by John Hart, PhD, LCMFT
October 12th 2020
The year 2020 has been a difficult and strenuous year for us all for various reasons. Marriage and Family Therapists around the DC-Metropolitan area have seen their clientele numbers increase. Couples are not only battling the regular relationship dynamics issues (e.g., communication, problem-solving and intimacy problems), but also experiencing a growing concern about managing political differences between partners. This year is an election year and with the election scheduled in a little less than a month, it is important to brace couples with a few pointers on how to manage conversations or dynamics regarding political differences/philosophies. Below are a few tips to follow. I also highly recommend this book, I Love You But I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World by Jeanne Safer.
1. List Hot Topics: Couples may react differently to emotionally-charged topics in society. I recommend that the couple write a list of all topics that each partner feels is important to them. Next, work with your partner to rate the level of emotional reactivity each topic holds for each person (e.g., on a scale from 1-10, 1 = no reaction versus 10 = very reactive). Lastly, create healthy boundaries for handling conversations around said topics. For instance, either decide to avoid certain topics because they are too emotionally charged, such as conversations around race. Alternatively, you can also decide to set a time marker. For example, “we are going to talk about the most recent racial incident for fifteen minutes and we will use a safe word to stop the conversation if one of us becomes reactive.”
2. Don’t Focus on Changing Minds: Conversations around politics become volatile when there is too much energy invested in convincing the other to change his or her viewpoint. If only it was that easy, right? Marriage Therapists truly believe that, regardless of the topic, healthy communication is about the approach. It is important when discussing political differences to mutually agree to listen, understand and reflect what your partner is saying. Listening allows the conversation to flow at a reasonable pace (fast conversations can go “off the rails” quickly). Reflecting back what you heard your partner say allows them to feel heard and validated. NOTE: Validation does not mean that you agree with your partner’s point of view. Receiving this validation allows there to be a mutual understanding that “we can hear each other.”
3. Always End with Reconciliation: There will likely be some passionate conversations between you and your partner. Passion is not the enemy here; some passion in a marriage is a very good thing. However, volatility is not ideal. Before ending the conversation, do a quick emotional “check-in” (e.g., “Wow, that was intense, how are you feeling right now? How are you feeling about me?”) Be open and honest and allow space for reconciliation. Find a ritual that you can do together as a gesture of repair. Examples might include going for a walk together, grabbing a cold beverage and chatting about safer topics, taking a limited break and reconnecting, etc. Couples sometimes make a mistake in believing that resolution is the same as reconciliation. You don’t need a resolution or an agreement to reconcile. Politics are a great example of a topic that mandates reconciliation after conversation.