Maintaining Relationships With Political Differences

Dialogue is where progress happens, where we find shared values or make space for each other’s viewpoints despite political differences.

two people turning in voting ballots illustrated

Close to the election, Amanda and her husband George (names changed) watched a documentary that pointed to many of the similarities between Trump and Hitler. 

The couple are both ministers in a progressive denomination, but Amanda has more liberal politics than her husband. And the difference in how they interpreted the documentary shocked her.

“I said to my husband, ‘How can you watch this and not see the similarities?’ And he was like, ‘Well, yeah, I think they’re talking about the United States,’ but he twisted it in a way that I just thought, how can we be watching the same thing? I mean it almost makes me sick.”

Having different political stances with anyone can be unsettling, to say the least. But when it’s your significant other you’re clashing with, it’s even more intimate, more intense.

And Amanda is certainly not alone. One 2018 study found that three in ten married couples have different party affiliations. And tumultuous political differences do not have to extend across party lines, either. In a phone interview, Dr. Tania Israel, psychologist and author of Beyond Your Bubble: Dialogue Across Political Lines pointed to the differences between Sanders and Clinton voters. 

So how does one approach these differences with a significant other? I spoke to Dr. Israel for advice.

1. Strive for Dialogue, Not Debate or Discourse

In her book Beyond Your Bubble, Dr. Israel breaks down the difference between discourse, debate, and dialogue. Debate is about winning an argument while civil discourse is about simply sharing ideas in a respectful manner.

“Dialogue, in contrast, is about sharing ideas, but it goes deeper than that,” she writes. “It’s about being able to understand ideas and the people who hold them—and being able to make a connection with these people.” 

Dialogue is where progress happens. Where we can begin to find shared values or make space for each other’s viewpoints. 

Dialogue is only possible when your motivation going into the conversation is to better understand someone else, not just change their mind. And I want to pause here and acknowledge that, for many of us, this is where we get tripped up.

What’s happening right now in U.S. politics is urgent, and it can feel counterproductive to talk about these issues with folks who don’t share our viewpoint in any way other than with the goal to change their mind.

I’m not going to argue against this necessity. We do need to be fierce allies for those facing political oppression, sanctioned brutality, etc.  But what I have come to realize is that entering into these conversations as enemies is not helpful.

It can feel paradoxical to love someone who doesn’t share your belief in something so very important. But that’s why there’s hope, as well. If we can have these conversations with love, unity and understanding are actually possible.

This different approach — dialogue instead of debate — starts by acknowledging your perspective about someone’s opinions is probably off.

2. Acknowledge Your Perceptions Are Probably Off

“The first thing is to recognize that we have distorted perceptions and to want to try to correct them,” said Dr. Israel in a phone interview.

It’s easy to think of political differences as a binary—staunch liberal or conservative—and to assume we understand what someone believes and why they believe it based on what we know about their political leanings. But people’s beliefs are much more nuanced than that. And each person’s perspectives (including your significant other’s) is unique.

For example, you might assume you know what someone is thinking when they say “all lives matter,” when they’re actually thinking something else entirely. “And so it’s important to have that curiosity that comes from recognizing that we might be wrong about where somebody is coming from,” Dr. Israel explained.

In other words, to really understand what someone believes, you have to stop assuming you know what that is.

“George is a conundrum. That’s what I often call him because theologically, we see eye to eye,” Amanda said. She and her husband share so many core values. For instance, they believe in equal rights for all people. They both support their gay and lesbian friends and believe that “love is love.” This is why she’s confused by his politics. From her perspective, they seem to go against his values. 

A particularly complicated part of this journey is learning how someone’s values tie to their political beliefs. And this connection is where a lot of the judgment and hurt feelings come in.

“There may be differences in values [between you and your partner], but understanding those differences in values from the other person’s perspective is really different from overlaying your own morality on top of what they’re doing,” Dr. Israel said.

A good starting point might be to ask your S.O. what their values are and how they connect to their politics, from their perspective. 

3. Generate Curiosity

How do we maintain the desire for dialogue, especially about sensitive topics?  Dr. Israel recommends using curiosity.

“Keep in mind, ‘Wow, this is my partner. This is someone I really want to know better and understand.’ And use that motivation to generate curiosity to find out more, rather than reacting to something with limited information,” Dr. Israel recommends.

This curiosity can help us question our perspectives and fuel the desire for dialogue at the same time.

“If I didn’t believe in his fundamental goodness, I couldn’t be in the relationship with him,” Amanda explained about her husband. This is her starting point from which she can generate curiosity and the desire to understand him better.

4. Choose Your Vulnerability Level

We’ve established that dialogue is possible when we question our motivation and our preconceived perceptions. But the other ingredient needed for a deeper connection formed through this dialogue is vulnerability.

Dr. Israel explained that we so often resort to statistics and slogans when we have tough political conversations as a way of avoiding the personal. “It’s very hard to stay in a place of not knowing how they’ll respond to you, sharing not stats and slogans, but your experience and your fears. And I think that vulnerability is so important for us to be able to bring into these conversations if we want to have real change, both on our own individual emotional level, and interpersonally, and politically.”

But you get to choose how vulnerable you want to be. 

Biracial writer Alex Shea wrote about dating a white man during the civil rights protests this summer and how her partner did not understand or acknowledge how race placed a central role in the ways in which people are treated in the U.S. 

It took several attempts for her partner to begin to understand how being biracial impacts Alex’s lived experience and how white privilege impacts his.

But these conversations were possible because they established enough trust between them for Alex to be vulnerable.

For me, it was important to feel safe and comfortable enough to express myself,” Alex told me via email. “My partner has always made that really easy, even when things get uncomfortable. We try our best to confront hard topics head-on and establish how we feel when we talk about them.”

Alex also explained that she needs to pace herself to have these conversations. “Race is a very heavy topic for me as an empath,” Alex explained. “I feel every word like a brick on my chest. So I have to take those topics and discussions slowly. Space ’em out. We still have them. We don’t avoid them. We just respect each other’s limits. Mutual respect, trust, and honesty. That’s what I think a relationship needs to talk about the hard and uncomfortable stuff.”

You probably have some idea how well you know and trust your partner. How sensitive they can be in difficult conversations or picking up on signs that you’re overwhelmed or hurt.  If you’re not there yet, it’s OK to table these conversations until you’ve built up more trust and mutual respect. Vulnerability should be earned, layer by layer.

5. Develop Tools to Handle Conflict

In a relationship, conflict isn’t just going to happen around political differences. It’s important to have tools to handle conflict in general that can be used when discussing political differences as well. Dr. Israel’s recommendation is to start somewhere easier:

“There are a million different disagreements that couples could have and some of them are going to push the emotional buttons more than others. So practice with those that are a little easier and keep practicing the kinds of things that will help you to manage your emotions: taking deep breaths, physically grounding yourself, remembering the other person’s goodness, and that you want to understand — keeping your motivations in mind.”

One of the most important tools in handling conflict is self-trust. “You need to trust yourself and your ability to be able to enter dialogue,” Dr. Israel said.

6. Be Confident In Your Relationship

When Jamie’s ex voted for Trump in 2016, she didn’t talk to him for an entire year. The college lovers had remained close for over a decade after they’d broken up. “It was the first year where [Warren] was actually cut off from me and it was a horrible, horrible feeling,” Jamie said. (Both names have been changed.)

She was dating someone else during that year, and it helped her realize how much she still missed her ex. “I realized that the love was stronger [with Warren], and it was just the most important thing. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten into a relationship with him now, you know, but that love had already been built up over so many years that it’s unconditional now.”

Two years later, they were married.

She’s now close to his family as well. “I probably wouldn’t have given his family the time of day if it wasn’t for Warren. And the truth is they’re actually worth knowing. And I would also argue that they’re not worth giving up on.”

Jamie explained that the only way to help people change their minds is through a genuine relationship. “And if you unfriend someone or you refuse to talk to them, there’s no chance for love to ever develop.”

Jamie and Warren still fight a lot over politics, but knowing his family and how he was raised has helped her understand where he’s coming from. It helps her maintain her willingness to have dialogue.

Jamie’s advice for others in her situation is to not let other people’s opinions affect your behaviors or your relationships. “Sometimes I’m kind of ashamed and try to hide the fact that Warren’s family are conservatives because I’m embarrassed about it.”

She admits she also gets resentful when other people judge her for her relationship with a conservative because she knows how good of a husband Warren is.  “Sometimes I just wish I had more courage to tell people I love this guy and you can fuck off. But I can also still be mad at him. You can do both.”

Note: Jera also wrote about why they regret unfriending their family over the election. Read it here:


1 I like it
0 I don't like it

Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.