Emotional Health · Marriage & Life Partners

When Politics Rocks a Marriage

I used to marvel at the ability of Democratic political strategist James Carville, and his Republican counterpart, Mary Matalin, to get along. Often appearing on TV together, they seemed to embrace entirely different views on almost everything. This is not unusual on talk shows, but the remarkable thing is they are married to each other.

On the other hand, having known a political strategist well, I have some perspective. When I met him, more than thirty  years ago, I assumed that having chosen politics as his life’s work, he cared deeply about it, and he did. He loved the intensity and challenge of it. But I learned in time he didn’t care all that much about the issues.

Reader, I married him, as Jane Eyre wrote about Mr. Rochester in the eponymous novel. But I discovered that my husband, while not blind like Jane’s, was not seeing the world as I did. Because you are not allowed to play for both teams, he had chosen a side and though he may have favored the one he chose, the difference between Democrats and Republicans wasn’t all that great in those days. And I discovered the game of politics for him and many others was almost like putting on a play, or performance art. If you think there is a lot of cynicism behind the scenes (and the scenery), you are right.

We are now divorced, but I wonder if 2016 has shifted things as much for the strategists as it has for us citizens. Since that election, the stakes have gotten higher as the gulf between the two sides has widened. The underlying values between them seem more different than alike, which represents a seismic change in our national dialogue.

Marital dialogue has been affected as well. Freelance writer Jennifer Merrill has written an arresting piece on the decline and end of her 20-year marriage since 2016. When they married, she was not too concerned about their differences. She writes, “Along the way, I realized that Eric and I were canceling each other out at the voting booth. He voted Republican or, later, Libertarian, and I never voted for anyone but Democrats. We joked about it, but it wasn’t a major deal.

Until it was.”

Merrill says she was devastated by the results of the 2016 election and the extreme factions that endorsed the new President. Her husband voted for him and continued to support him. When last spring’s hearings for the a Supreme Court nominee revealed charges of sexual assault against the president’s pick, Merrill’s husband stood firm in his support for the candidate, while she found the alleged victim’s story more credible. And she felt the story was an important one, and one that should have been taken seriously.

Merrill had already been questioning whether she could be married to someone who, by supporting this side, implicitly agreed with racist and misogynist views. As a woman and an advocate of human rights, the Supreme Court hearing was the last straw for her and she left her husband.

As polls show that more women are jumping into politics and more female voters are supporting them, I wonder how many other marriages are being rocked by the political chasm we are facing. Americans used to seem more united than they do now (though perhaps that was an illusion) about the basic values and ideals that bind us together as a nation. Now, we are divided and divisive and have very different notions about the causes and the solutions to our problems.

On the personal level, this can be rough going. Agreement about values is considered one of the most important factors in a strong marriage. Couples are urged to marry only if they are basically aligned on issues of religion, child rearing, law and order, etc., and to be cautious about proceeding if you are not. It is one thing to disagree about major issues with friends, who you only see occasionally, but your spouse is your partner in life, and values enter almost every facet of married life.

Misogyny represents an especially thorny problem. It is important to question if your husband supports candidates and issues that don’t respect women, can he truly respect you? What is he saying to you? If possible, you should have a dialogue in which you ask him to explain how he justifies his beliefs in light of these concerns. If you are not respected, can you trust in your partner’s love and support?

Some men chuckle about these issues, even using their endorsement of anti-female candidates as a way of teasing their wives. Increasingly, however, women are not laughing. Merrill, after leaving her husband, had few regrets, She writes,

“Now that I’m in the new apartment, although it is much smaller than the house we shared and I don’t see my kids quite as much, I have felt my anger, annoyance, and shame dissipate. And that’s better for everybody. I am happier now that I no longer share a bed and a life with someone whose beliefs are so contrary to mine.”

Merrill says her marriage felt more like a war zone than a sanctuary.  Though she could spend time with others who shared her views, her life with her husband felt unsafe. Now, she says, “I’m no longer going home to the opposition. …And that feels great.”

“The personal is political,” a slogan of the anti-war movement of the sixties, is as true today as it ever was. And vice versa—the political is personal. It is hard to rationalize living with someone whose views question your right to safety, equality, and freedom from assault and harassment. But when extreme candidates get our votes, aren’t we essentially endorsing their extreme views as well? It’s not inviting to go home at night to someone who thinks men who assault women are funny, or even admirable enough to get their support. Your partner should be someone who endorses you, first and foremost.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Diane Dettmann February 21, 2019 at 10:56 am

    Thank you so much Dr. Ford for this post. Since Trump became president my husband and I have tried to discuss political issues, but it usually causes stress between us. I eventually decided not to express my views, it wasn’t worth it. We agreed to limit our political conversations. Instead I’m reading books and articles about President Trump and his presidency. The more I read, the more strongly I hope he is not re-elected. My fear is with so many women in the running, no matter how well qualified and intelligent the are that the same thing will happen. Don’t want to end up with four more years of angst and disagreement within our nation much less in our marriages.

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