By some estimates, 30% of married households contain a mismatch in partisan political views.
As a marriage and relationship therapist I pride myself on having a wonderful relationship with my girlfriend. We communicate very well and easily resolve our conflicts by dealing with issues directly and quickly.
In fact, I have an arsenal of communication and conflict resolution tools that I can bring out when needed – the same tools that I teach to my clients. When we do have disagreements, we are usually able to understand and accept each other’s perspectives, opinions and ideas even if they are different than our own.
Learning the one you love has different political views
This all changed when I found out that my girlfriend was considering voting for Donald Trump. I am a Democrat. Unlike many others who are voting for Hillary Clinton as a referendum against Trump, I believe she will make a great president. On the other hand, I find Donald Trump to be the antithesis of what I would want in a president. I am finding it impossible to understand how my girlfriend could consider voting for him.
When I first learned my girlfriend was considering voting for Trump, I was incredulous, outraged and shocked by her viewpoint. How could this person who is usually reasonable, insightful, and logical, not be able to see the light when it comes to this upcoming election? How could someone who is usually smart, be so blind? How could she vote for Trump after everything he has said and done? I began to believe she was politically naïve and lacked knowledge of the facts. After all, how could she consider voting for him, if she knew what I knew?
I began to wonder whether our political views revealed fundamental differences in our values and what we believe. I told her that she should not vote for Trump, as it will affect our relationship negatively. She couldn’t believe I was telling her who to vote for.
My reasoning went something like this: if my girlfriend is considering voting for Trump, then she probably either has poor judgment, lacks the ability to assess a person’s character, or hasn’t taken the time to assess Trump’s character and look at the facts. Or worse, the facts didn’t matter. Perhaps her ability to make good decisions is compromised? Is she willing to overlook things that I value very strongly?
A politically divided relationship
At a minimum, I began to wonder how we can make it through the next two months and maintain a loving and respectful relationship. I began to worry whether we are truly compatible if our political ideologies differed so. And the big question: is this going to be a deal breaker?
As we argued, I began to see the divisiveness, disrespect and lack of tolerance on both sides seeping into our romantic relationship. I felt like she was Fox News and I was MSNBC. I was fighting to be right – and she was wrong or blind.
I was becoming argumentative, patronizing, critical and intolerant of her viewpoints and angry at her inability to see and agree with mine. She was often willing to listen and validate my viewpoints, but I was not willing to listen to hers.
I felt like such a hypocrite. Here I am, a relationship therapist, teaching others to listen, validate and respect each other’s differences – and yet for some reason, I couldn’t be tolerant towards my girlfriend’s perspective.
I was behaving as if I had “the truth.” Unintentionally, I was inhibiting her freedom of speech and expression by criticizing and shaming her into submission. I wanted to eliminate her belief that something about Donald Trump was worth considering. I was intolerant towards what I believed was her “tolerance towards Trump’s intolerance.” In the name of tolerance I was becoming intolerant. In the name of open-mindedness I was becoming closed-minded.
The “truth” is perspective
The problem is, the answer as to who is right and who is wrong never gets you to the truth. In fact, there is no “one truth.”
It wasn’t my girlfriend’s different perspective that was causing the argument, it was my objection to her different perspective. Essentially, I was saying to her, “it’s not okay for you to be you.” I was attacking her identity. I was intolerant of her different perspective. As Byron Katie often says, I was rejecting “what is.”
I recognized my objection to my girlfriend’s different opinions was that it threatened what I believe is right and wrong – and this brought up feelings of distrust and fear. I began to tell myself that she is ignorant, and possibly even a racist. After all, in my opinion, she was supporting a racist. Therefore she might be one. On an unconscious level, I felt threatened and unsafe. Believing that she could vote for Trump created anxiety. I reacted with all my defenses for survival strategy – this was no longer helpful, and only made matters worse.
Political differences as a trigger
Essentially, I was triggered. A trigger is something that brings up memories usually from childhood. I thought of my dad… he was similar to Donald Trump. He had an authoritarian, aggressive temperament. He managed through instilling fear.
Inevitably, my critical childhood reaction triggered my girlfriend’s vulnerable feelings and her own self-defense patterns. She viewed me as completely closed off to having any kind of intellectual objective discussion. She felt quite judged.
Different political views does not necessarily mean relationship disaster
I began to ask myself, “Is she seeing what she wants to see, and not what’s really there? What does this mean for our future? Would she continue to make decisions without considering the whole picture? Could she get us into serious trouble?”
So what’s the answer?
Here are some tips for loving someone who has different political views:
Recognize your differences don’t have to be threatening. They’re just different. You and your relationship partner or spouse do not have to have identical perspectives. Each of you are entitled to your unique viewpoint. Respecting your partner’s viewpoints when they are different from your own is critical and can often lead to more intimacy. Clarify your differences to grow closer to each other; discuss the issues in a loving and respectful way – and then simply agree to disagree.
Discuss your main issues to understand your partner’s viewpoint. After my girlfriend explained that her main issues were Israel and ISIS, I began to realize or understand that her support of Trump has do with her need or desire to have a president who will protect this country. It had to do with fear. I, on the other hand, felt quite optimistic about our country’s future.
Aim for an enlightened perspective. An enlightened perspective would be to realize that it really doesn’t matter that much who becomes president. In the big picture, both candidates have the potential to do some things that are good for this country, and some things that are not so good. We really don’t know what’s going to happen regardless of who becomes president.
Also, an enlightened perspective provides self-awareness and understanding. For example, the qualities I find completely unacceptable in Donald Trump are parts of myself which I am trying to hide, deny or suppress. His anger, criticalness, self-centeredness, narcissism, etc. are all parts of myself that are getting triggered by him. I am trying to own those parts of myself and to have more compassion towards both myself and towards Donald Trump.
Approach differences with curiosity. Instead of pushing my point to win the argument, I tried approaching my girlfriend’s differences with respect and curiosity. This approach requires that you genuinely listen to your partner/spouse in order to more fully understand where s/he is coming from. The goal is not necessarily agreement or swaying the other’s opinion. Instead, try to come to a place of mutual respect and understanding. Realize that making this kind of shift in behavior, takes conscious effort and practice. Researchers have found that when people can shift their view of the conflict from a win/lose situation to “growth trying to happen,” then intensity and anger recedes. For this to happen, you have to be willing to listen and give each other the opportunity to express thoughts and feelings, no matter how different they may be.
Use the different opinions to learn something new. With every political view is a possible discussion where you can learn more about your partner.
If all else fails, declare the subject off-limits. For some couples, putting a moratorium on all political conversations until after the election is the only strategy that works. This means no discussions whatsoever; no watching speeches, debates, or political news together. Avoid politics entirely.
The presidency only lasts four years, but your relationship can last a lifetime. For this election year, do what my girlfriend and I are now doing: look past the political parties and just to go for a happy, healthy relationship.