“Politics make strange bedfellows” says a mid-19th century proverb, meaning people of widely differing views come together when they have a common cause. It’s certainly true of my husband and me. We are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and for years, I despaired of ever discussing elections without walking away from him in disgust.
Before we were married, he said, “So what if you’re a little to the left of center and I’m a little to the right of center.” We were falling in love and that seemed a good enough reason to let it go. But as the years passed, and the political landscape became more fraught and contentious, those differences seemed “more than a little.” I became frustrated with him for sticking to his more conservative views.
I wished we could be like James Carville and Mary Matalin, the political commentators from different parties who have been married for decades. What’s their secret? I wondered. A 2016 article at fivethirtyeight.com stated that 30 percent of married households contain a mismatched partisan pair. “Mismatched partisan pair” sounds dire, doesn’t it? But does it have to be?
Relationship expert Anita Chlipala says it’s important to look for common ground where your beliefs may overlap. Like many “strange bedfellows,” my husband and I agree that poverty and homelessness should be eradicated, but we disagree on how that should be accomplished. He doesn’t see my way is best, but I get nowhere trying to force him to change. It only makes us both tired of talking about it.
In her book, Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work, Tania Israel advises not shaming your partner or throwing opposing facts at them but asking questions instead.
- What have you seen that causes you to feel that way?
- What do you want to see in our country’s future?
- What worries you about the current political climate?
Over time, I have found that making myself listen, and trying to understand his point of view, does not mean that I agree with my spouse. It just means I love him and want to get along.
Listening to his answers without jumping in with my counterargument, as I used to do, preserves his dignity and brings us closer, as I learn more about his motivations, many of which are not that different from my own. We both want the best for people, peace in the world and our country, and enough resources to enjoy our lives.
Over a long relationship, we have both moved a tiny bit closer to the other’s views. Sometimes, I share with him articles I find online that are closer to his beliefs than mine. Reading them has helped me understand the conservative philosophy. If I just stick to my own, likely biased, outlets, I’ll never learn anything new or challenge my own beliefs. And sometimes I do need to challenge myself.
Voting for different candidates has no effect on our daily life together and scoffing because he reads a very conservative newspaper is really belittling him and his intelligence, something a loving partner should not do. If you feel that’s happening, and your partner is contemptuous toward you because of your political beliefs, try a different approach. If that’s impossible, you may want to consider ending the relationship.
“Criticism and contempt are toxic relationship behaviors, and if they aren’t stopped, [they] can create irreparable damage,” says Chlipala.
These days, there’s another very damaging phenomenon going on: propaganda and misinformation. If your partner is adding politics to more and more conversations, exhibiting frightening anger, spending time alone in chat rooms, and mentioning conspiracy theories, they may be influenced by propaganda.
Another technique is to redirect them toward legitimate organizations working on issues they care about, like ending human trafficking or having safe and secure elections.
Keep the lines of communication open, but don’t put up with talk that is damaging to the well-being of your marriage or your own emotional health.
It’s a crazy world out there, and we need our bedfellows now more than ever. Let’s make sure they feel welcome and ‘agree to disagree’. We may both learn something and even change a little bit in the process – a good thing at any age.
What are some taboo topics in your marriage/partnership? Are you and your spouse on different ends of the political (or other) spectrum? How do you handle those differences? Have you searched for professional help?