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Are Politics Ruining Your Relationship?

What do you do when you love someone but their politics drive you crazy? Is it possible to stay connected across a political divide?

By
Stephen Snyder, MD,
Episode #6
political differences

No one ever actually intends to fall in love with someone whose politics they hate. But throughout history, there have always been people from opposite political sides who can’t resist the urge to pair up. 

Romeo and Juliet first fall in love, then discover that their relationship is impossible because their families are sworn enemies.

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Today it's the same thing. You meet someone wonderful, and everything seems perfect. Then one day you sit down together to watch TV, and you discover that one of you watches FOX News and the other MSNBC.

It’s Romeo and Juliet all over again. You’re sleeping with the enemy.

Hundreds of years ago, in Romeo and Juliet’s time, your biggest problem was dealing with physical threats from outside the relationship—like making sure your spouse didn’t get killed by members of your extended family. These days, the problem is more psychological. Your political viewpoint just feels like a part of who you are. For most of us, it’s not something we’re interested in changing, even for someone we love.

How to Survive as a Mixed Political Couple

We humans have come a long way from when we used to bop our enemies over the head with clubs. Thankfully, in the 21st Century, we now mostly fight our political battles via electronic media—with tweets, memes, and angry posts.

It’s kind of like drone warfare. You’re not actually there when the bombs land. Except, of course, if you happen to share a bedroom with somebody from the other side. In which case all the insults and name-calling can start to feel kind of personal.

It’s no secret that Americans today have drifted far apart from each other on a large number of issues—from gun control, to abortion, to how we feel about the current occupant of the White House. 

So what do you do, when the person you love is someone whose politics you just can’t stand? How do you ever have a civil conversation?

I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics

That’s what psychologist Dr Jeanne Safer, a lifelong liberal Democrat, had to figure out when she realized the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with was in fact a conservative Republican. Not just any conservative Republican, but someone who would go on to become Senior Editor of National Review, a leading conservative magazine. 

Safer and her husband have now been married 39 years, and are still on opposite sides of the political fence. In her new book, I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics, she says she’s actually found it to be an enriching experience. And that her husband feels the same way. Safer even has a podcast on the subject—on I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics, she talks with couples about how they can ensure their relationships not only survive, but thrive, despite political differences. 

So what’s their secret?  How have these two unlikely partners managed to share a bed together for 39 years, when the rest of us can barely make it through Thanksgiving dinner with somebody from the other side?

Safer’s book offers many valuable tips, based partly on her own experience and partly on interviews with over fifty couples—husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and even lifelong best friends—who remain remain on speaking terms with each other even though they’re politically very far apart.

How have these two unlikely partners managed to share a bed together for 39 years, when the rest of us can barely make it through Thanksgiving dinner with somebody from the other side?

The book offers many valuable methods for navigating a mixed political relationship, some of which I’ll tell you about. But there’s one big idea, one fundamental principle, that gets a whole chapter to itself.

That one big idea is really at the heart of the whole book. Here it is:

The One Thing You Need to Survive a Politically Divided Relationship

To really get along with someone who’s your political opposite, you have to know in advance that it’s going to hurt—because you’re powerless to do anything about it, and powerlessness is very discouraging.

To really get along with someone who’s your political opposite, you have to know in advance that it’s going to hurt.

According to Safer, that’s one of the main reasons we keep trying to change our partners. Maybe you’ll eventually hit on just the right argument, or just the right YouTube video, that will finally change your partner’s mind. Rationally, you know you're partner's not likely to suddenly see the light and switch sides. But you keep trying, because it’s better than feeling powerless.

Political disagreements, according to Safer, demonstrate a problem that’s fundamental to all relationships: The person across from you in bed is fundamentally an “other.” They’ll never fully understand the world in exactly the same way you do. 

According to Safer, though, once you decide to accept that that fact, it can be quite liberating. Sure, you can't control your partner. But why should you have to? If your partner happens to have totally ridiculous opinions on gun control, abortion, and climate change, why should that be any reflection on you? 

Rules of Engagement for Politically Divided Couples

That kind of acceptance doesn’t come easy, though. It usually takes time. What can a couple do in the meantime, to make a relationship like this less emotionally painful?

No sane person wants to fall in love with someone whose politics they can’t stand. But if two people who love each other can’t accept their political differences, then what hope is there for the rest of the world?

Safer offers an extensive list of do’s and don’ts for politically mixed couples. Here are seven of my favorites, in order of increasing difficulty—from easiest to hardest.

  1. Don’t lecture. No, not even if your partner has just said something totally ignorant or naïve,and you’re sure they’d change their mind if they just had a better understanding of American history. Trust me. It doesn’t work. 
     
  2. Don’t share information from the web, unless your partner asks you to. There are going to be times when you’ll really want to share articles, videos, podcasts, or blogs that you know your partner will dislike. Don’t do it.
     
  3. Seek out serious, rational voices from the other side. Ask your partner to introduce you to their side’s most thoughtful opinion leaders. Listen carefully to what they have to say. 
     
  4. When your side scores a victory, try not to gloat. Remember how depressed you felt when the other side had its moments of glory? That’s how your partner is feeling now. Show them some consideration. Don’t rub it in.
     
  5. Don’t watch political TV shows in the bedroom.  These days, there are just too many partisan voices competing for Neilsen ratings. As Safer wisely points out, “What is good for ratings is catastrophic for relating.” If you can’t keep the TV off in the bedroom, at least change the channel to something less provocative.
     
  6. Be careful not to insult your partner’s character and intellect. As we’ve all learned by now, it’s really easy to attach labels to the opposition—like “fascist,” or “socialist.”  But labels are dangerous. Avoid them if you can. As Safer writes, “The moral high ground is dangerous territory in any marriage, and you claim it at your peril.”
     
  7. Try not to feel too bad about the situation. Just because the two of you can’t agree politically, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your relationship. As psychologist John Gottman has noted, every couple has its unsolvable problems. Yours just happen to be argued about on national TV. 

No sane person wants to fall in love with someone whose politics they can’t stand. But if two people who love each other can’t accept their political differences, then what hope is there for the rest of the world?

I say we keep on trying.

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Do you have relationship questions? Email the Relationship Doctor at [email protected]. You might hear your question on the show! Follow Dr Snyder on Twitter and Facebook, and check out his book. Listen and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Please note that all content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

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