As an election year in the US, 2020 has put politics on the forefront of everyone’s mind with people becoming increasingly vocal about where they stand. With the current state of the world, mental health is a huge topic of discussion with a lot of stress and uncertainty plaguing modern households. This stress is no doubt seeping into relationships and putting undue strain on couples. So, just how important is political compatibility in your personal relationships, especially your most intimate ones? How do you bypass a breakup when you’re faced with opposing political viewpoints? We sat down with sex and relationship expert Dr. Tammy Nelson, to get her take on this topic and according to her, how you navigate political differences as a couple is perhaps more important now than ever before.
Q: It’s rare that couples agree on all things no matter how compatible they are. That’s why compromise is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. But with politics, things tend to get fairly heated, especially with the year we’ve had. How do couples manage to stay together, despite their differences?
Dr. Tammy: They get really skilled at conflict avoidance. These couples try not to speak about who they voted for or who they would vote for. They don’t talk about their views on hot button issues. They try not to fight at Thanksgiving and they avoid any conversation that has the risk of imploding around the dinner table. They watch separate news programs and have the radio set for different stations in their car.
Q: Okay, but surely not all couples can just brush major political differences under the rug all the time. How do you know a relationship can overcome this kind of incompatibility?
Dr. Tammy: They have enough positive traits in their relationship to balance out this negative imbalance. In their minds, the good outweighs the bad. They can relate to one another enough in other ways so they tolerate the other’s opposing viewpoints. But there has to be enough of the positive to outweigh their feelings of distaste.
Q: If an argument does break out, how would you suggest neutralizing it to avoid hurting your partner?
Dr. Tammy: To avoid hurting your partner during an argument about politics it can help to neutralize the intense emotions by using empathy and validation. Trying to understand your partner’s position doesn’t mean you agree with their politics. Empathy might sound like “I hear that you feel strongly about this, or it makes sense that you have a lot of emotion around this idea.” If you feel similar emotions but have different ideas, try saying, “It feels like we hold positions here where there are only two choices. They seem very binary that we have to be opposed to each other, our choices are on opposite ends of a spectrum of ideas and values on this issue. I wonder, what is the grey area in between those two ends of the spectrum?” Having conversations about your shared areas of values can decrease some of the tension and conflict in arguments about politics.
Q: What do you recommend for people dealing with fear and stress surrounding the pandemic on top of it being an election year? It seems like a lot at once, even for the strongest of relationships.
Dr. Tammy: I always tell couples to seek to understand first and foremost. Try connecting with your partner in an empathetic conversation. Talk about how each of you are anxious over the state of the world. Try to find some commonalities in your emotions. No matter where we stand, we all share basic human needs and common fears that help us relate to one another. Even if you don’t agree on where you lean politically, I think it’s important to lean into our shared humanity right now.
Q: It sounds like as long as couples can work on these short-term solutions they can have a successful marriage without seeing eye to eye politically with their partners, but are there any ways to ensure long-term success?
Dr. Tammy: In the long term, in order to stay together, couples need to share the same basic values. If they can agree on a more moderate view of the world, they may be able to connect over their disparate views. The ability to agree on the world in some small way, to see a common future, to have a shared vision, is crucial in a long-term relationship.
Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. is a Certified Sex and Relationship Therapist and Licensed Counselor seeing couples and individuals for 30 years, a TEDx speaker (“The New Monogamy”), and host of the podcast “The Trouble with Sex.”
She is the author of five books including, “Integrative Sex and Couples Therapy” (2020) “When You’re the One Who Cheats; Ten Things You Need to Know” (2019) “The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity” (2013) “Getting the Sex You Want” (2008) and “What’s Eating You?” (2005). Her new book “Open Monogamy; A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement” is due out in 2021 with Sounds True Publishing.