You are probably well aware of the things you and your partner disagree about. Little things—the best way to load the dishwasher, which of the restaurants in your neighborhood is the best, whether mayonnaise is disgusting (it is). And maybe some more weighty things—whether you should move to live closer to their parents, what size house you need or can afford, even who they voted for, or the issues that matter to them. After all, that’s what dating is for, and you ended up together.
So knowing where your partner stands on something like, say, climate change, should be a given, right? Well, not quite.
“Research shows that people rarely talk about climate change with their friends and family even if they care deeply about it themselves,” Matthew Goldberg, a research scientist with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told The Daily Beast. But is this true for partnered people? He and his colleagues conducted a study to find out.
His work found that romantic couples may be harboring some misconceptions about each other’s beliefs on the topic, especially for those who don’t talk about it.
The researchers asked both members of 758 romantic couples about their climate change beliefs as well as behaviors. On the “beliefs” side, that meant assessing how strongly participants believe climate change is happening, is human-caused, and how much they worry about it and the degree of personal importance they place on the issue. In terms of behaviors, it meant a variety of actions from signing petitions and donating to relevant non-profits to posting about it on social media.
They found that partners’ beliefs had a “correspondence,” or a measure of similarity of beliefs, of only 38 percent, while the couples’ climate behavior had a correspondence of only 31 percent. And it wasn’t just that partners thought and acted differently, they also don’t have a particularly firm grasp on what the other person believes about the topic—the correspondence between perceived beliefs of partners was only 32 percent.
The authors performed a further analysis, using a system of categorization known as the “Six Americas,” whereby people’s attitude toward the changing climate can be alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive. (For the record, at last polling in December 2020, about three-quarters of the country fell into the alarmed, concerned, or cautious categories.) The couples did fall into the same category a reasonable amount—47 percent of the time—but there were also ample cases of discordance, meaning one is far more alarmed about the issue than the other.
And if the failure to understand one’s romantic partner’s beliefs isn’t damning enough, there was one more hit to our collective self-regard. The main driver of the misperception of a partner’s belief was found to be one’s own beliefs—meaning, we’re all so narcissistic and self-centered that we assume the thing we believe is what everyone around us believes.
In other words, not only do partners harbor different levels of “care” about climate change and hidden disagreements on an important issue, they aren’t even fully aware of what those disagreements are. For example, one person may care a lot, while the other may not really have given the issue much thought, and neither one knows it.
Don’t panic just yet if you haven’t had “the talk” with your partner, especially if you’re the one who cares very much about climate change. These ample personal relationship failings do have a silver lining: it was not common for couples to be on completely opposite sides of the spectrum.
“It makes sense that people weren't perfectly aligned with their partners because the topic is likely not discussed very often, if at all,” he said. “When we found that it was common for one partner to be alarmed about climate change and the other partner only moderately concerned, that showed us that there is indeed substantial room for pro-climate influence among romantic partners.”
The authors of the study further concluded that your disagreement may actually be a good thing. It may even help get the other person over the edge if they haven’t quite picked a side.
Other research has indeed indicated that people close to us can actually influence how we think and act. For example, a 2019 study regarding influenza vaccination showed that the perception of vaccine coverage in one’s social circle can increase the likelihood of an individual in that circle getting vaccinated. And there is evidence specifically with climate as well: another 2019 study showed that simply discussing global warming with friends and family increases knowledge and acceptance, along with level of concern. That in turn increased further discussion, a situation the authors described as “a proclimate social feedback loop.”
Goldberg told The Daily Beast that while this sort of research has a long history across many specific topics, climate change and its perceived political divisiveness does make it a bit different. “That often makes people feel like they shouldn't talk about it because they don't want to start an argument,” he said. “As we saw in our results, though, couples were substantially more accurate in understanding one another when they reported that they discussed the issue. That tells us that discussion can be the mechanism by which one partner influences another.”
So if you find yourself wondering if your partner shares your level of alarm at the droughts and heatwaves and floods and wildfires, now’s the time to ask. You can be confident that if you find their concern lacking, you’ll have a good chance of changing their mind. Though probably not about the mayonnaise.