Political differences in relationships have become increasingly potent, even leading to breakups. The intensity of contemporary political climates, combined with social issues and a global pandemic, has fueled polarizing debates. While these discussions might seem daunting, addressing them constructively can fortify your relationship. Let’s unravel the complexities of political conversations and how they can strengthen the bond between partners.

The political discord: A relationship hazard

Studies reveal that political disparities have led to the termination of one in ten relationships,1 a figure that doubles among millennials. Wakefield (2017) found that 11% of couples ended their relationship after the 2016 presidential election due to deep political disagreements, with that rate rising to 22% among millennials. The charged atmosphere surrounding elections, coupled with contentious issues like systemic racism and the pandemic, has set the stage for heated discussions, making it crucial to address political differences with your partner.2

Understanding the why behind political clashes

Disagreements often arise from a lack of mutual respect or an inability to manage emotions when opinions clash. Recognizing the healthy aspect of differing belief systems is vital. However, the notion of “enmeshment,” where family members must share identical beliefs, stifles individual autonomy.3 Embracing diverse perspectives nurtures a more creative and open environment. Research suggests that individuals who engage in political discussions with those holding opposing views are more likely to have a better understanding of the other side’s perspective and are less likely to view them as an outgroup.4

The challenge of conflicting political “bones”

Gottman’s concept of “bones” adds a layer of complexity to navigating political differences in intimate relationships. “Bones” refer to the deeply held ethical, moral, and heartfelt beliefs that form the core of an individual’s identity. These fundamental values are often shaped by life experiences, upbringing, and personal convictions, making them challenging to surrender or compromise, even when they conflict with a partner’s beliefs.

Examples of conflicting political “bones”

  1. Healthcare: A Democrat might hold a strong belief in the importance of universal healthcare, seeing it as a fundamental human right and a moral obligation of society. Conversely, their Republican partner may view healthcare as a matter of personal responsibility and oppose government intervention.
  2. Gun Control: A liberal partner may believe that stricter gun laws are essential for public safety and reducing violence, while a conservative partner may see gun ownership as a constitutional right and a means of self-defense.
  3. Immigration: A progressive partner may believe in the importance of welcoming refugees and creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, seeing it as a matter of compassion and human rights. Meanwhile, a conservative partner may prioritize border security and view illegal immigration as a threat to national sovereignty and the rule of law.

Navigating conflicting political”Bones”

When couples hold conflicting “bones,” it can be challenging to engage in productive conversations without becoming defensive or dismissive of each other’s views. To navigate these challenges, couples must approach their differences with empathy, respect, and a willingness to understand each other’s perspectives. While compromising on one’s “bones” may not be possible, couples can strive to find common values, such as a shared commitment to justice, compassion, or the well-being of their family, to bridge the gap between their differing beliefs.

Learning from Braver Angels

Braver Angels, an organization founded in 2016 to depolarize American politics, offers valuable insights for couples navigating political differences. The organization’s mission is “to bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.” They achieve this through workshops, debates, and events that encourage respectful and constructive engagement across political divides.

The Red/Blue Workshop

One of Braver Angels’ key programs is the “Red/Blue Workshop,” which brings together an equal number of conservative-leaning (Red) and liberal-leaning (Blue) participants for a day of structured conversations. As described on their website, “In these workshops, participants explore their own political biases, learn to listen to understand, and consider different perspectives on key issues.”

Bill Doherty’s involvement

Bill Doherty, Ph.D., a respected family therapist and professor, has been instrumental in designing and leading many of Braver Angels’ workshops and events. In a 2019 article for the Institute for Family Studies, Doherty shared his experiences with Braver Angels:

“In our work at Braver Angels, we have found that when people connect across differences as fellow citizens and human beings, they often find common ground on issues where they expected to be hopelessly divided. They also discover that their stereotypes about the other side are exaggerated or simply wrong. Most importantly, they come to see their political opponents as people who love their country and have something valuable to say, even if they strongly disagree with them.”

Applying Braver Angels’ principles to intimate relationships

Couples navigating political differences can learn from the principles and techniques used in Braver Angels workshops. By practicing active listening, seeking to understand each other’s perspectives, and focusing on shared values and concerns, partners can engage in more constructive conversations. As they do so, they may find that their differences are not as insurmountable as they once seemed and that they can maintain a strong, loving relationship despite their political disagreements.

By incorporating the lessons from Braver Angels, couples can approach their political differences with curiosity, empathy, and a commitment to understanding one another. This approach can help them build a more resilient bond and navigate the challenges posed by their differing beliefs.

Talking politics: A balancing act

Engaging in political conversations demands finesse.[5] Amid approximately 80 contentious topics, respectful discussions are crucial, even within the same political party. Recognizing when to engage or let a conversation pass can prevent unnecessary conflicts.6

Initiating a constructive conversation

Starting a political dialogue requires a setting that fosters openness and active listening. Face each other, maintain open body language, and take turns expressing viewpoints and summarizing each other’s perspectives.7 Questioning each other’s motivations without making assumptions allows for deeper understanding and growth.8

Navigating disagreements: Embrace curiosity

Embrace curiosity rather than polarization. Avoid attempting to change your partner’s beliefs; instead, seek common ground and respect differences. Curiosity allows space for growth and mutual understanding, acknowledging that respectful disagreement can coexist within relationships.9

Coping with tensions

When conversations become overwhelming, a pause is invaluable. Taking breaks of 20-30 minutes allows for self-calming and prevents heated arguments.10 Returning to discussions with respect and sincerity promotes healthy communication and understanding.11

Maintaining emotional balance

Avoid emotional reactivity in discussions. Containing emotional responses fosters an environment of mutual respect and openness to understanding differing beliefs. Emotional intelligence, which includes the ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions and empathize with others, has been linked to better relationship outcomes and more constructive conflict resolution.12

Respecting differences: The key to harmony

Ultimately, agreeing to disagree without stifling voices is key. Political differences needn’t result in silence or relationship implosion. Respect, intentionality, and the willingness to learn from each other can foster a loving dynamic amidst differing viewpoints. After all, relationships thrive on mutual respect, not uniformity of opinion. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that perceiving one’s partner as respectful during conflicts is associated with greater relationship satisfaction and stability.13


1-2 Wakefield Research. (2017). The Trump Effect on American Relationships. Retrieved from http://www.wakefieldresearch.com/blog/2017/05/10/new-wakefield-research-study-trump-effect-american-relationships

3. Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Harvard University Press.

4. Mutz, D. C. (2002). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(1), 111-126.

5. Chopik, W. J., & Motyl, M. (2016). Ideological fit enhances interpersonal orientations. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(8), 759–768. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550616658096

6. Papp, L. M., Kouros, C. D., & Cummings, E. M. (2009). Demand-withdraw patterns in marital conflict in the home. Personal Relationships, 16(2), 285-300.

7. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

8. Weger, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E.M., & Robinson, M.C. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28, 13 – 31.

9. Leary, M. R., Diebels, K. J., Davisson, E. K., Jongman-Sereno, K. P., Isherwood, J. C., Raimi, K. T., … & Hoyle, R. H. (2017). Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 793-813.

10. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 221-233.

11. Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), 281-291.

12. Malouff, J. M., Schutte, N. S., & Thorsteinsson, E. B. (2014). Trait emotional intelligence and romantic relationship satisfaction: A meta-analysis. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42(1), 53-66.

13. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737-745.