The age-old adage has always been to never discuss religion, money, or politics with folks. But these days, it seems impossible to escape that last topic; even if you don’t bring it up in polite company, it’s likely you’ll be forced to confront the views of friends, loved ones and even potential partners via social media.
For some, opposing party affiliation is an immediate dealbreaker; for others, they may feel their partner’s personality outweighs their political views, or perhaps they already love someone who has developed a difference of opinions over time.
Even before political discourse became as polarized (and high-octane) as it is today, it could be challenging to maintain a strong relationship with someone who sees the world differently from you. But all hope is not lost if you love someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Relationship experts Candace R. Cooper MRC, LPCA and Kristen Rogers, M.A., who practices at a community mental health agency in Texas, have some tips and advice on how to handle dating your politically opposite partner.
‘Listen to Understand’
The act of “listening to understand” is a crucial part of active listening, which enables you to have a more productive conversation with your partner. Oftentimes we listen simply so we can have a reply or rebuttal, but we didn’t actively process what was just said; "listening to understand" is working to be sure you hear your partner.
“Empathy allows you to understand and [embody] your partner’s values without shifting your own,” says Cooper. "It allows you to see the full picture without assuming, or creating your own judgement of, what your partner’s beliefs are,.”
Practicing active listening is a skill that takes time. Try summarizing what your partner just said to help you understand and to show that you were listening: “So what I’m hearing is that you believe raising the minimum wage will have a negative impact on the economy?” This gives them a chance to confirm, or to clarify if needed.
Keep Debates Civil
It’s one thing when a debate is fueled by passion; it’s another when it’s fueled by rage. Aggression can be a major block to successful active listening; arguments tend to be more about getting that last word in versus giving everyone space to discuss.
Keep the debate civil by not raising your voice, not interrupting your partner, and by staying on-topic rather than bringing up multiple subjects (particularly if you tend to get personal when things get heated).. It’s a sign of disrespect when you do these things, and disrespect has no place in a relationship.
Be Honest About What You Value
Sometimes, people aren’t honest with themselves about what they truly value and care about deep down. In an attempt to say all the “right” things, they undermine their actual beliefs, which makes it difficult to have an honest discussion.
“It’s important to understand where your values truly are and express those to your partner,” says Cooper, who suggests saying something like “Honestly, I don’t really care too much about the economy overall, I care more about having access to a livable wage so I can have better opportunities.”
While your partner may not agree, this gives them a better understanding of where you are coming from so you can “fight fair.”
Use Anecdotes As Well as Facts
Using facts shows that you’re educated on your position and have arrived at your conclusion rationally, while bringing in a personal anecdote can drive your opinion home.,
If your partner is engaging in active listening, yet still not understanding your point of view, try using anecdotes if you can: “My parents never made much more than minimum wage their whole lives and we struggled getting basic necessities- it was hard for us.”
Candace says this type of personal language can help your partner see that coming from a place of experience - and often to react to it as someone who loves you, not someone who disagrees with you. “This hopefully allows for deeper understanding and can help you grow as a unit even after the difficult conversation,” she says.
Know Your Deal-Breakers and Triggers
Knowing what you truly cannot tolerate is important when discussing politics with a partner - current or potential..
There is no need to compromise your core morals and values for anyone, and that can translate into the political sphere as well. Explains Rogers, “It’s one thing to have a difference in opinion; it’s quite another to be in a relationship with someone whose beliefs are in direct conflict with your existence.”
Those specific deal-breakers and triggers are different for everyone, so Rogers recommends figuring out what you’re unwilling to budge on, and being absolutely transparent with a potential partner that there’s no room for negotiation on those topics.In the minimum wage example, you might say, “Your views around access to wages and job access really heightens my anxiety around job security- this isn’t going to work out.”
Whether you chose to remain with a politically-opposite partner, or whether you decide to end things due to irreconcilable beliefs, it’s a good idea to seek therapy.
“Trying to make a relationship work when you start off on the wrong foot (or end up on the wrong foot) is not going to work,” says Rogers.
Having a professional to help you mediate these discussions may help you and your partner get a deeper understanding of each other; alternately, you may want a therapist’s help grieving for romantic loss caused by your differing beliefs. Whether it makes your relationship stronger or you stronger on your own, it can only help with your approach to bringing politics into relationships in the future.