Why Republicans and Democrats Are in a Bad Marriage

If we view our divided America like a marriage, perhaps we can improve things.

Posted Sep 30, 2020

Note: This is the eighth post in a series about how our views of truth and reality contribute to some of the problems we experience as individuals and as a society. I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive these problems in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

The level of polarization in America is higher than it's been in decades. We are not seeing much "united" in our United States. With a contentious election upon us, we seem to be heading in the wrong direction. Both the Right and the Left show high levels of disdain and contempt for one another. In an odd way, this makes us alike and not different. Both sides think they are correct and the other side is idiotic, ignorant, in denial, brainwashed, etc. 

Yet, each side is biased in a way that allows us to remain loyal to our respective tribes. This is because we did not evolve to see reality. Rather, we evolved to view ourselves and the world in a way that allows us to survive. As we scratch our heads wondering why folks can ever support Trump...or Biden...we might understand this "irrational" allegiance is similar to loyalty and support of our favorite sports team. 

Viewing Our Situation More Adaptively

Since "truth" is often in the eye of the beholder, we are free to view life in ways that help us learn, grow, and overcome challenges. In this sense, one of the purposes of our existence is to survive and thrive. Thus, trying to skillfully navigate the adversities in life is one reason we exist in the first place. This inherently requires a greater level of flexibility than we have been seeing in our polarized America. 

A fundamental problem is that our current world is much different from that of hunter-gatherer ancestors. Simply put, we did not evolve to live in the wickedly complicated world in which we now find ourselves. Due to this evolutionary mismatch, our ancient brains are trying to solve problems of the modern world using antiquated approaches. It's like trying to use stone tools to fix a circuit board. 

This evolutionary mismatch can partly explain some of the polarization and tribalism that we see within America right now (historically too). The contentiousness in the United States is toxic. As our vilification, anger, and hatred toward one another grow, so will our mutual suffering. 

"Hatred is the poison we drink hoping the other person will die." — Wisdom saying of unknown origin with many variants 

There is no "winning" in this dangerous game we are playing. Channeling the wisdom from the 1983 movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, "The only winning move is not to play." Even looking at the "other" side as fans of a rival sports team has limitations because it does not offer an easy solution to the bitter rivalry that defines our two-party political system. 

Thinking of Our United States Like a Marriage

Let's try to look at our current conflict in a different way, and one to which many of us can relate. Pretend our United States is like a marriage (or committed partnership). In this "United" States, there is a partnership between the Left and Right in which, together, the sides create something greater than themselves. It is this union between our Left and Right halves, like a marriage of two people, that form these United States.

Source: gguy44/iStock

Implicit in this "marriage" is the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In this way of thinking, the Left and Right co-create one another to form this union, much like the Yin Yang symbol. There can be no left without right. The "opposites" define one another and can only exist in the presence of the other. Each side brings complementary qualities to the relationship to make it greater than each on its own: masculine and feminine, strength and suppleness, reason and sentiment, justice and grace. 

For this relationship to work, both sides must communicate and compromise for the greater good, which is the health of the relationship. Importantly, the happiness of the husband and wife are inextricably linked. Husbands, you might recall the wisdom in the saying, "Happy wife, happy life" or "If Momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." 

In these United States, the Right and Left are married to one another...until death do us part. There's no divorce in this union. What would that even look like? Another Civil War? No thanks! That's not an option!

We are in this marriage for the long haul, so our best move is to work out our differences...civilly...without the "war" part. We know from our own experiences that we can't really win arguments with our partners. Trying to "beat" the other side is a no-win scenario. Imagine our left arm trying to destroy our right arm. We are going to feel the pain and suffer no matter what. 

Our Bad Marriage in These United States

In recent years, our United States looks increasingly like a bad marriage. It's our version of the 1989 movie War of the Roses with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Things are ugly as we have become more polarized. Yet, perhaps looking at our country like a dysfunctional marriage between warring halves holds some keys to how to improve our relationship. 

This begs the question: What makes a "good" and healthy marriage? Psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been studying relationships for decades and have distilled their research into three keys to successful relationships

  1. Treating your partner like a good friend
  2. Handling conflicts in gentle and positive ways
  3. Being able to repair after conflicts and negative interactions

We can see that Republicans and Democrats, Right and Left, are fairly abysmal at using these keys to successful relationships. We don't view the "other" side as a good friend with whom we disagree. They are the enemy to be vanquished!

What about the flip side? What are the best predictors of an unhealthy relationship that will end in divorce? The Gottmans call these The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, and they are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

Of these, the worst is contempt. This can include treatment such as disdain, mockery, disrespect, sarcasm, name-calling, and derision. The level of contempt that the Left and Right is displaying toward one another these days is off the charts - perhaps exacerbated by social media. Yet such extreme, rigid, and negative views of one another are unfair, unwarranted, untrue, and, most of all, unhelpful. 

"People are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?" — "People Are People" by Depeche Mode

The Takeaway

Just as in a marriage, Republicans and Democrats can never really achieve victory. Both sides (well, and many others) create these United States. Small victories by one side leave the other side battered, bruised, angry, and vindictive. The pains inflicted by one side are ultimately felt by the other. Both sides are contributing to this unhappy marriage, and all sides suffer.

Like it or not, we are in these United States together. Divorce is not an option. We have to be committed to making this marriage work. This starts with how we view one another — as partners in a committed relationship rather than as rivals or enemies. We are in this marriage together for better or for worse, so it's time we start acting like it.