Erika and Brett had been married for five years, and dating for more than a decade, when he dropped the bomb: He thought he might be a Republican.
“He might as well have been revealing he was in the CIA, or sexually attracted to men,” Erika told me. “It was just a total shock. I had a really hard time with it. I was like, Do I even know you?” She’d fallen for Brett for reasons other than his political convictions, of course—he was generous and kind; they both loved the outdoors and shared similar views on raising children. But over the years their conversations, their friends, and their decisions had been decidedly Democratic. They were not particularly religious. They were in favor of gun control. They had lots of gay friends, and believed in equal marriage. They donated to Planned Parenthood. How, wondered Erika, could Brett be Republican? And what did it mean for their marriage?
Last year, a study published in the Journal of Politics found that politics, and party lines, play a much more important role in the selection, and retention, of a mate than personality or looks. Intellectually, this makes sense: Politics represent our basic values on such major topics as reproduction, money, religion, and equality. Personality and looks are important, of course, but they’re generally more fluid over time, and less about the core of who we are, while research indicates that our political orientation has deep genetic roots. Which is why even if we approach relationships with an open mind—and, in fact, in a survey conducted for the dating site Match.com by biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, only 17 percent of single men and 20 percent of single women said they “must have” a relationship with someone of the same political party—our actions show that we generally choose friends and partners whose beliefs affirm our own.
And if we don’t? Well, we either make it work or we change. One, however, is far preferable to the other. In my work and in my life, I’ve often watched partners bend to each other’s party affiliations in ways they don’t compromise elsewhere. Of course, it’s natural for partners to influence one another over time, for better or worse. But lately, I’ve noticed that many women are afraid to vote differently than their husbands because of what this might say about their marriage. They consent to their partner’s politics to present a united front, or to keep the peace. They do this at home, and in public.
Like Katy, the oldest daughter in family of staunch Democrats, who “traded” her vote to her Republican husband for a Cartier bracelet. To her family, she confided she still planned to vote Democrat. But in public, and in front of her husband, she declared new found loyalty to the other side, and to the shiny gold band on her right wrist. Katy justified her “small deception” by arguing that her party still got its vote, while she got to keep peace within her marriage. Her family, however, wondered if she were sacrificing something far more serious—or if, in fact, she had actually turned Republican and was afraid to admit it—and I tend to wonder the same.
Political differences—either ones that exist or, like Brett and Erika, those that emerge—needn’t predict romantic doom. Janna Ryan and her husband, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for example, were never a political match. She’s a “practical conservative” from a prominent Democrat family and he’s, obviously, a Republican, and a pretty staunch one at that. James Carville and Mary Matalin, of course, are political polar opposites. (Then again, so were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.) But generally speaking, a couple that learns to live with—if not love—its differences is healthier than one in which individuals sacrifice their beliefs.
In fact, arguing about politics can often benefit a relationship. Presumably, political differences between a couple mean that there are strengths elsewhere. What’s more, working through conflict is key in a healthy relationship. Political or not, we’re not always going to agree with our partner on all important matters, which may include raising kids, how to spend or save money, and how to address aging family members. In the end, it’s not whether or not we agree, but how we handle it when we don’t.
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