Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationship — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Q. My boyfriend and I have a ton of things in common, but one area where we differ is our political views. I’m a vocal Democrat, and he leans toward Republican. Neither of us care to start bickering about different candidates, but every now and then, a political issue comes up and we can’t seem to get on the same page. Is this grounds for a breakup? Should we just try to avoid political topics altogether? How big of an issue is this in the long term?
A. Thank you for your question. It’s certainly pertinent given today’s highly polarized political environment. It may be an issue that you grapple with for a long time, but I do not believe that it is grounds for a break up. Couples can learn to live and dialogue with political differences.
Case in point: James Carville and Mary Matalin, the polar-opposite liberal and conservative pundits whose happy marriage has survived over 25 years. In his 2014 book, Love and War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters, and One Louisiana Home, Carville wrote, “I learned a long time ago to stay away from politics at home.” About Mary’s political opinions, which he does not agree with, Carville wrote, “So if it pleases her, then fine. I’d rather stay happily married than pick a fight with my wife over politics.”
Your political differences may be a perpetual issue in your relationship. Dan Wile, a marriage and family therapist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in After the Honeymoon, “…there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next 10, 20, or 50 years.”
No matter who you choose, you will be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems, so choose well. By way of further explanation, John Gottman wrote, “Relationships will work to the extent that you have wound up having a set of perpetual problems you can live with.”
If you truly love your partner, you will find a way to live with your perpetual problems, political differences among them.
You mention that you and your boyfriend have a lot in common. So, are your political differences part of your particular set of perpetual problems that you can learn to live with?
I have some suggestions for how you can talk about and learn to live with your political differences.
I suggest that you use the guidelines of what we call the Gottman-Rapoport Exercise. Anatole Rapoport wrote on international conflict during the Cold War. John Gottman applied Rapoport’s ideas to couple interactions. Rapoport suggested that opposing parties should be able to summarize and validate each other’s position before attempting to persuade each other. To do this, the parties must agree that in every interaction there are two valid realities or perceptions, not just one. The goal of each person is to understand the partner’s perception with an agreeable frame of reference.
The listener must then convey to the partner that he or she has been understood. For couples who do not want to be adversaries, this means postponing persuasion until each person can state their partner’s position to their partner’s satisfaction. They should then try to validate part of their partner’s perspective by completing a sentence like “It makes sense to me that you might think (or feel) that way because…” Validating does not mean you have to agree with their position, just that some part of it makes sense to you from their perspective.
The second point of the Gottman-Rapoport Exercise is the assumption of similarity. Rapoport observed that during conflict people tend to see their partner as dissimilar to them, and to see themselves as having all the positive history, traits, and qualities and their partner (“adversary”) as having very few of these, and they may see their partner as having several negative traits as well. This leads to people seeing their partner as having most of the negative qualities and very few positive qualities.
Hence, Rapoport suggested two things. First, when we identify a negative quality in our partner or in their perspective, we try to see that very quality in ourselves or our own perspective. Second, when we see a positive quality in ourselves or our perspective, we try to see that very quality in our partner or in their perspective. Such a suggestion changes our way of thinking about or seeing our partner and ourselves.
Follow these simple suggestions, and I believe that you will find a way to live with your political differences. Ultimately, I return to James Carville for some sage advice.
“For anyone who’s married, that’s always a good question to ask before you pick a fight: Are you sure that’s a hill you want to die on?”
More from Asking for a Friend here.