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How to Talk Politics With Your Partner When You Don’t Agree

It’s possible to discuss the issues–without creating issues for your relationship.

Even if you voted third party or skipped the polling booths altogether during the 2016 election, politics have probably impacted your relationships this year. In fact, couples around the country are discovering they have fundamental differences when it comes to topics that deeply matter to them.

That can make it feel like you don’t really know the person you’ve built a life with. Is it possible to stay together after learning how differently you see the world? We asked Leah Baldwin, LCSW, CSAC, a counselor and social worker at Parham Doctors' Hospital in Richmond, Virginia for strategies to help you and your partner cope when your views don’t quite match up. 

Stress seems to follow you home
Two-thirds of Americans—including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans—reported feeling stressed about the country’s future in a 2017 report from the American Psychological Association (APA). Over half of those surveyed said the political climate in general is a significant source of worry. 

“I’ve noticed an emerging theme related to political stress in working with both individuals and groups,” says Baldwin. “And reports have acknowledged that people are actually seeking out prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-depressant meds for relief, in addition to seeking out therapy and other support.”

The 24/7 live-stream of news alerts and social media posts provide a steady flow of updates. That alone is enough to keep you from ever truly unwinding, and prompt disagreements when you and your partner are just trying to relax together.

You may not even realize your anxiety level is high, sometimes, so that just the sheer mentioning of politics can be provoking,” says Baldwin. “If your anxiety tank is almost always full, any additional stress will make it overflow, resulting in intensified reactions to various subjects.”

Stress also comes from the fact that people tend to view their home as a safe space. “Couples traditionally think of the home as a place to escape tension. They often believe they have a united front and shared values—otherwise they probably wouldn’t have had a connection in the first place.”

But when stress follows you home and you learn you don’t share as many values as you thought, it can shake your relationship’s foundation—and fuel your worry even more.  

The debates get personal
You may be able to disagree peacefully with friends and relatives, so why does the exact same discussion send insults and dishes flying when you have it with your partner? 

“Couples spend a lot of time together, resulting in increased emotional reactions and personalization of discussions. This can leave them feeling personally attacked,” Baldwin explains. “Friends, on the other hand, tend to have less emotionally reactive relationships.”

On top of that, she says, most people aren’t taught to communicate in an effective way. What, then, can couples navigating today’s highly charged political climate do to cope?

Shift your focus
It’s surprisingly effective to be open about how you’re feeling in relation to the conversation. “If the words are becoming hurtful, tell your partner ‘I'm feeling nervous, I'm feeling frustrated, I’m angry, upset, scared, or I'm just over it all,’” says Baldwin. “It’s okay to call a time-out or simply end the conversation mid-way.”

Another way to dial down the tension, Baldwin says, is to give up the idea that your views are the only “right” ones, or that you have to convince your significant other to change his or her point of view to match yours. Granted, this may be difficult. And the expectation would, of course, apply to your partner as well. 

“But I always go back to be willing to listen to each other,” she says. “Being open to other views helps broaden everyone’s horizons.  I’d like to see folks appreciate that we live in a place where we have the ability to voice our opinions.”

Should some couples just avoid talking politics?
If ten times out of ten, political conversations end poorly, you may want to find more neutral topics in the best interest of your relationship. “However, if you’re feeling that much tension, there may be another underlying issue that hasn't been addressed. Politics could be the tip of a larger iceberg,” says Baldwin. If that’s the case, a family counselor can offer support and guidance as you work through those issues together.

But the reality is it’s tough to avoid talking politics these days. When innocent conversations inevitably turn political, it helps to have set some ground rules ahead of time:

  • Name any specific phrases or subjects that trigger strong emotions for either of you. Agree that those phrases are off limits. If they start popping up anyway, write a list and post it on the fridge as a visual reminder. Injecting a little humor into the idea that you need “house rules” never hurts, either.
  • Give yourselves a chance to decompress after work: Resolve to not talk about what’s happening in the world for at least 30 minutes after walking through the door.
  • Don’t wake up to news or the talk shows; turn on upbeat music instead.
  • Turn news alerts off of your phones.
  • Does one of you listen to NPR, while the other prefers Rush Limbaugh? Wear headphones, for goodness sake.

And when your partner says something that just blows your mind, remember: Their views are well intentioned, even if it’s hard to see that at first. They stem from your loved one’s deepest hopes and fears about the future—listening to and reflecting on their motivations can help you find common ground.