Relationship experts discuss how to navigate dating and relationships in our charged political times.

Nicole Spector | September 28, 2020

When Nicole Moore, the CEO and owner of Love Works near San Diego, started her relationship coaching business nearly a decade ago, the issue of politics seldom if ever came up with her clients. Then came 2016, the election year that changed everything. These days, one’s political affiliation is guaranteed to be brought up — passionately.

“What I am seeing from my clients (mostly powerful, driven, left-leaning women) who are single and searching is that they don’t want to date people who are not ‘woke,’” Moore told TODAY. “It used to be, ‘he looks handsome and seems like he has a good career’… Politics would be something that would be discussed later on. Now it’s often part of the screening process.”

Both the coronavirus pandemic and intensified unrest around racial injustice have amplified the importance of politics in dating, said Moore. In today’s politically polarized landscape, dating someone with different political views can introduce a number of challenges.

“The ideal way to talk about political differences as a couple involves both partners sitting down and talking about the dreams and goals you have in common,” said Dana McNeil.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Amber Artis, a professional matchmaker in Richmond, Virginia, with over 20 years in the field told TODAY that she’s observed a similar trend operating along the same timeline. The two biggest deal-breakers she hears from her clients, she said, are “smokers and Trump supporters.”

But the opposite is also true: Trump supporters want nothing to do with those voting for Biden. “I just spoke with a gentleman today who has conservative political beliefs and he told me that he did not want to date ‘a crazy liberal,’” Artis said.

The polarity Artis and Moore observe is reflected on a much wider scale in a recent survey from Dating.com, which found that 84% of singles said that they will not even consider dating someone with opposite political views, while 67% admit to ending relationships due to opposing political views.

Mismatched partisan pairs’ are fairly common

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, there are likely quite a few people still married who have different political views. In 2016, Eitan Hersh, a political scientist and associate professor at Tufts University near Boston, collaborated with Yair Ghitza, the chief scientist at Catalist, a data services company in Washington, D.C., and found that 30% of married households contain “a mismatched partisan pair. A third of those are Democrats married to Republicans. The others are partisans married to independents,” Hersh wrote of the findings in an article published by FiveThirtyEight.

Katherine M. Hertlein, Ph.D., a professor with the Couple and Family Therapy program within the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s School of Medicine said she’s seen “quite a bit of discord” among couples concerning politics, “even among those on the same side.” What then, can people who are partnered with — perhaps even married to — people with opposing views do to make it work?

Here are strategies therapists recommend:

  • Assume the best of your partner
  • Understand your shared values
  • Choose to be curious
  • Keep emotional reactivity in check
  • Use “I” statements
  • Recognize that their views aren’t likely to change
  • Know your deal-breakers
  • Consider therapy

Assume your partner also wants the best for humanity

“What helps bridge the gap between two people who endorse different candidates is to go back to an ‘assumption of good intent,’” said Hertlein. “Your partner probably didn’t hitch their star to this candidate you don’t like because they believe terrible things about you and the world, or because they just don’t care. Probably, they care very much and they support their candidate because that person resonated with their values.”

Determine shared values

“The ideal way to talk about political differences as a couple involves both partners sitting down and talking about the dreams and goals you have in common,” said Dana McNeil, Ph.D., a licensed marriage family therapist in San Diego. “This creates an atmosphere of finding similarities and shared values. The goal is to find ways that you will navigate the major issues without tearing down the other person’s character.”

Choose to be curious instead of furious

“My favorite phrase that I encourage my clients to ask is, ‘How can I be curious versus furious about my partner’s views?’” said McNeil. “Learn why your partner holds the perspective they do.”

Keep your reactivity in check

“Take the time to notice when you become emotionally reactive to certain topics, and clearly communicate what you need from your partner to feel safe,” said Danielle Moye, M.A., a licensed marriage family therapist in Windsor, Connecticut. “Once you’ve established a mutual understanding for these discussions, incorporate active listening into your conversations — listening with the intent to understand and not to respond so quickly.”

Use ‘I’ statements

“This punctuates the importance of a political view for one partner,” said Moye. “For example, ‘As a Black woman I feel that lawmakers should continue to pass bills to make it illegal to discriminate against hairstyles and textures.’ In an interracial relationship, the partner who benefits most from privilege may want to be curious about what this stance means to their partner. While the opposing political view may see it as ‘just hair,’ the one living the experience doesn’t feel visible, unless they adjust their hair to fit a Eurocentric standard of beauty.”

Recognize that you probably can’t change their mind

“There is no value in trying to talk your partner out of their position,” said McNeil, “especially if you have not taken the time to acknowledge why this belief and value feels important to the person who holds it.”

Know your deal-breakers

“If you have not had a conversation going over your deal-breakers, have it now,” said Hertlein. “I have looked straight at couples and said, ‘Your partner will not change on this. Can you stay in a relationship knowing that this will not change and will continue to be difficult to navigate?’ Sometimes people will hear this and say, ‘I decide to stay.’ But it’s important to acknowledge your own distress in the situation and understand that you’re making this decision knowing that the person will not change.”

If you’re silenced or traumatized, it’s time to seek therapy — or part ways

Generally, therapists recommend against throwing in the towel because of differing political views, but not all relationships can or should be saved. A sign that you should consider parting ways — or seek couple’s therapy — is “when you find yourself (or your partner) introducing criticism, prejudice, disrespect and condescending tones into your relationship,” said Moye. “When communication reaches a point where either partner feels silenced or even traumatized, this can cause irreparable damage to the fabric of connection. These harsh approaches to political differences can steal from intimacy, and rupture the relationship in its entirety.”

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