Tom and Anna sat on opposite ends of the couch as their favorite movie flicked across the screen. They could barely even look at each other, let alone speak. The entire week they had been arguing and bickering about the upcoming election. They were both frustrated, and it seemed as though their relationship was spiraling out of control.
Political differences can be difficult to navigate in romantic relationships. They make our core principles and basic beliefs come to the surface. However, even if we decide to vote differently from our spouse, it does not mean we do not share core beliefs with that person; it just means that we prioritize them differently.
Many political issues, from abortion to taxes to who gets to be president, are charged with emotion. This is also the reason it may hurt so bad when we disagree on these topics with our loved ones.
Conflict management skills can be used in any disagreement, but political disagreements require a special kind of care because of their sensitivity. There has been a good amount of research, such as research by Scott Stanley and colleagues that has been covered on this blog, on the correlation between marital quality and political orientation. That research has shown the following:
- Individuals who are married with children tend to both lean more conservative.
- Women who are educated and have received high levels of education tend to be more liberal.
- If one spouse identifies strongly with a certain party, more so than the other, the spouse who is less opinionated tends to lean towards their partner’s point of view.
- Approximately 75% of couples identify with the same political party.
- The couples who report the highest levels of marital satisfaction are two conservative partners.
- Liberals who are married to conservatives report the highest levels of marital conflict.
- There is a correlation between political orientation and marital satisfaction—regardless of which party.
While political division in a relationship can lead to conflict, there are several steps couples can take to help keep the peace. The following steps have withstood the tests of time and can be applied in most relationships.
See your partner’s point of view
This is easier said than done, so maybe a small analogy will help. There were once three blind men. They were each asked to touch a part of an elephant and describe what they felt. One person touched the trunk, another touched the tail, and yet another touched the leg. As you can imagine, their explanations were wildly different even though they were all feeling the same animal.
Think about how this might apply to a relationship. Which part of the “elephant” are you not seeing, and what can you do to expand your point of view? The skill of open mindedness, as one researcher defines it, is “to be aware of one’s fallibility as a believer, and to acknowledge the possibility that anytime one believes something, one could be wrong.” Acquiring this mindset may take time and effort. Do not expect yourself to be perfect at first, but as you put in effort, you will notice and so will your spouse.
In the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie talks about how people like talking about themselves—their opinions and beliefs. Sometimes, though, the best way to win an argument is to not say anything at all. Similar to the first point, imagine how nice it would be to just be able to rant to your spouse about a political topic very important to you, and have them listen—even if they disagree. Dr. Dean Busby at Brigham Young University (BYU) outlines six tips for effective listening that include:
1. Listen more than you speak.
2. Pay attention to non-verbal body language.
3. Listen to what is not being said.
4. Determine exactly what the other person is saying.
5. Manage your emotions.
6. Empathize with your spouse.
Prioritize your marriage
During this election season, with all the debate between candidates and parties, show your spouse and family that relationships are more important than politics. Prioritizing your spouse and family over the big or small issues swirling in our nation signals that they matter more. Some research on work-family spillover teaches us that experiences, such as political attitudes and involvement, can create either positive or negative outcomes for our relationships. Even when families differ on political issues, they can value each other and each other’s ideas.
Political topics are sometimes difficult to navigate and are often charged with emotion, especially when spouses disagree. However, if a husband and wife are able to navigate through these conflicts successfully, they can strengthen their marriage relationship by providing a sense of mutual understanding along with reciprocal respect for each other’s beliefs. The selfless skills of listening and trying to see things from another person's point of view may be difficult, but as you show your spouse that they are your priority, it will undoubtedly be worth it.
Nathan Knebel is in his third year at BYU studying psychology and plans to pursue a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy.