on our wall. It reminds us that playing music together is as important as making sausages for the farmers’ market, or returning phone calls, or doing paperwork. It reminds us that keeping the car turned off as much as possible keeps us closer to our deeper dreams. When we make choices about our money, it reminds us of the world we want to create.

That is not to say that fear and despair don’t enter our lives. But with our shared vision on our wall, we are constantly reminded to challenge them, and to see fear and despair for what they truly are: obstructions to our dreams. The dream holds fear and despair at bay for us. And it enables us to support each other, because we both know what we are moving toward.

Not every union is worth preserving. Sometimes couples must go their separate ways. But sometimes all the pieces for a happy life together are present, but need help coming out. If you are pining for the radical homemaker path and feel you have an unsupportive partner, before you abandon your relationship, consider if fear and despair are holding the other person hostage. They are very real for the person who is experiencing them, and it is important to honor their existence. But then, if you can, try dreaming together again, as you may have done once a long time ago. Your mutual dreams may not resolve the fear and despair, but I promise they will soften them. And better still, those dreams instill hope and inspire courage. And hope and courage inspire good change, even though it may be slow. The radical homemaker path may have more bends in the road for your family than for others, but the journey will still be interesting, beautiful and powerful.