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A House Divided
Intimate relationships in America are in crisis as never before, and political feuds are the reason.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News postelection poll reported that close to one in three Americans had had a “heated argument” with a friend or family member who voted for the “other side”—the kind of arguments that fester.
Family gatherings have become minefields. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that over two-thirds of respondents, ages eighteen to sixty-five-plus, were dreading political disputes on holidays.
An article in Science revealed that families with political conflicts are cutting their Thanksgiving meal short by up to an hour to avoid blow-ups around the turkey; they know no other way to prevent ugly confrontations.
In November 2018, The New York Times ran an article on “safe topics to discuss this holiday season,” and Huffington Post offered “17 Thanksgiving Conversation Topics That Aren’t About Politics.” Evidently we can’t think of any on our own.
Unfriending on social media, the ultimate dis, has reached epidemic proportions. Pew Research polls reported that 27 percent of respondents had blocked or unfriended someone just before the 2016 election. Those numbers continue to escalate ominously; erasing a relationship has become an acceptable way to disagree.
Gone are the days when couples could simply avoid areas of conflict over public policy, as my own parents did (my father was an Eisenhower Republican and my mother a liberal Democrat); I never heard them discuss, much less quarrel about, politics. But in the sixties, the era of Vietnam, politics invaded every crevice of private life. The Bush era, the Iraq War, and fights over Supreme Court nominees escalated the right/left conflict, and dialogue across the aisle became rarer and rarer. Now, in the Trump era, it has disappeared entirely: the political has become the personal, making lovers and friends with different party affiliations a vanishing breed.
A major culprit, an ominous new wrinkle in the current crisis, is the partisan media, including the degraded state of discourse on cable and talk radio, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and, above all, the explosion of social media that has invaded every nook and cranny of our craniums. Like children imitating their parents, people mimic what they see and hear onscreen and online, to the detriment of any kind of dialogue. They have become so unused to actual conversation with the other side that they can only deliver partisan diatribes. “You voted for that monster!” was the opening conversational gambit of a progressive woman interview subject of mine at a romantic dinner her conservative boyfriend had made for her. She was mimicking her friends and her news sources.
Online hostility gives people a spurious sense of power over those they cannot convince. Several people I interviewed had actually been unfriended on social media by their own parents, ended romances (in one case, broke an engagement), or unfriended their siblings or erstwhile close companions in reaction to online content they deemed offensive. They never even tried to work it out. Such a reaction to differences of opinion is insane but has become disturbingly normalized, and almost automatic. One-half of my interview subjects reported unfriending or being unfriended over politics—and only one of them re-friended the person and apologized to him. Broken bonds are tough to repair, and it may not be possible to re-friend someone even if you have regrets or second thoughts.
The impact of this poisonous political climate on our bonds with spouses, lovers, family, and friends—abetted by the ranting 24/7 news outlets—is disastrous and tragic, and it is continuing to escalate with no end in sight. Our social circles have become so insulated and homogeneous that many people, particularly younger people, rarely venture outside the group of the like-minded and have virtually no voluntary contact with anyone with whom they disagree. No wonder we demonize the opposition.
Researchers from Stanford University reported that intermarriage across party lines had plummeted to just 9 percent from 20 percent in the late twentieth century. No wonder so many mixed-political couples feel isolated; they have so few peers, and their friends cannot relate to them.
An article in The Journal of Politics in 2011 reported that parents worry more about their children marrying across party lines than across racial or religious ones, and that political compatibility has replaced even physical attractiveness as the fundamental quality to seek in a potential mate.
Politics is also tearing established couples apart. According to Wakefield Research, one in ten couples is ending their relationship because of battles over politics—a phenomenon that has been labeled “the Trump divorce.” For younger millennials, the appalling statistic is 22 percent.
And there is no more dangerous indicator of how serious a threat political conflicts are to love and civility than this: Wakefield Research found that 20 percent of couples are now fighting more ferociously and frequently over Trump’s policies than about money, the most contentious marital issue of all time.
Even psychotherapy, the last bastion of the personal, has become politicized; in over four decades in practice, I’ve never seen anything like it. A patient of mine seriously considered terminating our long and fruitful relationship because I questioned his desperate plan to move to Canada after Trump won the election; we worked it out, and he decided to stay put, but the intensity of his outrage and sense of betrayal at my failure to applaud his scheme—which was related to his dealings with his unsupportive, pro-Trump parents—was disconcerting.
These irreparable rifts are part of virtually everyone’s experience, and the list of casualties keeps growing.
As a psychoanalyst and relationship specialist in practice for forty-five years, and a liberal Democrat married for thirty-nine years to a senior editor at National Review, the leading conservative journal of opinion, I’ve been writing about navigating this divide in my own life for decades. My husband and I have also written about it together and have appeared jointly in the media to discuss our surprising relationship. People are often astonished that the two of us have managed to accomplish a feat that many believe is impossible.
I also host a podcast entitled “I Love You, but I HATE Your Politics” on which I speak to a fascinating array of mixed-political couples of all sorts, so others in this situation can feel that they have peers.
Since the 2016 presidential election, I have become the go-to expert on how to make a mixed-political relationship flourish. Readers and listeners have deluged me with desperate requests for advice on how to have a political disagreement with an intimate partner without mutually assured destruction. Their predicaments run the gamut from touching and amusing to almost unbearably painful. Among the people who contacted me: a man attached both to his comic decal of Trump urinating on Hillary Clinton and to his liberal girlfriend who demanded he remove it from his windshield; a liberal son who feared that his conservative father would physically attack him because of their political differences; a conservative brother who worried that his uncontrollable political rants were destroying his relationship with his beloved left-leaning sister, the only relative who had yet to unfriend him.
I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics is my response to their pleas. My goal in writing this book is to analyze the psychology of compulsive political fighting and to counsel people on how to extricate themselves from it. My analysis and recommendations are based on fifty interviews with individuals and couples who are trying to find their way out of constant political bickering with those they love. Some of the people I talk to, and whom you will meet in these pages, are still struggling to understand these bruising battles; and others, who have succeeded in transforming their fights, share the secrets to their success. Everyone I spoke to felt relieved and encouraged by our conversation, even people I never expected to respond. It is to them that I owe many of the insights and the life-changing advice you will find here.
Couples of all kinds feel increasingly desperate about this problem, which seems to be getting worse by the minute and from which almost nobody is exempt. A seventy-nine-year-old retired general told me that his closest friend of sixty years stopped talking to him when he voted for Trump, a loss that still devastates him but he feels he cannot repair. There is a serious crisis in civility in private as well as public life. I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics shows you how to put a stop to it, in your own heart and with those who matter most to you.
Young people, who have very few models of civility or tolerance in the political realm to draw on, and are hermetically encased in partisan media and internet bubbles, are especially at risk. Recent research by Match.com shows that 47 percent of millennials would not even consider dating someone with different political beliefs. There is now a foolproof way for them (and their elders) to date only people who agree with them politically. On RedStateDate/BlueStateDate the poster children for these twin sites were the Reagans and the Obamas looking into each other’s eyes—“True Love Exists!” the captions said—and you could find your “politically correct” match using their “uniquely progressive match system” and “Meet Republican Singles in Under 2 minutes!” For the ultra-niche markets, there are TrumpSingles and BernieSingles, as well as proliferating sites for progressives, libertarians, and other political sects.
These sites set people up to be disappointed, because political affinity alone is virtually worthless as a reflection of genuine like-mindedness or good character and probably ranks alongside sharing an astrological sign as a predictor of lasting compatibility. Unfortunately, guaranteed political compatibility guarantees no other kind. Nor is it a litmus test for moral rectitude.
Luckily for me, no such tool existed when I met and married my politically incorrect husband (whom I met in a singing group) in 1980. Otherwise I never would have discovered that it is possible to have everything in common with someone except politics. I tell the story of our most contentious issue and how our responses to it evolved in the last chapter of this book.
There is no dearth of advice on how to navigate the new world of interpersonal conflict that our contentious partisan environment has created. It ranges from the preposterous—a headline in Harper’s Bazaar helpfully recommended, “If Your Husband Voted for Trump, Just Divorce Him!”—to serious works on the moral assumptions underlying political opinions, techniques to manage ideological disagreements by preventing or diverting angry interactions, and general conflict resolution strategies that could be applied to any fight. But the advice even the best of these counselors offer, though often sensible or enlightening, is of limited efficacy. Many of the people who urgently contacted me for advice had read extensively in their search for help but did not find the practical assistance they sought to enable them to change their charged interactions with the other side, or an understanding of how they got embroiled in endless tormenting fights in the first place. What they found explained the “what” but not the “why.” They sought me out because other sources had failed.
The available advice falls into several categories, all of which miss the main reason political fights are so disturbing and recalcitrant.
One approach in the most popular books people turn to for help with this problem is to present a moral typology so the reader can identify his or her own approach to politics and realize how subjective are the attitudes and opinions that grow out of it, and why alternative stances are so infuriating.
A subject of mine told me how enlightening it was for her to read a description of her moral type that explained why she felt driven to convert her Trump-supporting mother-in-law to her own progressive views. However, this information did not stop her from continuing to badger a woman with whom she had an otherwise excellent relationship; nor did it cause her to question why she persisted against the wishes and admonitions of everyone she knew.
Another type of book offers strategies for resolving conflicts in general—good to know, but not specifically tailored to the current explosion of political venom. A third genre advises readers how to frame a political discussion in ways that defuse animosity, without analyzing what motivates the combatants to persevere in the first place.
It may be illuminating and comforting to identify your ethical attitude, learn conflict resolution techniques, or seek tips to turn down the temperature once a fight has started, but none of these strategies will help you understand the emotional origins of the dispute or reveal why you keep trying desperately to win fights that are unwinnable. I offer something radically different from any of these: an in-depth analysis of the underlying psychological motivation behind political battles.
It is often suggested that people list their “triggers,” the political topics that provoke them the most. Some may find it helpful to identify what their hot-button issues are—although most of us (and all of my subjects) know them already, as I certainly do. Knowing what sets you off does little to prevent you from getting sucked into a dispute. Only understanding why you rise to the bait—or dangle it yourself—will help you stop.
There is an effective way out of the emotional crisis we are in. But we have been looking for help in all the wrong places. Psychology, not politics, is the key to understanding and changing the compulsive battles that are tearing us apart.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeanne Safer