In a few days, I will be seeing another couple considering divorce because one partner is a Trumper and the other a progressive. I’ve been hearing through the grapevine about many such couples, ranging from the young to the elderly. Perhaps you know some, too. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found in December that 13% of people had ended a close relationship due to arguments over the election—and that was all before the new administration. Are these couples getting it wrong? Can politics really be a deal breaker? I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s consider the chronic stress plaguing so many Americans now. It’s not just those troubled by the Trump administration; many Trump supporters are also experiencing stress. This is because the country is so sharply divided. In fact, the current level of stress is reminiscent of what I saw post 9/11. Except then many experienced the tragedy as pulling the country together. I didn’t meet people who were divorcing over it.
The stress people experienced following 9/11 could be described as that of a lurking, perhaps imminent threat around any corner. Our post-election stress is not on the level of that caused by terrorism, yet the stress stemming from a lack of transparency, gaslighting, chronic lying, and blaming of individuals and institutions is keeping people on edge. While post 9/11 caused acute stress immediately following the event, and then months or even years of chronic stress, the current situation is causing chronic stress with no end in sight. At the same time, identity politics is splitting our union as a nation of “others” who are white, nonwhite, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, gay and lesbian.
Let’s get back to those couples considering divorce. In a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT), we talk about deal breakers. A deal breaker is just that: an issue that can’t be resolved. In the current political climate, for many people—and for women in particular—support for Trump is a deal breaker.
As a PACT therapist, my job is to move couples toward secure functioning, to guide them toward a mutually supportive relationship in which they are each other’s caregivers. However, I also recognize that partners will sometimes run up against deal breakers. Ideally, those issues should have been uncovered long before the couple reach the point of divorce. In fact, they should be dealt with during the initial stage of vetting a mate, prior to engagement and marriage.
Obviously, when it comes to real life, the ideal does not always happen. Consider the case of a woman for whom her husband’s support of Trump is viewed as a betrayal. Perhaps she was a victim of sexual abuse, and is now re-experiencing that trauma after learning her partner is not disturbed by the president’s abusive treatment of women. Maybe she has no personal history of abuse, but is still outraged over the resurgence of misogyny and hate crimes in our country, and when her husband find ways to justify the behaviors that outrage her, she feels betrayed. To use a PACT metaphor, she no longer feels they are in the foxhole together.
You might say, “Shouldn’t these women have known their husbands well enough to know they would react this way?” Ideally, yes. But I would also say that our country is facing new territory. Beliefs and feelings that may have been hidden for decades are coming to the surface for many people. When this happens for a couple, sticking together out of force of habit is only going to exacerbate chronic stress.
Let’s remember Lincoln’s words: “A divided house against itself cannot stand.” Like a fractal, that principle applies at every level, from nation to marriage. When a deal breaker is revealed in a couple’s committed relationship, that becomes my top priority as a therapist. I will do everything to help the couple move toward a win-win situation. But betrayal is a tough to overcome. If partners can’t resolve the issue, with both prioritizing their mutual respect and caring for each other over all else, I will help them through the process of breaking up.
Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner's brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Whitesides, J. (2017). From disputes to a breakup: Wounds still raw after U.S. election. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-relationships-insight-idUSKBN15M13L