During the vice-presidential debate, my normally peaceful relationship with my husband turned into a Soviet-era showdown. We both sat icily on opposite sides of the couch, and when I snorted at Sarah Palin's winking he glared at me. When he mumbled "lies" under his breath while Joe Biden was talking, I chucked a pillow at his head.
An iron curtain has descended in relationships across the country — on one side lie McCain supporters and on the other side Obama backers. With a looming economic crisis, two wars, a crumbling health care system and the future of energy in the balance, this election has captivated our nation. Voter registration is at an all time high and pundits expect turnout to be even greater. But the cost of this intense political passion is often our relationships. Politics can highlight fundamental differences or similarities in values and character and how these issues are handled can either make or break a relationship, so when is the right time to introduce them into your relationship without destroying it?
With political stakes and emotions running so high, many couples would rather drop the iron curtain than engage in a potentially nuclear conversation. According to a recent poll conducted by VitalSmarts and the New York Times best-selling authors of "Crucial Conversations," 77 percent of people avoid discussing politics, and one in ten say they stay away from political banter at all costs. Nearly half of respondents have had bad experiences when sharing their political views — and rather than risk a verbal battle, they hunker down and shut up.
But Kerry Patterson, coauthor of "Crucial Conversations," notes that it's important for couples to discuss these issues early and often in a relationship and not to shy away from tough topics. "The amount of disagreement does not affect your satisfaction within a relationship. Rather it's how you disagree that predicts your satisfaction," says Patterson.
For some couples this political season is bringing new issues to the forefront of their relationships, issues they've never discussed before. Cynthia MacGregor, 65, had been living with her boyfriend for over a year and had never discussed politics until recently. "I did not know if he was a Democrat or a Republican until the current political season got going in earnest." They are both voting for Obama, but previously even hot button issues such as abortion and gay marriage had never come up before. "Luckily we are like-minded," she says. But MacGregor doesn't think that it's important to talk about politics in a relationship, noting that their passions lie elsewhere and those are the issues they care most about.
But for other couples, politics are a crucial aspect of their relationships. Jennifer Grangaard, 28, a seminary student notes, "I can compromise on politics with parishioners and my family, but if [my husband] was a Republican, I think I'd have questioned his morals." She recalls having a conversation on their first date where they both agreed, if they couldn't see things the same way then it was no use to continue. For Grangaard, having the discussion early on helped her decide whether she wanted to pursue a relationship with her husband.
Nikki Maxwell, 39, a self-described liberal has been married to her husband for 20 years. When they married he was "a short-haired Republican boy" — although his politics changed over the course of their marriage, their approach to their relationship has not. "In general we live by the pick your battles rule of thumb. We've learned to let a lot of little crap go within our marriage."
When she married her husband, she didn't expect him to change, and while they didn't share politics he was open-minded and willing to listen to her. For Nikki, that respect was the more important that agreeing on politics. "If my husband had not been open-minded to my beliefs, we would not have gotten married. However, I never expected or actively forced him to change. I just kept showing the examples and he came to change on his own terms. He's more radical than I ever was now. But I could not have predicted this outcome. I accepted him for who he was and have had to keep altering that ideal as we've gone along."
Nikki suggests that the key to deciding when to bring up politics in a relationship is knowing yourself, and understanding where politics fit in your identity. "Know your own boundaries and use them to evaluate new relationships. Know how important politics are to your internal compass," she states. "The more important it is to you, the more you will need a partner who is either on the same page or open minded. Or you may enjoy debates. For many people, politics are a very passionate subject and we want to share."
For Kate Matthews, 27, a law student and political activist who has worked on several campaigns in the state of Minnesota, it's important to bring politics up early in a relationship, but she notes that agreement isn't always necessary. "Politics are hugely important to me, since political activism will always be a part of my job and/or life. That being said, it's only important to me that someone is politically informed and tolerant of others' views, not necessarily that we have the same beliefs," she says.
Conflict is a part of all partnerships, so finding out how your significant other handles hot topics early on can help you gauge the potential success of your relationship. When my husband and I were dating, we got into a huge fight over religion. The fight lasted almost two weeks, and every night we would sit down and discuss how we had reached our conclusions. Although he got angry, he never raised his voice or insulted me and when I recommended books to him, he read them carefully and discussed his thoughts with me. By the end we had reached some common ground, but not much. However seeing how he handled the situation showed me that he was a man I could fight with for as long as we both shall live.
If politics are important to you, talking about them early will show you how you and your new partner handle potentially divisive issues. Keep in mind that having different opinions is OK — it's impossible to agree about everything, so how you talk about your disparities is more important than the fact that you have them. If politics aren't a key part of your identity, you may not need to talk about them at all. And if you do disagree about politics keep in mind that, as Kate Matthews says, "political arguments are nearly the best foreplay there is."