If you and your partner support opposing political parties, this election season may be the ultimate test.
While it might seem surprising to others that such couples exist (given how fiercely divided this country is along party lines), there are actually plenty such pairings. According to research from political science professor Eitan Hersh of Yale University, 30 percent of married households contain a mismatched partisan pair; a third of those are Democrats married to Republicans.
I’m in one of those pairs; when I met my husband-to-be, the box he checked on his voter registration card registered pretty low on my radar. As we’ve grown, our political views have solidified on opposite shores, but we’ve managed to stay together 20 years since our first date. It’s not always easy living with someone whose political party you detest, so as we head into this polarizing election season, I wanted to get some expert advice on how to emerge on the other side still happily married.
I talked first with relationship expert Dr. Terri Orbuch, author of “5 Simple Steps to Take a Marriage From Good to Great.”
The first thing to remember, Orbuch said, is that political affiliations are just labels, after all. A couple can share compatible values that “play out differently with your affiliation.” And it’s those underlying values that keep people together even when they have differences ranging from hobbies to religions, she said. Her recommendation? Rather than focusing on political affiliation, hone in on the things the two of you are passionate about, that affect your lives the most. And indeed, the times I’ve avoided assigning the “Republican” label to my husband, dwelling on how we disagree—and instead focused on our shared passions of travel, home renovation, our dogs, and, OK, Netflix bingeing—have been our happiest times. Not that disagreeing is bad!
Having disagreements “doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed,” Orbuch said. In fact, “if you’re not disagreeing, that’s when your relationship is in trouble. You’re probably not talking about the important things.”
“You can agree to disagree,” Orbuch said. And that’s critical, because “if you expect that your partner is going to agree with you on everything you’ll be constantly disappointed and frustrated, [and] the number one thing that eats away at happiness is disappointment and frustration.”
As the election news grew ever more heated, and I found myself unable to stop instigating arguments at home, I turned to Jonathan Shippey, a Master Certified Gottman Therapist, here in our hometown. He met with my husband Brian and me for a crash course in managing conflict.
While about 31 percent of marital conflict is solvable, Shippey said, a fundamental difference like this falls under the 69 percent that is not. The options here are to dialogue or to gridlock. And “if you can’t keep the dialogue open,” he said, “ … it mounts up until the marriage gets unbearable.”
And yes, there are some relationships, he said, where “’your greatest dream is my worst nightmare’, when one is doing something reprehensible to the other. And then I encourage them to end peacefully.” Since my husband is not voting for Trump, thankfully, I can still engage in dialogue.
The trouble, it seems, is that I’ve spent the last 20 years of dialogue trying to convince my husband that he’s wrong and I’m right. I needed a mental shift, Shippey said. “It has to do with acceptance. Really accept the fundamental differences and don’t demand that [he] change.”
Well, that’s easier said than done, but Shippey shared a technique from his Gottman training that involves identifying “the dreams within the conflict.”
“You can’t say ‘your dream doesn’t matter,’” Shippey told me, and of course, he was right. Because Brian already listens to me in an effort to understand my views—I’m the one who needed the most work here—Shippey gave me a list of questions to ask Brian, and instructed me to suspend my problem solving, to make this only about listening not persuading. “Get hellbent on understanding,” he said. My goal, Shippey went on, is to get him. “It feels so good to be gotten,” he said.
When I was forced to turn off my argumentative, “I am right!” nature, and allowed Brian the space to share his thoughts free of my criticism, he opened up. Questions from the exercise included why his political party is important to him, what his ideal dream would be, and how this relates to his childhood. I realized I had never in our 20 years together asked any of these questions. In the process of learning why he feels the way he does, I noticed something else, too: this isn’t about me. As I began to understand where he’s coming from I could see his views are not a rejection of mine—or of me. Without that fear of rejection, I felt less compelled to try to change him.
And Brian’s views are just that—views. They don’t define him any more than mine define me. As Dr. Orbuch reminded me, his political party is just a label. The passions and experiences we’ve shared and look forward to still far outweigh our disputes. At the end of the day, we support each other and we look beyond the boxes we check on election day. And we can all use a little hope right about now, so if couples like us can go to our polling place together and walk out still happily married, maybe there’s a chance that our fractured country can make it, too.