You're a Democrat. The person you love is a Republican. Will you let it rip you apart?
Few situations have garnered more anxiety than people’s reaction to the recent election and our changing political landscape.
Heated political disagreements are finding their way into our kitchens and bedrooms, and tensions are running high.
We are weary of disagreeing, but we also don’t know how else to be.
It's important to know, if you find yourself disagreeing with your partner about politics, that there are ways to disagree politically and still have a healthy marriage, even in a relationship where you politically disagree.
Dr. Gottman’s seminal research on predicting troubled marriages can be helpful in finding solutions for these politically-opposed partnerships.
This research focused less on the content of disagreements that couples have, and more on how often they occur. The percentage of negative conversations, compared to positive ones, is what is so dangerous to couples, according to his data.
When it comes to the daily digest of political news, the opportunities for disagreement with your spouse are limitless these days.
And according to Gottman, too many negative conversations can be dangerous for your marriage, and increasing your stress.
Even worse, studies show that under stress, people tend to perceive their partner’s behaviors and interactions more negatively, and in turn behave more negatively toward their partner.
If this weren’t bad enough, the stress of feeling frustrated with your partner drives up more anxiety and stress in relationships, making it all the more challenging, and circular.
Here are few targeted suggestions to transform discord into discussion, and to make sure these discussions don’t become the main way you interact with your partner.
1. Recognize the stress, and the delicacy of the situation.
Understanding an interpersonal dynamic is the first step in doing something to change it.
We can’t change behavior if we don’t know what’s happening. If you and your spouse are feeling the pressure from your political debates (or arguments), recognize the impact your discussions are having on your marriage, your psyche, and your very capacity to have a civilized discussion.
Knowledge is power.
And in this case, your power move is to take a deep breath and resolve to try something new.
2. Listen to understand, not convince.
Whether your husband agrees with the travel ban, or your wife believes it is constitutionally unfair, talking about politics in the news is simply part of staying informed citizens.
When we let go of trying to change someone’s mind and listen to understand their perspective, we allow ourselves to hear what they have to say.
Instead of jumping to argue with him why the travel ban is wrong or why it is constitutionally fair, aim first to listen to their perspective.
Let them talk without interrupting them. Ask yourself how they see things, and why. And then, how does this square with what you already know to be true about them?
Listen to understand and let them know when you do. Remember, you do not have to agree in order to understand, and sometimes conveying understanding is more powerful than agreeing anyway.
3. Look for common ground.
It’s vital to the health of our relationships to understand the perspectives of people we love.
But this isn’t always easy when we disagree, and can especially challenging when we care deeply about a topic, and our differences.
Whether you disagree about a Supreme Court nominee, overturning gun restrictions for the mentally ill, or press coverage of today’s events, there is no shortage of opportunities to differ in opinion.
And with so many differences, it isn’t hard to feel estranged from your partner.
If you are feeling disconnected as you take on today’s news, instead of highlighting your differences, aim to highlight your common ground.
Perhaps you differ on gun restrictions, but can agree on the impulsivity and dangers of mental illness. Can’t agree on a Supreme Court nominee? Can you agree on the vetting process or some aspect of a nominee’s ideology? Sick of press bias or fake news? Can you agree on our collective responsibility to listen carefully, and speak up?
As tensions run high, and exhaustion sets in for so many of us, differences raises tension and creates conflict - conflict you may not need in your relationship, and worse, conflicts that are not within your control to solve.
Remember our collective responsibility to make our homes a place of respite and peace. Highlighting common ground allows you to converse through the lens of agreement, and build resilience for the areas in which you don’t agree.
4. Disagree with respect.
Highlighting common ground will only take you so far, and disagreement may at times be unavoidable.
This is vibrant and healthy dialogue, and there is nothing wrong with disagreeing, so long as you do so respectfully.
It’s not so much that you disagree, but how you disagree that matters.
Whether you are chiming in with a differing news source, or arguing an ideological difference, aim to do so respectfully. Don’t interrupt, acknowledge what you have heard your partner say, and make your point using ‘I’ statements while avoiding criticizing your partner or their point of view.
Own you perspective, back it up with why you think or feel the way you do, and make yourself clear.
Avoid judging your partner’s perspective — this will only agitate him and prompt him to dig his heels in harder. Keep in mind that understanding each other, rather than agreeing, is the goal of these heated conversations. You can agree to disagree.
5. Embrace humor.
Where ever and whenever you can, diffuse your disagreements with humor. Watch a skit of your favorite weekend satire, share a funny meme from social media, or simply relay a joke you heard at the office.
Laughter relieves stress, promotes feelings of happiness, and can provide a novel activity over which you can reconnect when you might need it most.
Sharing humor brings a needed smile, a lighter mood, and an easy connection when your bond feels strained.
Laughter is good medicine!
6. Speak through the language of feelings.
When a conversation gets tense with your partner, aim to converse in the language of feelings.
Rather than talking about an event or situation, talk instead about your feelings and how they relate to the situation.
For example, instead of talking about the travelers stranded at the airport and how wrong the situation was, speak instead about how scared and upset you would be if after traveling on a 10 hour flight to attend your cousin's wedding you were detained at the airport and sent back home.
Feelings inspire empathy and understanding, whereas facts and opinions inspire opinions.
Sharing your feelings helps your spouse understand and empathize with your perspective — what you are looking for after all.
7. Increase your positive interactions.
Any relationship can handle discord so long as there is a healthy balance of positive interaction.
This is your chance to actively look for positive subjects to bring up and address.
When will you take your next vacation and where? What good has happened today? When did you laugh today (that doesn’t involve politics)? Identify a positive topic, and bring it up.
Celebrate the positive, and linger in the areas unrelated to your disagreements. Think of it not so much as avoidance, but as medicine for your relationship. This will help you feel less stressed, too.
8. Remember that diversity strengthens your relationship.
Can’t seem to agree? Remember, his views don’t make him who he is, nor do your views make you all of who you are.
Contrary to popular belief, sharing opinions does not make a relationship stronger. Disagreement and differences are a natural part of any healthy relationship, and they promote growth.
Just like diversity strengthens genes, financial portfolios, and the creative process, so too does diversity strengthen and broaden our relationships. We are better for our differences, and stretching for compromise helps us grow.
Listening to understand, searching for common ground, and forging compromise is what loving healthy relationships are built on, not only in our families, but in our government as well.
This is what it means to be care and be engaged, and this is our privilege — and duty — as we sustain healthy relationships and a strong democracy.
9. Take a break when you need to.
Turn off your news feed, your banner alerts, and watch your news and social media consumption if you find you are weary of the conversation and getting too overloaded.
We all need rest and rejuvenation to restore ourselves, and taking a break from stressful topics is an important part of tolerating them for the long haul.
Even if you can’t impose a news diet, try limiting discussion of such topics from time to time.
Have a news-free or politics-free discussion, go out with the explicit goal of avoiding the news, engross yourself in a sports event or movie. Find other things to discuss and do together that restore feelings of closeness.
The people we love the most deserve our best behavior, and sometimes, they are the last to receive it, especially if we are under stress.
Irritation with your partner may not be intentional, but it is real and can be damaging if left unchecked.
We owe it to our partners to treat them with respect, and listen to their views, especially when we don’t agree. This is the person you love, after all.
Understanding your partner and highlighting common ground will help ease the stress of this rapidly changing political climate. In the process, you just might rediscover something else you truly love about your partner.