Dr. Jeanne Safer Talks Politics & Relationships on the Schein On Podcast
We have all heard the saying “opposites attract,” and the chances are good you have met a couple who fits that bill: the introvert and the extrovert, the homebody and the outdoorsy one, etc. Until recently, couples on opposite sides of the political spectrum were common, too.
That is no longer the case. Over the past four years, the number of politically “mixed” marriages has dropped significantly. The Institute for Family Studies found that between 2016 and 2020, the overall percentage of politically mixed marriages dropped from 30% to 21%, and the percentage of marriages between Democrats and Republicans dropped from 9% to 3.6%.
To examine how politics is impacting relationships, dating, families, and marriages, I sat down with Dr. Jeanne Safer, renowned psychotherapist and author, to discuss her latest book – I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics – on the first episode of the Schein On Podcast.
Passion, not politics, can lead to the erosion of a relationship
Despite what the headlines tell you, most people do not divorce because they have opposing political beliefs. They divorce for the same reason couples with the same political affiliations divorce: poor communication, and an inability to find common ground.
“The problem,” Dr. Safer explains, “is that we have a need, a very passionate need to change other people’s minds, to show them the error of their ways when they disagree with us.” Instead of focusing on the strengths and positives of the relationship – the places where you see eye to eye – some couples are looking only at their differences and equating them to weaknesses. Those differences become more than points of view; they become markers for morality.
As Dr. Safer explains:
With people who are close to us – our family members, our in-laws, our children, whatever – it’s even more desperate, because we can’t stand the notion that somebody disagrees. And this is what nets more divorces, more unfriending of grandmothers, and all this insanity that’s going on – because politics has now taken the place that religion used to have in our self-identity.
So if somebody disagrees with you, if somebody is a Trump supporter and you’ve voted for Biden or whatever, it’s the end of the world. How can they be a decent person? How can they have any values?
Can a politically mixed marriage be saved?
The good news, Dr. Safer explains, is that couples who feel pulled apart by political differences can save their marriages, provided they are willing to put the work into them, and put the civility back into their marriages.
“You have to want to [restore civility], you have to identify that it’s a problem,” Dr. Safer said. “You have to see that it’s your problem, not just your spouse’s problem. And you have to have a conversation saying, ‘I don’t want this to tear us apart.’”
But how do we do that? How do we start that type of conversation?
Avoid name calling
. Think your spouse is being a jerk? Maybe that is true – but saying it aloud will almost certainly shut down the conversation. Accusatory language only makes people defensive.
Acknowledge outside stressors
. We are one year into a global pandemic that has affected our social lives, our economic resources, and our sense of community. Many couples are facing additional stress over these issues, and that stress is making everything harder. If you have been in a politically mixed marriage for 20 years and only started thinking your marriage might be in trouble six months ago, acknowledge that there could be other things causing you to be angry.
Stop trying to win
. If your goal is to change the other person’s mind, the conversation is doomed from the start. As Dr. Safer said, “when people are entrenched, you’re not going to change them.” Active listening is hard, but it is critical to any successful relationship; listen and absorb what the other person is saying.
Know when to call it quits (on the conversation)
. Keeping a marriage alive and healthy requires constant work and upkeep, and one conversation may not be enough to create a plan to improve your marriage. If you find yourself circling the same points repeatedly, then the discourse has stalled and it’s time to move forward – or take a break.