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Posted on 09/28/2020

I love you but I hate your politics: Is there a way to manage disagreement in relationships during polarizing times?

I love you but I hate your politics: Is there a way to manage disagreement in relationships during polarizing times?

It is hard to imagine a more polarized American society. The onslaught of confrontations between opposing sides reminds us of this daily. One may wonder if a relationship can survive political disagreements in this current state of affairs. Some would advise against discussing politics, but a combination of its ubiquitous nature and the quarantine does make it a difficult topic for couples to avoid.

In fact, a survey of 1,000 participants by the Wakefield market research group found that 22% “knew of a couple whose marriage or relationship ‘has been negatively impacted due to Trump’s election’” . However, as exemplified by the famous political commentary power couple of James Carville and Mary Matalin, there are strategies for disagreeing agreeably. I outline a few of them below.

Strategies for Discussing Politics in Your Relationships

Strategy #1: Look at Your Core Beliefs     

The first step is to ask yourself if the disagreement is reflective of differing core values. Some opinions may reflect distinct approaches while maintaining similar goals; two people who deeply value education can disagree over the efficacy of charter schools, for example. However, disagreements over hot button issues such as police reform and the proposed border wall may stem from divergent understandings of racism, law enforcement, and justice. Identifying the extent of differences in core beliefs is helpful for deciding if you can disagree agreeably. One or both of you may decide that some differences are too wide to overcome. Therefore, it may be wise to share some aspects of your worldview earlier on to assess compatibility.  

Strategy #2: Find Common Ground

It may seem counterintuitive, but identifying areas of common ground between yourself and your partner can be helpful for discussing a political disagreement. Just because you have different opinions in some areas does not mean that you don’t share common interests, goals, and values. Perhaps you both love children, different cultures, or nature. In any case, remembering the basis of what brings you together can help you to weather what could pull you apart. 

Strategy #3: Establish Ground Rules

It is wise to establish some basic ground rules if you do discuss your disagreements with your partner. The marriage and family therapist, Dr. Gary Brown, reminds us to:

“Make sure that you are having a discussion, not a fight. You will know when it crosses the line if one of you starts to make it personal, assigning blame, or calling names. And then it needs to stop” . 

Practice listening to your partner respectively. Understanding his or her point of view while also articulating your own is a critical skill not only in managing political disagreements, but also in everyday discussions and conflict. Sometimes, it is helpful to depersonalize the disagreement, respecting each other’s inherent self-worth while recognizing that differences of opinion do not take away from your mutual love.  

Strategy #4: Practice Self Awareness

A political disagreement may also be an opportunity to practice self-awareness about our triggers. For example, watching or reading the news can provoke a range of reactions. Therefore, if you and your partner have different responses to a specific event, it can show empathy to acknowledge each other’s reactions. For example, by stating, “I understand that you are offended by President Trump’s style of speech” or “the reported looting upsets you,” you are validating your partner’s feelings, even if you disagree with his or her conclusions. It can also be wise to monitor your emotions while he or she is present, as doing so demonstrates respect for your different emotional reactions regarding current events.

Strategy #5: Work Towards Understanding, Not Winning an Argument

It may also be helpful to move away from a win-lose political dynamic and towards a discussion that emphasizes mutual understanding. For example, the founder of the Professional Wingman Thomas Edwards Jr states, “‘Debates are set up to determine who’s right and wrong, but can easily turn into an argument…Instead of trying to create a win-lose situation, seek knowledge and understanding, which will allow each person space to express themselves openly and as judgment-free as possible”.  In other words, a disagreement can become an opportunity to learn more about your partner’s point of view and the experiences that have shaped it. You may even gain an appreciation for his or her stories that illustrate overcoming adversity and speak to your partner’s character. Even though your experiences may be different, you can gain an appreciation and empathy for how they have shaped both of you.      

When disagreeing with your partner, it is important to keep in mind how you express yourself. It is tempting to educate him or her or demonstrate that you have a deeper understanding of the facts. However, when doing so you run the risk of coming across as condescending or belittling. You need not try to change him or her, but if you respectfully listen and acknowledge where he or she is coming from with statements such as “I hear you are concerned regarding our country’s safety,” or “I see that you are worried about unfairness in our economy,” he or she is more likely to listen to and respect your opinions as well. Also, using “I statements” may be helpful for conjoining your experiences and opinions. For example, “when I grew up, my parents were police officers, and I really admired everything they did to keep our community safe despite the dangers of the job. That is why I become really angry when I hear protestors say defund the police.” Even if your partner has a different point of view, he or she is more likely to respond positively if you can express yourself from the basis of personal experience.

Strategy #6: Know When to Leave It Alone

Although it may seem obvious, it is important to mention that there are times when it may be beneficial for both of you to simply agree to disagree, and leave the subject alone. There is much more that unites both of you besides politics. At times, even when embroiled in a contentious political debate, it can be helpful to pause or redirect a conversation to a more neutral topic, simply stating, “let’s agree to disagree.” Leah Baldwin, LCSW, CASAC, a social worker at Parham Doctor’s Hospital who was interviewed by the healthcare blog, Sharecare stated that , “It’s ok to call a time-out or simply end the conversation midway”  Sometimes, simply agreeing to disagree while moving on to another topic is what is best for your relationship. 

Although we may differ from our families in our political opinions, it is likely that they had some influence over the formation of our political views. Therefore, if you disagree with your partner, you are likely to also disagree with his or her family. You may be subjected to dinnertime political chat while joining family dinners. Therefore, preparing yourself for this experience by noticing your triggers, bringing a list of ideas to speak about other than politics, and simply ignoring partisan discussion points can be important steps towards preparing for gatherings with in-laws. However, remember that if your family is hosting, as a courtesy, you may ask them to refrain from political discussion when your partner is present. The explanation can be given that he or she would prefer not to speak about politics, and that this topic should therefore be avoided.   

These are polarizing times, and political discussions can easily become heated. However, there are a variety of different steps that partners can take to discuss political disagreements. It is wise to establish some basic ground rules that emphasize mutual respect, commonalities, and an aim to have a discussion instead of a debate. It is also important to monitor triggers, and to prepare for family gatherings as well. The fundamental point is to listen for and recognize the experiences that have formed your partner’s views. Also, it can be helpful to share your own life experiences and political beliefs as well. A disagreement is also an opportunity to develop greater mutual understanding between both of you. 

Benjamin Meyer, LCSW is a New Jersey based therapist who is also licensed to practice in New York state. You can view more information about Benjamin and his services by clicking on this link to his profile on The National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists. 

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