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.

Medically reviewed in September 2021

Even if you voted third party or skipped the polling booth altogether during the most recent election, politics have probably affected your relationships in recent years. In fact, many couples around the country are discovering they have fundamental differences when it comes to topics that deeply matter to them.

These differences can often make it feel like you don’t really know the person with whom you’ve built a life. 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 sync.

Stress seems to follow you home
About 8 in 10 Americans—including a large majority of both Democrats and Republicans—reported feeling stressed about the country’s future in a 2020 report from the American Psychological Association (APA). More than 7 in 10 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 while working with both individuals and groups,” says Baldwin. “Reports have indicated that people are actually seeking out prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications for relief, in addition to seeking out therapy and other support.”

Keeping up with the 24/7 livestream of news alerts and social media posts is enough to keep you from ever truly unwinding. It may also prompt disagreements when you and your partner are trying to relax together.

“You may not even realize your anxiety level is high, such that merely mentioning 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 can also occur because people tend to view their home as a safe space. “Couples traditionally think of the home as a place to escape tension,” Baldwin says. “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 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 partners 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 haven’t been taught to communicate effectively. How, then, can couples navigating today’s highly charged climate learn to cope?

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

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

“I always go back to the importance of being willing to listen to each other,” Baldwin notes. “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 political conversations end poorly 10 times out of 10, you may want to find more neutral topics to discuss for the sake of your relationship. “That said, 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.

The reality is that it’s tough to avoid talking politics these days. So, it can help to set some ground rules ahead of time, for when innocent conversations turn political. Try these tips:

  • Name any specific phrases or subjects that trigger strong emotions for either of you. Agree that those phrases are off-limits. If they pop 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 off news alerts on your phones.
  • Does one of you listen to Rachel Maddow while the other prefers Glenn Beck? 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 sometimes hard to see that. 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.

Sources:

American Psychological Association. “Outcome of Presidential Election Offers Little Stress Relief, According to New Survey.” November 19, 2020. Accessed April 15, 2021.
Express Scripts. “America's State of Mind Report.” April 16, 2020. Accessed September 14, 2021.

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