How Savvy Couples Negotiate Political Difference
You’re crazy about him. He adores you. You appreciate your similarities and celebrate your differences. That’s what keeps life interesting – until it comes to politics. Then, watch out!
For couples who have political differences, even the most innocuous comment can be perceived as an ill-intentioned jab that can spiral into a full-blown gloves-off free-for-all. When your partner’s political leanings are different from yours, what can you do to maintain a civil union?
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor of business ethics at NYU, is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He and his colleagues have a lot to offer when it comes to understanding how “our moral minds work. Why do people disagree so passionately about what is right? And why, in particular, is there such hostility and incomprehension between members of different political parties?”1
Moral Foundations Theory, the body of work that comes from Haidt’s research, tell us that an individual’s sense of morality is both inherited and learned. Genetics and early experiences determine how strongly each of the following six moral foundations influence our decisions and create our moral matrix.
- Care / Harm
- Fairness / Cheating
- Loyalty / Betrayal
- Authority / Subversion
- Sanctity / Degradation
- Liberty / Oppression
The Conservative Perspective
Internationally, across cultures, people who lean toward conservative politics typically consider all six moral foundations to be of nearly equal importance. Respect and concern for loyalty, authority, and sanctity are values that help maintain social order and are critical for group survival. Conservatives are more sensitive to signs of threat and innately compelled to preserve social institutions and traditions.
The Liberal Perspective
Folks who are more politically liberal focus nearly exclusively on the first two foundations: care/harm, and fairness/cheating. They are deeply concerned with caring for the vulnerable and suffering, and with promoting and protecting individual rights. Liberals are innately predisposed to be more comfortable with novelty, variety, and diversity.
While liberals focus more on the individual, and conservatives focus more on the collective, both sensibilities are essential to the survival of humanity. “Liberals and conservatives are like yin and yang – both are necessary elements of a healthy state of political life, as John Stuart Mill put it” (quoted in Haidt, 2012).2
Earnest and Honest Differences
However, observing two-party householders in the throes of political debate quickly reveals that “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us to ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.“3
Haidt’s research helps us understand why earnest individuals can honestly perceive the world very differently. Political beliefs, anchored in personally unique experiences and moral matrices, are at the core of who we are as individuals. They are more instinctive than rational, and as such cannot be reasoned into or out of a person.
STRATEGIES FOR POLITICALLY OPPOSED PARTNERS
Begin with the end in mind
Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People advises us to begin with the end in mind. In our context, this means asking yourself how you would like this conversation to impact your relationship. Will this discussion bring you closer together or leave you each bruised and fuming in separate rooms?
Surely you’ve had moments when you imagined explaining your position so clearly that your partner’s eyebrows leap skyward while an expression of epiphany appears on his face. (You embrace. The angels sing.) Who doesn’t long for this kind of agreement? It’s seductive to think that if your partner doesn’t see things your way, there must be something he just doesn’t understand. But the truth is, there’s a three-step trap waiting as we venture into political debates with the one we love. Remember this warning from Dr. Cordova, Clark University professor of psychology (quoted in Bernstein, 2012): “Everything we do to get our partner to see things our way only pushes him further away. Once the polarization process starts, we stop respecting the other person’s view. Then, we end up vilifying him.”4
When political differences tempt you to put on your boxing gloves, be mindful and pause to consider your purpose before jumping into the ring. Remember to W.A.I.T. Ask yourself, why am I talking? If your purpose is to persuade your partner of his poor judgment or your more enlightened perspective, save your breath and your relationship. Take a fresh approach.
Replace Judgment with Curiosity
Instead of being judgmental (there is a bit of arrogance in presuming you know better), approach political conversations with genuine curiosity. Employ Haidt’s moral matrix as a framework for shaping productive political conversations. Learn something new about your partner’s moral compass. Ask about your partner’s guiding life experiences. Be willing to share your point of view. Explain your allegiances in moral matrix terms rather than from a policy perspective. Share the life experiences that have shaped your convictions.
Beware of Time, Place, and Hot Buttons
In addition to knowing why you’re having this conversation, be mindful of time and place. Any important conversation warrants an environment that will foster a successful outcome. Remember H.A.L.T. If you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, take the high road: step out of the ring and save the conversation for later.
Be respectful of your political tender spots and maintain a media-free safe zone in shared living space – especially your bedroom. Protect your partner from your political team’s zealous pundits. Ask that he do the same for you. Protect your home as a place of shared sanctuary. Be creative about how you access your political news being mindful of what you put into the airwaves at home. Take politically peppered phone conversations away from your partner.
Identify your hot buttons. Perhaps you can safely exchange ideas about the economy or education, but when it comes to pro-life/choice, your conversations quickly corkscrew into a brawl. Notice sparing patterns and learn to respect each other’s vulnerabilities – especially in public. There’s nothing to be gained by outnumbering and overpowering your partner’s argument when you’re in a crowd that’s sympathetic to your ideas. You don’t need a referee to tell you that scoring points for your political team at the expense of your relationship will leave you in the loser’s corner.
Tell Your Partner’s Story
Do you know your partner’s opinions, experience, and moral foundation well-enough to accurately and respectfully convey his political position? Can he do the same for you? This is the mark of champions. This is the measure of a winning couple.
When you “can coexist with different political views, (you) create a foundation for a healthy and long-lasting relationship, says psychotherapist Karen Ruskin, because (you’ve) learned to see each other as two individuals within a relationship,”5 (quoted in Grinberg, 2012).
Who are you together?
You are individuals, and you are a couple. It’s easy to spend a lot of time trifling over individual differences while forgetting to celebrate all that you have in common. Take comfort in that common ground. Together, compose your mutual story. Where are your political ideologies in harmony? Where do your moral matrices align? There is comfort and safety in that arena. Where do your beliefs diverge? Here, there’s room for discovery and growth.
Your story, in the end, isn’t just about politics; is about how your relationship expands each other’s reality and the daily actions you take to love and care for one another. Your story will be crafted from the practices you embrace to bridge your differences with respect and grace. Taken one-by-one, these are small practices. They may seem insignificant, but they will change the world: the one you live in and, collectively, the one we share on this planet.
The next time a political discussion arises, instead of punching and ducking, recognize this arena as a place to polish the skills of curiosity, compassion, respect, and appreciation. Recognize this challenge as another way to practice love.
1 Www.yourmorals.org July 25, 2016
2 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, Vintage, 2012), 365.
3 Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 366.
4 9.4.12 WSJ. Bernstein, Elizabeth. “The Marriage Problem that Comes Every Four Years”
5 Grinberg, Emanuella. What We Can Learn From Politically Divided Couples