The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes it wants someone with a political outlook different than yours. You might think: “If two people truly love one another, their politics won’t matter.” But for certain relationships, bickering about candidates or issues can be an unresolvable hurdle leading to some less-than-loving fights about your values — and in a presidential election year especially it can be really challenging to navigate differences (be them small or large).
(TBH, if elected officials can’t bring themselves to open minded to other perspectives, what hope is there for the rest of us?)
Wakefield Research released a report that found 1 in 10 couples had ended relationships over political differences; twice that among millennials. And 22 percent of Americans said they knew someone whose relationship had been negatively affected because of the 2016 election.
In the last year, the political fervor was strong — and we were more aware than ever. Not only was it an election year, but the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others at the hands of police have sparked nationwide protest and dialogue about systemic racism. Throw a pandemic and economic crisis on top of that (plus a pro-Trump mob breaking into the capitol to kick off 2021), and you’ve got a lot of heated arguments and a polarizing environment.
Whether you’ve tried speaking to your partner about your political feelings before or have avoided it for fear of having “hard” conversations that disrupt the flow of your relationship, it is important for the longevity of your partnership to be able to have candid discussions with each other. You shouldn’t let this discomfort get in the way of standing up for your opinions — but knowing how to maintain a supportive atmosphere can certainly make the process a little more bearable.
To help guide you, we asked a few experts to offer their best advice for politically different couples, and how to cool down if the conversation starts to escalate.
But first, here’s a bit about the experts we consulted:
- Maryanne Comaroto, PHD, a relationship expert and dating coach.
- Faith Dulin, MA, LMFT, a relationship specialist at Harmony Psychotherapy.
- Tiffany Ruelaz, PhD, a clinical therapist at Tucson Lasting Connections.
- Rachel White, MA, LMFT, PhD Candidate, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Arrowhead Family Systems.
Before we dive into the ground rules, remember to approach political dialogue with respect and curiosity. If you genuinely attempt to understand their point of view (and vice versa), your relationship can work — but communication is going to be more important than ever for a peaceful coalition.
Why do we fight about politics in the first place?
Tiffany Ruelaz: The issues occur when respect is lacking, or when they are unsure how to regulate their own emotions when someone disagrees with them. On an individual level, if you notice you are getting upset that your partner has a difference in perspective and refuses to hear you, you can change the game by validating them first!
Rachel White: We should recognize that it is not only okay, but healthy for us to have different belief systems. However, many experiences a dysfunctional relational pattern that is called “enmeshment,” or the belief that other family members must have the same beliefs, values, feelings, and thoughts. This is unhealthy and creates an environment that lacks individual autonomy and creativity.
Do fights about politics actually need to be a larger conversation?
Tiffany Ruelaz: My advice for couples who are having issues in their relationship due to either political differences, or politics in general is to sit down and talk it out. There are roughly 80 different “hot topics” when discussing politics and people will not agree on them all — even if they are in the same political party. Politics can be one of the best conversations for couples to have when they have a lot of respect for one another’s opinions.
Maryanne Comaroto: There is an age-old bit of advice for all relationships: “pick your battles.” It’s never more apt than in the arena of politics. If couples are noticing they are at odds when it comes to politics, there are a couple of things to watch for before you put your foot in your mouth (or wish you could put it somewhere else). Notice if your partner is challenging your beliefs or simply stating their opinion. If the former, maybe you like a good debate, so get into it. If it’s the latter, maybe you could just let that train go down the track if you don’t agree. Acknowledge their opinion but try and leave it be.
How should I start the conversation?
Tiffany Ruelaz: Have both of you face one another in a seated position with open body language. Then choose one person to speak first. The person speaking their mind first should try to state only three main points at a time, to give their partner time to understand. Then the partner reflects and summarizes back what they heard. “So what I hear you saying is…” or “Okay, so you’re saying…” Then the speaker will say “yes.” “Yes, and…” or “no” then add in what else they want to say or attempt to clarify what they mean.
Faith Dulin: Political disagreements can feel incredibly painful. If our partner has different or opposing views, we tend to take it personally and feel misunderstood. The keys to navigating these tough discussions are to listen to your partner and understand where they’re coming from. Ask questions, “why do you feel that way” or “why is this issue important to you?”
What if we don’t agree?
Tiffany Ruelaz: The listener should attempt to empathize with where their partner is coming from. For example, “I can understand why you would feel so strongly about women having the choice to get an abortion because it can be scary to be in a situation that will change your whole life, especially if you were being careful. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to be in that position, I would probably feel really scared and confused.” Then you let the person know that you understand why they have this opinion. “Of course, you would think this considering your life experiences (give more details here about the life experiences you know have shaped their beliefs).” Afterwards the listener will let the speaker know they appreciate them for opening up, even though there is a difference of opinion. Then, the listener becomes the speaker and it starts again.
Maryanne Comaroto: Ask questions rather than make assumptions. Sometimes we can fly off the handle when we think we know what our partner is thinking or a position they are about to take. Maybe get curious and see if you can find out more about their point of view. It’s kind of what mature relationships are about: honoring our differences and growing because of them.
What goals should I focus on?
Faith Dulin: Being curious and open instead of polarized can help you both find common ground or shared core values that are simply represented differently. The goal shouldn’t be to convince your partner, change their mind or get them to agree with you, but to respect their feelings and perspectives. Some topics may be an opportunity to respectfully agree to disagree.
Tiffany Ruelaz: Always keep in mind that the goal is to understand the other, and not to change their mind. Perhaps, by making rational points and providing evidence you could change the other person’s mind, but most of the time it won’t. That’s okay. Just be respectful of one another.
Maryanne Comaroto: Look for some common ground. If you really want to, nine out of 10 times you’ll find it.
What if the discussion goes south?
Maryanne Comaroto: Do your best not to fall into the all or nothing game — “I could never be with someone who doesn’t think the way I do.” Unless this is actually true, which then you gotta ask yourself “why am I with this person again?” Then we aren’t talking about political differences. We’re in a whole other story.
Tiffany Ruelaz: If it gets too difficult, or too heated, “Pause.” A pause in conversation can last between 10-30 minutes (this is something both partners decide ahead of time), just enough for each person to use coping skills to calm themselves down, then ALWAYS come back to one another and provide respect (sincere apologies, if needed). It isn’t a conversation you have to avoid… lack of communication is the enemy of healthy relationships. Just get yourself to a point where you can calm down and come back to the goal of wanting to understand.
Rachel White: When processing and discussing our political beliefs with our partners, we must have the self-awareness to step-away when we are becoming emotionally reactive. Emotional reactivity is what creates the defensive, critical arguments that are beginning to fuel so many relationships today. If we are able to allow and respect others for their beliefs — and also contain our own emotional reactivity — then we are more likely to maintain curiosity related to others’ experiences and beliefs.
Remember that you can agree to disagree without being silent. You have your right to your opinions, and so do they. Your political differences may be perpetual, but navigating them all comes down to intentionality and being willing to learn from one another. After all, you don’t have to be a hive mind to enjoy a loving dynamic, you just have to respect each other.
Answers have been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
A version of this story was published August 2020.
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