It can feel so good to fall into someone else’s habits. I married an Israeli man who came from a world of sugary juices and frozen meat cigars fried in deep pots of boiling oil. I had entered the relationship as a vegan and sometime raw foodist—a bit extreme, but I like trying new things. Also, I’d been single. What did it matter if I could only go to one specific raw food restaurant or had to buy twenty-seven different ingredients to replicate a pasta dish in raw food form? I answered only to myself.
During our courtship, I visited his family in Israel. In broken English, his mother asked what I would like for dinner. I tried to explain “vegan” using a series of hand gestures and my own broken Hebrew. She nodded enthusiastically. Moments later, my future mother-in-law plopped down before me a beautiful salted omelet oozing with fresh white cheese. Clearly, when I meant to say “no dairy,” I had actually communicated “as much dairy as possible, please!” I smiled politely and shoved a bite in my mouth, the first animal product I’d tasted in three years.
It was delicious. Warm and comforting. What had gotten me to this animal-free state in the first place? Twirling a forkful of melting cheese before me, I suddenly couldn’t remember. Now I was part of a couple. Much like the sturdy, dedicated love Sam bestowed upon me, the fatty food, and the diet we began to share felt like a blanket of security.
I had become a vegan for health reasons, in fact. I had often struggled with digestion problems, and unwanted weight gain. The strict eliminations had magically helped, but none of that seemed to matter anymore. My husband provided safety and assurance. As long as I was with him, I felt fine.
He hated vegetables. He hated healthy options, and said they represented weakness or girly-ness. He was a MAN who could eat whatever he wanted and not feel a thing. No one from his country was vegan, and he certainly wasn’t going to let go of his heritage now.
Before I knew it, I was regularly chowing down on bacon cheeseburgers with him (the irony of this blasphemously un-Kosher choice was not lost on me). In my marriage, a “healthy” dinner meant baked chicken rather than fried beef—mayo-slathered breadcrumb-crusted baked chicken, that is.
There is undoubtedly a way to be in a relationship while maintaining your own identity—around both food and other aspects of your life. I have known couples who made each other healthier and stronger. But we weren’t one of them. I wasn’t able to remain a healthy person in my own way and become a wife. At least not to this man. And not at age twenty-three, when my identity was all too ripe for the taking.
I had graduated college and immediately run terrified from what I had dreamed of doing my whole life, being a performer. Maybe what I should really pursue, I thought, was marriage and family, the path others had told me to desire for so long. I found someone safe and strong who was all too willing to form me into his ideal image. At the time, it felt better than striking out on my own, particularly into the life of uncertainty I’d envisioned for myself.
Being an actor promised years of instability and rejection, of never feeling good enough, of always striving for more. It was a life of having to look inward and investigate what was inside, of constantly putting myself up for appraisal. In my marriage, approval and security were guaranteed, as long as I fulfilled the traditional duties of a wife, and looked happy enough while doing so. I didn’t need to be magnetically healthy or dazzling. I just needed to be content, to stop striving in quite the same way.
The heavy food soothed and sedated me. And then, slowly, the marriage itself began to feel sedated, more comfortable than good. And then uncomfortable. Not merely sedate but sedentary.
In my pre-marriage life, I had entertained regularly in my bachelorette apartment in New York City’s East Village. I threw dance parties and strove to impress guests with delicious, homemade vegan desserts such as my specialty: peanut butter chocolate Rice Krispy treats. Now we lived in a basement apartment in the suburban area of Midwood, Brooklyn, a good hour from my previous life. I felt too full of mayo chicken and mango juice to get up and dance.
The marriage felt like it was being drowned in cheese sauce. I grew heavier, in body and soul.
My husband didn’t complain. He was content to curl up on the couch to watch movies. I knew I wasn’t myself. You hear of people gaining weight in marriage, of course. For some, this fine. It just comes with the joys of safety and marital security. For me, it started to feel unhealthy and even dangerous, threatening to who I was. Of course there’s joy in doing “bad” things with your partner, indulging in guilty pleasures. But when it is no longer occasional, it is no longer a treat.
Our differences in diet became a reflection of deeper problems in the marriage. I wanted movement, excitement; he preferred security and solidity.
As we began to drift apart, the gap showed in what I ate. I’d find myself crunching fresh vegetables while frying breaded meat dumplings for him. I began snacking on dark chocolate that woke me up, instead of downing creamy ice cream and beer until I crashed. He would invite me to meet him at his favorite greasy burger joint; I would decline. I tried to point him in what I thought was the right direction, introducing him to sushi. He ordered sickly sweet teriyaki chicken and complained.
I began to feel physically better and more like myself, lighter and freer and energetic. It started with food, but then eating better somehow fueled me to reclaim other aspects of my life. I called some old friends. I began to go on auditions and reunite with fellow performers who were making their own work. I was cast in several shows and spent hours at rehearsal. I spent less time on the couch, more time running around after my goals.
My husband grew suspicious, distrustful. He said he felt lonely, alone in our former routine. After two years as a couple, we finally split.
For me, leaving him was one thing, but separating from our established couple-style was its own challenge. I still had to wean myself off many of our partnered habits and find my own once again. Going to the grocery store was no longer an auto-pilot escapade of “what my partner likes,” but an exploration of my own preferences. Who am I now? What would I like to try? What fun food experiments am I free to mess up with while nobody is watching?
They say that when you give up sugar, fruit begins to taste mind-bogglingly sweet. Without artificial sweetener, your taste buds recalibrate and can re-learn “delicious.” I can only assume this is true because I will NEVER find out for myself, but something similar was happening. I felt I was sloughing off the skin of my relationship habits and growing my skin anew, rediscovering the sweetness of who I had been before.
I moved back to what I considered the “fun” part of the city, and moved in with a fellow performer who was happy to throw dance parties with me. He encouraged me to go out, and was happy to try any meal I whipped up as he ran out the door to some event or other, often dragging me happily with him.
I learned to embrace the uncertainty I had run from after college. I now lived with it. It was hard, yet less scary than living a basement life that wasn’t mine.
My “comfortable” marriage taught me there’s nothing truly safe about pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
After divorce, I found comfort in knowing that no matter what my non-traditional career brought me, it was my path, not one foisted on me by someone else.
I don’t think would appreciate the freshness and freedom of my life today without the contrast of those years, the experience of hiding myself under a blanket of cheese sauce. And don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the occasional slice of dripping heavy pizza. But I now dance it off after.
Daliya Karnofsky is the host and creator of the YouTube and live baking/love advice show, “And She Bakes.” She is also the creator and host of the live comedy show/dating app “All My Single Friends.” Daliya got it out of the way early and was married and divorced by age twenty-four.