Saving the world and your relationship
We explore what it’s like to be in a relationship when you’re an activist, but your partner isn’t. We speak to three women – two of them identify as non-binary and use the pronouns they/them – as well as a relationship expert and psychologist.

When Bridget Harilaou (pronouns: they/them) was 19, they entered a relationship they would later regret. Everything was fine during the first five months. Bridget was just getting started as an activist, recruited to the campus women’s collective at their university in Sydney and a left-wing faction in a student union called Grassroots. Their boyfriend, Sudin*, was working for the Australian Labor Party (ALP). It was when the exhilaration of newness had settled and their relationship became official that things started to come undone. 

Sudin began talking down to Bridget about their non-centrist political beliefs. He began to patronise them and call them naïve, idealistic and too radical. “It was really difficult not to feel invalidated and, basically, gaslit because I had a different approach to creating change that directly put myself in an organising position of educating others, holding protests and organising expressions of radical politics that did not conform to a system.”

Instead of simply disagreeing with Bridget, Sudin would say things like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Eventually, the relationship ended and, although there were several reasons for this, Bridget says Sudin’s disdain for their activism and the differences in their political views played a major part in their separation. 

“Being told to be more palatable and being told to work from within systems instead of from outside of them — that was particularly not going to work for me because it’s just fundamentally a values conflict that can’t be bridged … either you believe that you can change systems by becoming part of them or you see that as incredibly toxic … and there was no way that those two [opposing] values were ever going to be compromised on.”

Elisabeth Shaw, psychologist and CEO of Relationships Australia, says that when no one in the relationship will compromise on their beliefs or if someone is consistently undermined or laughed at for their views, this creates a problem that could get in the way of progress in the relationship. “If in the early stages this is an issue, when you are at your most attracted and connected, then your relationship may not stand the test of time,” Elisabeth shares. 

Since then, most of Bridget’s relationships have been with people who share similar political beliefs and values. They now participate in refugee rights and queer rights activism, environmentalism and solidarity work with indigenous communities. It isn’t uncommon to meet someone at a social event in an activist space. “Also, I have been seeing some people on dating apps and I find OkCupid is the most left wing,” they laugh. “It’s also the easiest to find queer people.”

Bridget is polyamorous and is now in a committed relationship with a fellow organiser and anarchist, the dynamics of which are in stark contrast with Bridget’s first relationship at uni. They regularly help each other with their activism. At the moment, Bridget is working on a campaign and is seeking their partner’s advice on strategy. “We consult each other. I don’t think we’ve had any real big political disagreements and we’ve been together for a year. That doesn’t mean that it won’t come up but it would probably be quite easy to navigate because we both approach conflict really directly and just talk it through.” 

So, would Bridget date anyone who wasn’t an activist? They predominantly gravitate toward people who are “already there” rather than someone who is still at an early point in that journey. Bridget attends to organising, educating and running workshops with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm but they don’t want to spend their time, mental and emotional labour having to educate their significant other. However, they only feel this way about romantic relationships — not friendships.

Another boundary that Bridget feels strongly about relates to spending time with her partner’s parents or extended family members. Bridget comes from a culturally diverse background and, so far, hasn’t had to tolerate any racism from their white partner. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about a number of their partner’s family members. And Bridget has already endured the trauma of racism being directed at them from white family members of partners they have had in the past. “Unless someone’s parents are pretty ‘woke’, I’m not going to meet them.”

Finding a balance

Karli Florisson (pronouns: she/her) and her husband in Western Australia are parents to a brand-new baby and their two foster children. Amidst the hard work of raising environmentally conscious kids, Karli has been involved in a local group fighting for the protection of the Great Australian Bight. She also participated in the paddle-out in November last year, an event that played an important role in seeing Norwegian company Equinor abandon its plans to drill for oil in the Bight.

While Karli’s husband is supportive of her work, he doesn’t share her passion to the same extent. This can be unsettling at times for Karli, particularly when it leads to a level of disunity in their efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their household and set an example for their kids. Karli wants her kids to grow up knowing that environmental issues affect everyone and therefore everyone should feel passionate about taking steps to reduce their collective human impact. 

When considering whether this unevenness ever threatens their marriage, Karli says that while it sometimes disturbs the peace at home, it doesn’t jeopardise their relationship. On those occasions when she does feel discouraged by her husband’s inaction on environmental issues, she finds it helpful to remind herself that, “It’s a journey and I was not always where I am now. I was not always aware of the issues or active in speaking up. And I was not always as good at making sure that my own life reflected the ideals that I hold … maybe he’s going to get there — it just might take a bit longer and the journey might be a bit different.”

On the other hand, Karli feels that her role as an environmental activist is strengthened by the way her husband provides a listening ear. “He brings a sense of balance. Sometimes the risk for activists is that you become so caught up in the issue that you fail to see the rest of the big picture; all the good in the world.” When she feels disheartened by all the work that still needs to be done, Karli knows she can count on her optimistic husband to bring a fresh perspective and to help ground her in the here and now. He reminds her to appreciate the positive things in the present as she fights for a better future. 

Relationships expert Elisabeth says, “It is important to understand your partner’s good reasons for believing what they do, just as they should seek to understand your views. In a good relationship, our partner influences us and that is part of our ongoing growth. However, it is also common and indeed healthy to have separate interests and ideas, and to not expect your partner to do and believe everything you do. These sorts of things can be harder to work around though, as they speak to values and beliefs, but not impossible.”

Zero pressure

Li Ruan* (pronouns: they/them) doesn’t expect their partner to join them in their activism, which includes anti-border, anti-racist and refugee solidarity work as well as feminist and trans activism. The Melbourne-based writer, producer and artist met their girlfriend during their stay in China. Li came back to Australia because they wanted to return to a place to which they felt a sense of commitment. Understanding from their time overseas, that it isn’t easy to be an activist when you don’t have that sense of commitment to the place where you live, Li chooses not to force any political views or expectations onto their girlfriend who recently moved to Australia as a migrant. 

Sometimes it can be frustrating when Li and their partner don’t share the same passions, politically speaking. Both of them relate to the world very differently which can be challenging and rewarding at the same time. “We still have some pretty similar baseline values and I just have a more aggressive approach to them,” Li laughs.

Li’s past relationships have been with people who were quite politically active. Many of their friendships were also formed within their networks as an activist. But their current relationship came from outside of that. “In a way I think it’s quite nice as you get more of a breather. You’re not constantly in that intense, political headspace all the time. People I’ve dated in the past have been more politically active and sometimes that’s been great because you have this intense intellectual and political and ideological chemistry where you feel really committed to the same things, and that can be really beautiful and exciting, but also it can be quite fraught because you’re not getting any break from the person and you’re enmeshed in really heightened spaces.” 

Li remembers that in some of those relationships, they and their partner would find themselves arguing constantly and living with a false pressure to see eye to eye on everything. “We couldn’t establish ways of disagreeing that didn’t feel fraught and aggressive because everything was politicised. It was never just a thing we could agree to disagree on.”

“But I’ve found that [in] my relationships with people of colour who are women or non-binary or gender fluid, there’s been more mutual understanding and more care around the way we have arguments. Maybe they’ve just been better relationships to begin with but, especially in the last seven or eight years, all the people I’ve dated have had their own personal relationships to power and oppression and marginalisation and they’ve all had a certain intellectual understanding of that as well as the experience, which I think is important because I think just having, say, the experience of racism doesn’t necessarily put you on the same page as having the same understanding of that experience.”

Even though their current girlfriend doesn’t do activism in a very visible way (other than joining in on rallies from time to time), Li finds solace in the common ground they share with their understanding of such experiences. 

*Some names have been changed for the privacy of individuals interviewed/mentioned.

Three tips from Elisabeth Shaw, psychologist and CEO of Relationships Australia:

  • If your partner respects your views and doesn’t stand in your way or undermine you, then it is a matter of deciding if your other points of connection are significant enough that you can work around this one. If your partner provokes you, rubbishes your views or deliberately does the opposite knowing it hurts you, then that is going to be much more problematic.
  • For partners of activists, it is important to seek to understand in the first instance, and to be open to new ideas. However, if it really isn’t your “thing”, then it is also important to be able to state that you do not feel the same, won’t be able to commit and want to have your position equally respected. Pretending to go along so as not to rock the boat will only work if you really don’t care either way. If you are burying deeper held opposition, this is likely to become a source of ongoing resentment.
  • If you find it hard to stand up for what you believe in, and find yourself going along with your partner, then you run the risk of losing yourself in the relationship. It is worth discussing the differences in counselling if any attempt between you to negotiate it becomes problematic. These are the sorts of things that Relationships Australia NSW has expertise to assist with.

Ruhi Lee writes on Boon Wurrung land. You can follow her on Instagram @lee_ruhi.