Love and politics are both known to fuel strong emotions, especially when they clash. Alexander Hoffman has been tangling with his wife over the presidential primaries -- even though they're both Democrats. He's backing Hillary Clinton, his wife prefers Barack Obama -- and their political differences have been the source of endless debate.
"We have a Tivo, and we watch the debates and Meet the Press," says Hoffman, a graduate student at Columbia University. "We pause what we're watching, discuss, argue, and move on -- then pause it again 30 seconds later. Have voices ever been raised? Yes."
His wife, Devjani, is an attorney. "The discussion can become a little heated when one of us feels the other isn't fully listening," she tells WebMD. "There is a strong desire to win the argument, and that can amp up the stress level."
The Importance of Political Differences
Political differences don't necessarily hurt a relationship, says Susan Heitler, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage. "It depends on how strong the relationship is to begin with. If you put political differences into an already undernourished partnership, the strain can be big."
In contrast, she tells WebMD, couples with good communications skills may find it enriching to discuss their differences.
"What's important is not the actual differences between people, but how the differences are handled," says Howard Markman, PhD, author of Fighting for Your Marriage and director of the Center of Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "If they handle [political talk] well, it can be a great source of intimacy and connection."
This holds true even when spouses belong to different political parties. Ryan Turner, a marketing director in Lighthouse Point, Fla., is a Republican. His wife, Heather, is a Democrat. Rather than fueling conflict, their differences are a source of lively conversation. "Political talk within the family structure works well for us," Turner tells WebMD. "It allows for a broader discussion than, 'How did your day go?'"
When Political Talk Sours: 5 Warning Signs
Not all couples manage their political differences gracefully. According to Heitler and Markman, political talk could be damaging your relationship if you notice these red flags:
1. Lack of Respect
When talking politics, you call each other names, roll your eyes, or make disparaging remarks.
2. Antagonistic Feelings
You begin to see your partner as an antagonist, rather than a teammate. You look for holes in your partner's arguments instead of trying to see his or her perspective.
3. Overuse of "But ..."
"'But' is a big eraser," Heitler explains. "It erases what was said before. If you're deleting what your partner says, that's problematic."
One of you withdraws or leaves the room whenever politics comes up.
Tension creeps into your everyday conversations and activities, even when you're not talking politics.
If these signs occur often, it could indicate troubles that run deeper than political differences. In this case, changing the subject is only a quick fix. Instead, couples should take a class or get counseling to enhance their communications skills, says Markman, who offers "Love Your Relationship" retreats.
7 Tips for Healthy Political Talk
Returning to the Hoffmans, Devjani says their "heated" talks aren't harmful for one important reason: "We genuinely care about each other's opinion and respect each other intellectually." Markman and Heitler agree this is the key to healthy political discussions. To maintain respect amid strong political differences, they recommend a few ground rules:
1. Aim to Share Ideas, Not to Change Minds
The goal of political discussions should be to comprehend each other's thinking, not to change each other's minds, Markman says. "Try to put yourself in your partner's shoes and really understand where they're coming from."
2. Learn to Listen
Make sure your discussions aren't one-sided. Give your partner a chance to speak and try to learn something. Acknowledge that you understand his or her point even if you don't agree.
3. Focus on Common Concerns
Shared concerns can provide a sense of solidarity, even in "mixed marriages." "We all want fundamentally the same thing," says Kimberly Messer, a homemaker in Gulf Breeze, Fla. She's a Democrat, and her husband, Wilbert, is a Republican, yet both want "a strong economy, good jobs, great schools, security -- basically, a country we can feel good about."
4. Avoid Arguing to Win
Don't let your discussions become contests. If every argument has a winner and loser, Heitler says, the dialogue becomes demoralizing for at least one of you.
5. Keep Emotions at Bay
"Keep the emotional intensity in the quiet zone," Heitler advises. Calling your partner or her favorite candidate names will only fuel resentment.
6. Take a Time Out
When political talk leads to verbal abuse, Markman recommends utilizing a "Stop Action" -- a sort of "Time Out" for grown-ups. Stop the argument by changing the subject or getting a drink of water, and come back to the topic later when you both feel calmer.
7."It's Your Relationship, Stupid"
While politics may be important to you, Heitler and Markman agree your family life should come first. Try to balance out political arguments with other activities you enjoy together, including plenty of physical affection.
Couples who can't stick to these ground rules may be better off avoiding political talk -- for now. But in the long run, Markman says, the health of the relationship depends on learning to discuss differences with respect.
Spinning Your Wheels
Besides causing tension, trying to change the mind of a staunch Democrat or Republican is probably fruitless. That's the view of Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, PhD, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, Westen and his colleagues found the political arena is highly emotional for strong partisans.
"The data from our own brain scanning study suggest that you can't reason with a strong partisan from the right or left, because the reasoning circuits just don't turn on," Westen tells WebMD. "You're unlikely to do anything but reinforce their view." People closer to the political center are more open to alternate views, he adds.
So is there ever hope of changing a partner's political stance? "It's worth the conversation," Westen says, if your partner is between the ages of 18 and 30 and does not come from a strong partisan family. "There's a window in young adulthood when people are open to change, particularly when major events or inspiring political figures come along."