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  • Writer's pictureAllison Abrams, LCSW-R

Can a Relationship Survive Major Political Differences?

Some couples embrace political differences, some don’t care, and others still consider having similar views non-negotiable. Given that we each have our own influences, history of experiences, psychological makeup, and subjective lens through which we view the world, some differences are bound to exist or arise. One person’s convictions may be another’s contentions. With an especially heated election season upon us, how do couples with strongly divided political views avoid being torn apart?


One way, according to Dailey and Palomares (2004), is through what they describe as “strategic topic avoidance”—essentially an effort by one or both partners to avoid certain topics that could lead to irreconcilable differences. Some choose not to discuss sensitive issues such as politics for the sake of avoiding the potential fallout, thus possibly preserving the relationship. This strategy may also serve to maintain privacy and one’s sense of autonomy, essential ingredients for a healthy partnership.

At a 2003 meeting of the International Communication Association in San Diego, California, one presenter described political discussions as a type of “civic engagement” that had the potential to not only contribute to political tolerance on a broader level, but to strengthen interpersonal bonds. The extent to which two partners are able to respectfully debate sensitive issues such as politics may depend on the strength of the overall communication, a fundamental indicator of relationship success.


LOVE ACROSS PARTY LINES

A woman I worked with in therapy—I’ll call her Susan—was recently divorced and just getting back into the dating world. She was contacted online by a man who, at first glance, seemed to be a fairly compatible match on almost every level. When it came to politics, however, they couldn’t have been more different: she was a self-described “bleeding-heart liberal,” while he was a staunch conservative. Before agreeing to meet, both emphasized their commitments to their respective values and agreed to respectfully disagree—establishing an unspoken strategy of topic avoidance.

They went on to date for two years before they came to the realization that, in their case, love was not enough. “I believe that your political ideologies are a direct reflection of your core values,” Susan told me. “To have a good relationship, your values must be in line.”


The moment your relationship takes a turn toward disrespect, criticizing, or belittling, whether triggered by politics or other differences, it may be time to seek help.


So how did they make it work for as long as it did? “Humor. Definitely humor,” said Susan, who also cited other strong parts of the relationship and a variety of common interests. “I must admit that sometimes I saw it as a challenge—like maybe if I can change his mind, I can change others’.” Of course, trying to change a partner often doesn’t turn out well. It certainly didn’t in Susan’s case.

Of course, having polar opposite political views doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is doomed. Witness Democratic commentator James Carville and his wife Mary Matalin, a Republican consultant. When asked in an ABC News interview, “How the heck did you two get together?” Matalin simply responded, “Love is blind, love is deaf.”


Most of us can relate to this sentiment, but how have Matalin and Carville managed to sustain a happy marriage over two decades, two children, and two successful and opposing political careers? According to Matalin, by not talking politics at home. They have a lot of other things in common and, as is apparent to anyone paying attention, a love and respect for one another that surpasses all else.


3 IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

If you’ve come to an impasse in your relationship due to political differences, the following are some helpful questions to ask yourself when assessing its staying power.


1. Do you respect and accept your partner unconditionally?

According to renowned couples therapist John Gottman, the antidotes to contempt within any relationship are fondness and admiration, both of which can be maintained and strengthened by expressing appreciation and respect. One of the of the most popular and contemporary approaches to couples counseling, the Gottman Method emphasizes the importance of “nurturing gratitude by comparing the partner favorably with real or imagined others, rather than trashing the partner by magnifying negative qualities and nurturing resentment by comparing unfavorably with real or imagined others.” The moment your relationship takes a turn toward disrespect, criticizing, or belittling, whether triggered by politics or other differences, it may be time to seek help.


2. Do you fight “well”?

The Gottman Method focuses on nine essential ingredients needed to make a relationship work, including the ability to manage conflict. When stark political differences exist, this could be the make-or-break factor. “As someone who has done a lot of work with couples … this is the moment when pressing the point about how ‘right’ you are is only going to damage the relationship. Both sides feel hurt, unappreciated, and treated unfairly,” said Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in New York City. Her advice with election day fast approaching? “Let’s all practice active listening through November.”


3. Can you picture your life without your partner?

This one, I believe, is a no-brainer. If you find someone who adds happiness to your life, makes your world a better place and you a better person, whom you respect and love and cannot imagine living without, political differences may be trivial. Discussing any differences in the presence of an objective couples counselor can help you put things in perspective, nurture your relationship’s best qualities, and even recognize some differences of opinion as healthy.


References:

  1. Carville, J., & Matalin, M. (1994). All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President. New York, NY: Random House.

  2. Chengshan, Y. (2002). Does discussing politics contribute to political tolerance? Unpublished paper presented at 2003 annual meeting of the International Communication Association, San Diego, CA. Retrieved from http://www.k-state.edu/actr/2009/12/20/the-role-of-political-affiliations-and-attraction-in-romantic-relationships-emily-kofoed/default.htm

  3. Dailey, R., & Palomares, N. (2004). Strategic Topic Avoidance: An Investigation of Topic Avoidance Frequency, Strategies Used, and Relational Correlates. Communication Monographs, Vol 71(4), 471-496.

  4. The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). The Gottman Method for Healthy Relationships. Retrievedfrom https://www.gottman.com/about/the-gottman-method

This article was originally published on GoodTherapy.

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