An answer to a question I keep getting asked
There are couples, relatives, and friends who’ve gotten along well when they disagree about politics. They’ve often just agreed to do their best to keep such discussions out of their relationship.
These last political seasons, however, have even strained some of those relationships. It has become common particularly for those in the MAGA crowd to seem not to be able to go very long without a remark about liberals, the current president, gender, or any of the pet complaints they have.
Again and again, we hear how arguments over the presidential candidates in both the primaries and the general election campaigns have actually destroyed friendships and driven couples into silence when it comes to discussing how they’re voting just among themselves. But there are also arguments about vaccines, immigration, LGBTQ+ people, gender, how the government should help people, and on and on.
Whether or not a relationship can survive political disagreements depends upon what isn’t actually the political disagreement, but something deeper.
It depends upon both why someone holds the political positions they do and what being right about one’s politics means to their ego.
We used to be governed by the old advice that if we want to get along, we should never discuss politics or religion. Yet it turns out that we need to discuss these two topics with each other — not to convert our friend, relative, or partner to our position but to get to know them better.
Just as relationships can work when members hold different religious positions, so it is with politics. But whether or not religious or political diversity is good for any relationship depends upon the psychology behind why someone holds both.
A person’s personal religious and political views (no matter what larger “ism” with which they identify their version of it) tell us much about what’s beneath an individual’s reasons for accepting and identifying with a religious or political position. And those deeper realities are more likely to make relationships unbearable.
One’s politics tells us about what is meaningful to them and how they approach life. It tells us how they analyze problems and what they believe are realistic solutions to those and future problems.
Dating and politics
This means that when dating one can learn about some deeper values by hearing about how someone votes and why they make their choice.
For example: What do they mean by “personal responsibility”? Is it about how someone takes care of themself or do they believe that we are personally responsible for a larger community? And how large is that community?
Do they forget about or ignore the privileges they have due to the circumstances of their birth? Do they actually claim that they are “self-made” and that everyone could pull themselves up by their bootstraps?
How do they relate to someone they see as an other? Do they show empathy for those who are in other circumstances as if they could just as easily find themselves in their shoes?
What are some of their first assumptions about human nature? Are people basically lazy or out to take advantage of others? Or is human nature basically good and when humans don’t act out of their goodness, they’re actually showing us what has happened to them in life?
When we listen to someone speak about their politics, then, we hear about how they will relate to us, to the problems relationships encounter, and to themselves. Their view of what human beings are like means we too are going to be interpreted as another of those human beings.
We learn, through listening to their views and how they react to our responses, much that will matter in the long term. It’s not the individual political issues themselves but what is behind and beneath their decisions.
But there’s also another element to watch. We will learn a lot about a person by how they hold their political (and religious) views.
Whatever their views, then, to what extent can they relate to those who disagree?
Are they somehow compelled to argue? Must they bring up their positions in almost any company?
Can they let some disagreements go or must they defend their own side all of the time? Can they walk away or does the fact that others disagree with them continue to gnaw at them?
Why can’t they let it go? Why is it so important to them?
Why do they need to be “right?” Is being right more important to them than being compassionate?
By watching for how someone is or is not seemingly obsessed with political arguments, we learn about someone’s insecurities. We learn that somehow a person must feel that people need to agree with them in order to feel good about themself. We learn that this person must have people agreeing with them for them to feel that their beliefs are okay.
These are actually the emotional issues that will exist beyond and beneath political and religious disagreements. They’re more likely to affect our relationships in the longer run.
But it’s each person’s own decision about how they want to relate to the other person. We will have to decide with eyes wide open if we are willing to be in a close relationship with someone with these issues.
And, if we’ve already committed ourselves to a life “’til death do us part” to this person, what we’re going to have to relate to is not political disagreement but the reasons why those disagreements are bothering each member of the couple, and whether we’re willing to accept that as just the way this relationship is going to be.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.