Dear Answer Queen:
My husband and I have been married for 300 years (kidding, only 30, but sometimes it feels like 300!), and for all of that time, we’ve been politically compatible; we’re both centrists. Lately, though, we seem to be having some arguments about politics that really bum me out, whether it’s #MeToo (he believes the movement vilifies all men when some of them are actually good people; I agree about that detail but feel it’s really beside the point), immigration (I believe those who apply properly should get in before others; he thinks refugees should move to the front of the line), or any other myriad things up for discussion right now. I hate fighting with him, but I also hate feeling like I can’t express my opinion about these things without being at war in my own home. Can you help?
Politics Are Ruining My Marriage
If our country has ever been as politically polarized as now, it certainly hasn’t happened during my half-century living in it. This is a crazy, unsettling, in some ways truly dangerous time, with lifelong friends, family, and spouses suddenly finding themselves not just in occasional political disagreement, but sometimes actual enemies—at a time when politics is front and center in virtually everything.
I hate fighting with him, but I also hate feeling like I can’t express my opinion in my own home.
There used to be music, movies, sports, novels, Santa Claus, and other things that allowed us to escape from all that. Now, along with our ubiquitous cell phones bombarding us with a 24-hour news feed, sports are partly about kneeling for black lives (go Colin Kaepernick!), Taylor Swift is urging us to register to vote (go Taylor!), books about Trump and the White House crowd the bestseller lists, CNN and Fox News sometimes seem like the only two channels on the air, and Santa Claus is no more than an unshaved White Man. It’s bleak, and it leads to anxiety-overload (analysis paralysis, it’s been dubbed). And it’s all the time.
Why These Differences Hit Home
And where better for the anxiety and fear and bleakness to find an outlet than with our loved ones, who are—how conveniently!—right there? What’s more, as so many issues seem like life and death right now (journalists dismembered! immigrant babies separated from their mothers! Arctic glaciers sliding into the plastic-filled sea!), it feels crucial that those we love, at the very least, see and even sometimes do things just as we do—and just when it can be harder than ever for that to happen. After all, not so long ago, couples used to watch the evening network news together, or maybe both read the same one newspaper, because, well, that’s what came to the front door. Now we all see different Facebook posts and Twitter feeds and read different articles, even as we maybe have less time to connect about it—especially if we used to bond over family dinner and kids’ soccer games and now those kids have moved on, leaving us even more time to stay in our bubbles and read our own Twitter feeds.
So when we do connect, on, say, on that rare evening we’re both home—and we realize that, wait, you think what Louis CK did is worse than, say, what Brett Kavanaugh did? You think a tax cut is more important than the planet?—there’s that feeling of, How can we even still be friends, let alone share a dog, a bed, and the toilet paper? Even as it feels more important than ever to have solidarity with our loved ones, the disgust and fear and anger we’ve been saving up all week can spew out at those very loved ones like Exorcist-style bile. We might think—or even say—How can you possibly eat a climate-destroying hamburger/throw that plastic bag in the trash/object that I just donated our entire month’s salaries to Save the Snails? What are you—a Deplorable?
How to Find Common Ground Again
So, what to do. I believe that the only way through this with someone you love and see often—and especially someone you live with, such as your actual spouse—is to talk it through. And sometimes, like it or not, you might even have to fight your way through.
But here’s the thing: The fight can’t be, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t see it my way go F yourself.” Though that might feel good (really good, if we’re honest) in the moment, it’s rarely productive. The fight is about, first, realizing that something great that you used to share with your spouse—solidarity, connection, feeling like a team—has gone missing, and something crappy—antagonism, alienation, insecurity—has taken its place.
And second, it’s about figuring out how to reduce the crappy thing and get back some of the good thing again. It’s about agreeing to try to understand where each other is coming from, and why, even if you’re not in the same place—and doing that without having to feel insecure or wrong or stupid or bad. It’s about finding ways to find common ground again, so you can focus on those issues instead of the ones where you’re more polarized.
When I talked about political views of mine that are different, even slightly, from my husband’s, he took it personally; he actually felt that I was bringing up this stuff just to antagonize him.
For example: Yes, it’s a time for condemning white men (go #MeToo!), but your husband has to understand that you don’t mean all white men—i.e. him. And there’s only one way for him to know that: You have to tell him. At the same time, you need to realize why he feels defensive.
I actually had this fight in my own marriage recently, and what we realized is this: When I talked about political views of mine that are different, even slightly, from my husband’s, he took it personally; he actually felt that I was bringing up this stuff just to antagonize him. But for me, it wasn’t about antagonizing, it was about bonding: I was trying to connect with him in the ways we used to before things got so tense—and one of those ways is through politics and related issues. My husband is smart and knowledgeable and, okay, a tad OCD about news and politics—in fact, it’s one of the things I fell in love with because I could ask him about almost anything going on, and he could always update me with like-minded views. I was missing that side of him.
Once I was able to understand what the problem was (i.e., why he seemed so disgusted with me every time I brought up pretty much anything political) and explain why I brought up this stuff (because I missed his excellent mind, one I trust more than almost all others), he did better at trying to be patient when I did this and not to take it personally. I also did tell him, though, that it wasn’t okay to treat me as if I were stupid or in a different political place than I actually am—that I need a certain level of respect from my husband. Because I don’t think he realized he was being a bit of a jerk, and guess what? He needed to know that!
He is more like his family in that he doesn’t believe in discussing politics with those with different opinions.
And once he explained to me how much it upset him to be bombarded with this stuff all the time, I realized I needed to be more sensitive about assaulting him nonstop with questions and my thoughts about the news. So I turned to others to talk to about some of the stuff I have an ongoing need to discuss. Because for me, talking about something that’s bothering me is how I deal with that anxiety, and how I feel better, while for him, escaping into something more pleasant is preferable.
That’s another thing we realized in the fight: That he is more like his family (go figure!), which doesn’t believe in discussing politics with those with different opinions—because why argue with those you love? And I’m more like the members of my clan, who love nothing more than a good political discussion (because that’s how we learn!) but can sometimes be overly combative or confrontational about it.
Why It’s O.K. to Argue It Out
That doesn’t mean that my husband and I agree about everything now (ha ha ha!! Excuse me while I die laughing), or that all this won’t come up again—see beginning of this answer about how we are living through really tense/scary/polarized times. But at least now we understand what’s going on between us. And that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had The Fight, which is why I think a good argument is necessary now and then. For me, it’s like popping a balloon full of tension and watching it dissipate and then drain away, first into the rest of the house and then out the windows and doors and gone. At least until the next time.
Hope that helps. And I hope you’ll get out and vote in the midterms, and make sure everyone else you know does, too.