When Couples Fight About Politics

The impact of political disagreement on marriage.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

Have you ever asked yourself why a couple with disparate political viewpoints would marry? I have always wondered, for example, how Democrat James Carville and Republican May Matalin have made their relationship work. They claim not to talk politics at home, but something must slip out every now and again. And just watching each other on television must be somewhat agitating.

A couple that seem to be politically at odds are Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Trump and his former campaign manager, and her husband George Conway, a lawyer and harsh critic of Trump. Kellyanne staunchly supports the president with no shortage of excuses for certain behaviors while her husband appears on television and blasts the man.

I have no idea what is truly going on inside the marriages of such power couples, but I have been witness to couples in treatment claiming to have serious arguments over politics. A few of these couples proposed marital separation as a remedy. The most common combination of these warring couples is that of a Republican married to or living with a Democrat, like the Carville/Matalin union. Or two Republicans in which one disapproves of many of President Trump’s actions, like the Conways. Where these people are on the continuum of their parties usually lessened or exacerbated their arguments. For example, if a Democratic partner is far left, then any position to right would create a problem and vice versa.

The purpose of this post is to help couples who have different political perspectives to avoid destroying their relationships. Some of you might retort with: “If two people truly love one another, their politics won’t matter.” Well … that happens to be the first point I would like to make.

Every relationship consists of “content” and “process.” Content is the subject matter that a couple is discussing. For example, if a couple is arguing about how many children to have, the content in this case would be “children.” If they are debating where to live, the content is a certain geographic “location.” Germane to this post, the content is “politics.”

Process is the vehicle that drives the content. It is the interactional style or dynamic that carries the content. For example, partners might scream at one another to make their points. Or one partner may avoid difference or conflict by leaving the room before his/her partner has finished making a point. Another example is that of a partner who dominates a discussion preventing the other from saying a word.

Most of the couples I see have a process problem. But on the occasion that a couple presents a seemingly unresolvable issue, their dynamic may be symptomatic of a deeper issue. For example, if a couple is chronically arguing about politics, it could be representative of a wish to be with someone who shares their perspective on life—someone more compatible in general. This might be more indicative if a couple finds themselves bickering over a plethora of issues. Issues with money and sex are two of the most common cover-ups for more insidious relationship problems. Point being, it is vital for a couple to consider that their political differences may be a cover for a deeper issue that might be much harder to face. But it is better to get to it while there is still time to reach a compromise.      

Freud once said: “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.” So, if upon examination no deeper issue exists, you might want to employ a more optimistic perspective to your political differences; one which will enable you to value your partner’s difference: Consider learning from one another. How can you grow if you simply surround yourself with people who think exactly like you do? Robert Pirsig wrote: “He who has stringent values ceases to learn new facts.” Also, difference can be the spice of life. Listening to someone who thinks like you do on all subjects may eventually lead to a certain staleness. Difference is often exciting whereas sameness can be boring. Allow your partner to push you into new territory—it may be a path to a richer life.

Why not take a page out of the Carville/Matalin marriage and limit conversations about politics if you know they will lead to altercations? Difference is great but there is no need to shove it down one another’s throats. This a good segue to my next recommendation: Do not try so hard to change your partner’s mind. In fact, do not try so hard to change anybody’s mind. Remember that when you are arguing with someone you are not simply challenging them on an issue; you are arguing with their history—the way they were raised, and their life experiences. Psychotherapists can attest to how hard it is to help someone to change, even when they are paying for it. What chance do you think you have? Curb the pressuring.

Do not compete with your partner. A relationship should not be a competition to see who is right. Some people love to beat their partner into submission by presenting every new point made in the social media that favors them. This will not result in winning. The only way to win in this context is for you and your partner to communicate respectfully despite your differences.

My final recommendation is, that if you find yourselves about to do battle, take a step back and calm down. Your partner is just as much entitled to his/her perspective as you are. Try to prevent flare-ups, and above all else … listen and be fair.