When Politics Threatens Your Relationship

Is there anywhere to escape politics? Unless you are stranded on a desert island, maybe not. Times are challenging for those of us on the mainland.

Dr. Jeanne Safer desires to help all homo sapiens chagrined over political disagreements. Friends, lovers, parents, and next-door neighbors are included; anyone who cares to make and maintain a connection with another person.


Early in her book I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics, Safer claims she is “the go-to expert on making a mixed-political relationships flourish.” Bad start. It takes more than self-congratulations to persuade me. Still, the author offers some worthy ideas.

The psychotherapist’s conceptualization of her chosen topic is this: “Our fights are rarely about the overt issues that spark them, especially when they are repetitive and emotionally devastating.”

“The key to lasting change,” she writes, “is realizing that political fights in intimate relationships are not really about politics.” This therapist identifies underlying psychodynamic distress at the conflict’s core: long-standing parental difficulties, sibling rivalry, the desire for recognition and respect, etc. The basic material of traditional forms of psychotherapy.

Should you read the book, you’ll find substantial doses of opinion and an equal amount of advice. For example, here are the kinds of things we are instructed not to do:

  • Drink before beginning any political discussion.
  • Spring unsolicited articles on your spouse as he is eating his breakfast.
  • Make sure to quiz him later about his required reading assignment, the better to guarantee he “gets it.”
  • Lecture your lover with the goal of winning her enlightenment and unending gratitude.
  • Become enraged over small differences in governmental actions. Scream at the woman you love when she fails to be persuaded.
  • Break things your boyfriend cherishes in retaliation.

Dr. Safer recognizes your project is hopeless. As Jonathan Haidt’s research informs us, attempted conversion of those with passionate political and religious beliefs is a fool’s errand in the vast majority of cases.

The reason?

Reason has little to do with those convictions.

According to Haidt, they are more instinctual, unconscious gut reactions than thoughtful, cool-headed, academic research projects. Once established, our brains instantaneously catch-up to the unshakeable sentiment already present, providing justification. We believe our point of view is well-considered and unassailable.

Part of the doctor’s solution is to let go of the fantasy of converting our counterpart to “our side.” Additional recommendations include self-reflection, looking at our contribution to the interpersonal conflict, and determining whether we want to dissolve precious intimacy over the legislative madness of the day. To her, allowing the hope for political agreement to die opens the possibility of reconciliation.

Be warned, the writer is not promising unity of a duet’s electoral decision making. Indeed, she is not aiming for the latter. Rather, she encourages prioritizing what you have together despite abiding discord over public policy.

Jean Safer argues for mutual respect, civility, and sensitivity, as well as sidelining such preoccupations as Supreme Court appointments and gerrymandering. She urges her patients to value honesty, loyalty, and affection, lest they pitch out the friendship baby with the bathwater. Insoluble left and right leanings, from her perspective, topple the straight-up qualities two people might otherwise enjoy. For the author, shared core values that are beyond politics are the ultimate couple-unifying cement.*


The book presents many examples of successful relationship rescue and a few of failure. The counselor trumpets her husband and herself as one of those successes.

While said man, Richard Brookhiser, is a prominent conservative journalist and counterpoint to his wife’s liberal tendencies, she never mentions one attitude they share: their evaluation of Donald Trump.

The major disagreement the pair overcame (abortion) was challenging enough, but I’m guessing like-mindedness regarding the Commander-in-chief improves the chances of satisfying co-existence with a partner.

Here is my summary take on the book’s argument. The psychologist suggests we carve out most disharmonies over governance to the extent necessary for rapport with those dear to us. She thereby appears to assume our current national predicament is not an existential one — rather, an incubator where a mischievous subconscious plays out its unresolved emotional injuries.

I disagree in three respects. First, I suspect many of us would descend into strife over the country’s direction even with less weighty and untidy internal baggage than we carry into conversation.


Second, our politics has morphed into matters the world will dismiss only at its peril. Between threats to the continuation of our democratic republic and life-threatening climate extremes, those who look away from the state of globe risk enablement of grave misfortune and planetary demise.


Granted, Dr. Safer doesn’t suggest constraining political expression and action outside the relationship, but donations to antagonistic causes tend to come out of the identical family savings account. Moreover, tolerating participation in opposing get-out-the-vote activities will take a lot of hard-swallowing if you believe posterity is on the line.


Third, for those hoping to raise children to become honorable and responsible citizens, you will need some virtuoso parenting skills to fence off the divergences between you and your mate as the growing offspring begin to voice their opinions. Parents with young children, but distinct and contrasting world views, are not addressed in Dr. Safer’s book.

The gentlewoman healer provides more optimism than I can about a politically mixed love and friendship future in our unsettling moment in history. I fear the period into which we are marching cannot keep those differences back any more than flood waters menacing low-lying areas of the coastal United States.

Here is the best I can do:

  • Choose your friends and lovers with discernment, not ignoring their outlook in a world where the middle ground is small. I’m not suggesting you shun those with different views, but be mindful that fraternal closeness and marriage can tax even those pairs who vote in unison.
  • As Dr. Safer suggests, work on your unfinished internal disquiet with the intention of making yourself a less difficult person, slower to provocation in and out of political discussions. She lists practical suggestions you and your counterpart can use to defuse your news-driven clashes.
  • Try to recognize people as personalities with individuality, not as members of a disliked or unfamiliar group, simple replaceable parts in the human food chain from which you benefit.
  • Engage those of different ethnicities, gender identification, religion or color without reliance on stereotypes. Talk to them, not at them; with them more than about them. Use their names. Shake hands. Work to see a kindred soul within the faces of political opponents.
  • Give tender devotion to the values binding you to those you love. Life would be boring if everyone thought and acted the same way.

—–

*There are limits to Dr. Safer’s tolerance and optimism: “You won’t find encouragement to tolerate a mate or a friend or a family member who is a recalcitrant racist, a sexist, or a supporter of Antifa or the Alt-right.”

I received an advanced copy of Dr. Safer’s book courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. My commentary was done without compensation, with the understanding that it might as easily be negative as positive.

The top painting reproduction is Metamorphosis by Joan Miro. The next two are by Paul Klee. In order, they are Ancient Harmony and Angel, Still Groping. The final work is a Study of Hands, by Egon Schiele.

22 thoughts on “When Politics Threatens Your Relationship

  1. Daniel Morrison

    There are lines to be drawn. My political disagreements with my wife are very minor and easy to tolerate, but I obviously could not have a loving relationship with an avowed Nazi, and I feel pretty much the same way about Trump supporters, who in my view are either abysmally ignorant or abysmally ill-intentioned.

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  2. hiddenlayersbeneath

    Dr. S. (this is Gayle, BTW). I really liked this post, and I really needed it about three years ago, when there were so many polarized verbal attacks and political vitriol flying around, I could barely find cover enough to engage in normal every-day tasks. I’m a moderate, which makes sense from a psychodynamic perspective, given that my opinions rarely mattered when I was a child, my family was split between right and left (as they were also, interestingly, split in terms of race), and my tendency is to mimic childhood reactions of playing it safe (not firmly stating what I think, but rather hiding or agreeing with everyone, even when I really didn’t). This past election coupled with other surrounding events has left me feeling pressured to make a choice – something that I wasn’t really prepared to handle, and something that literally ruined my friendships and identity. I used to feel proud as a veteran, but today, not so much. I used to feel somewhat happy for being a mixed-raced individual (half-Japanese, half-White), but today, not so much. I used to feel rational when I explain why I am a Moderate, but today, not so much. I used to feel as though I could see both sides and understand non-polarized-but-still-different points of view, but today, not so much. Today, veterans and anything connected with the Military Industrial Complex are seen as negatives. Today, my mixed-race means nothing but more “White-passing privilege,” as opposed to acknowledging my own struggles amid the now “- lives matter” movement(s). Today, my understanding of police struggles coupled with my balanced argument against police brutality is seen as wishy-washy at best, or as a “police apologist” at worst (typically by those on the far left). Today, my ability to reason and overcome adversity by balancing the left with the right and choosing middle-ground, ergo – my “Moderate” position are seen as “irrational” and also wishy-washy and also stemming from my own “psychiatric issues,” including the newfound “fragility” (non-clinical) diagnosis that supporters of privilege continue to argue for, even though I agree that everyone has a degree of privilege. I’ve left the Christian tradition in favor of a less judgmental spiritual (and perhaps non-religious) practice of simply being identified as a “Spiritual person,” though many on both the right and the left have hounded myself and others on choosing their political sides as if they were religions. Politics seem like religions, or at least like highly judgmental ones that tear down their opposing enemies as if they were sinful heathens. It’s sad, but that’s the kind of dialogue that exists today. To walk away from relationships that are too radical – or even illegal in some cases – is health for me. To understand those who are not that radical becomes a lot easier to distinguish, especially when some are somewhat bipartisan or moderate like I am. I don’t know much about politics at all, but I do know that that field can be downright mean. I’ve seen many people hurt from politics in secular settings as well as religious ones, and the hurt does not discriminate against those in power or in weakness, those with light skin or dark, those with money and those without, etc. People are hurting from all of these views, and it’s sad to think that such views have something to do with our own upbringings, lingering childhood-based psyches, etc. At some point there should be a middle ground, a compromise, and peace. But today there is no peace. There’s only constant bickering, judging, finger-pointing, discriminating, ostracizing, revenging, and the list goes on. Structural violence causes more interpersonal deaths than war causes casualties. And not everyone recognizes the wars embedded within structural violence; some see it as a “norm.” I could no longer be friends with radical leftists or rightists; both are on the FBI’s watchlist, in fact! I wonder, what childhood experiences would contribute to radicalism, fanaticism, or any other ism?

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    • hiddenlayersbeneath

      I like your suggestions and believe in understanding the other. However, I currently struggle with this: “Try to recognize people as personalities with individuality, not as members of a disliked or unfamiliar group, simple replaceable parts in the human food chain from which you benefit.” If someone is part of a known FBI Watch Group, such as those I knew who enjoyed protesting violently on behalf of Antifa, I could no longer befriend them. They didn’t have any respect for my position to be somewhere in the middle of understanding, and my attempts at respecting them failed when their life became their violent protest. However, I did concede that I was against racism, discrimination, harmful stereotypes, benevolent microaggressions, etc. I did concede that there are certain marginalized and non-marginalized groups that suffer from structural violence. But I couldn’t concede in violent retaliation, whether it be verbal or physical violence. I can understand the pain people have gone through, and the reasons for their laments, but I cannot understand why one would want to use the same tactics they are purporting to fight against. If they didn’t like being called names or discriminated against, then they shouldn’t use name-calling, ad-hominem attacks, and bigotry (or as some deem “reverse discrimination” or plain old “prejudice”) to fight back. There has to be a better, more civilized way. It’s hard to see radical left or right acts, beliefs, cultural practices, etc. as simple individualized behaviors when they join and identify with groups of people who can cause insurmountable harm in one direction or the other. Then again, my own position of being a moderate could be considered a “radical middle” if I didn’t concede that there are reasons behind radicalism, and those individuals who choose those paths. Behind their choices lies pain somewhere. I can understand pain, fear, and anxiety. But there has to be some sort of political regulation to balance it all out, and to heal.

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      • drgeraldstein

        Good points. The book’s author also sets limits on her tolerance (see what I’ve written near the bottom of the essay). Violent acts are often examples of becoming the thing you hate.

        Liked by 1 person

      • hiddenlayersbeneath

        I just reread the ending, and somehow I missed that. Tolerance has limits, and revenge in any form inevitably brings about guilt and remorse (at least for some).

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    • drgeraldstein

      The center certainly has never been so small in my lifetime as it is today. One of my dearest friends tries to occupy it and finds there is much pain in maintaining relationships on both sides. I absolutely understand that some of us will be unable to enter the political fray because other elements in their life are not now stable enough. I do recall, however, an Adlai Stevenson II quote where he says something like, “In times of moral crisis, the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who stay neutral.” The next question for all of us, of course, is whether we live in such times. Many people on both sides think so. Thanks for your comment, Hiddenlayersbeneath.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. hiddenlayersbeneath

    Adlai Stevenson II seems very wise. I suppose I live in my own hell of sorts. Take abortion, for instance. On the one hand, I believe a life is worth birthing, and that adoption is a better choice when a parent is not healthy enough to raise her own. On the other hand, however, I cannot see forcing a rape victim, or an underage pregnant incest survivor (some in the south who are as young as 10 or 11) to give birth. Then there is the valid notion that a woman’s choice is important, especially if there are health or even mental health concerns. And then there are studies that suggest how the environment in the womb shapes personality, health, biology, and other epigenetic factors, which suggests that fetuses can feel like a human, and a very young human at that. The latter point makes me then wonder how much trauma unborn fetuses feel during abortion. The arguments go back and forth, and it makes us question what exactly is scientific, humane, right? Is abortion selfish, an act of killing, a means to avoid stretch marks and weakened bladders? I have lived through the changes in my own body, and through giving my daughter up for adoption. It was painful for both my daughter and I, but my daughter is alive and, from what I hear from her adoptive mom, thriving. I would not give up my stretch marks, stress incontinence when sneezing, or sagging pouch for the freedom or right; my daughter’s life means more to me. But I also did not suffer like some other women or young girls have, or felt a strong need to respect my body over a first-trimester “growth.”

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    • drgeraldstein

      The abortion issue is a good example of the complexity of much of what people disagree about. When do we define the beginning of life? Do we define the presence of life by a medical standard or a religious one? Do we impose another’s religious beliefs on those who don’t believe? If society says you “must” have a child, what responsibility should society take for feeding the child, educating the child, etc? In the same example, should society take responsibility for providing the well-being (in every sense) of a woman who is now required to look at a physical likeness of the rapist in the form of her growing child? I never heard a story of a woman who was casual about the decision, regardless of what she decided. Nor did I ever hear a story from a woman who was worried about stretch marks and therefore had an abortion.

      Liked by 1 person

      • hiddenlayersbeneath

        Sadly, when it comes to abortion, I have heard it all. I have never had an abortion, so I cannot imagine what that feels like. But I have heard many different reasons why women have chosen it. I remain somewhat neutral, but if I were forced to choose one or the other, I would choose life over choice. I have voted both ways in the past, however. It depended on how it was written.

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      • hiddenlayersbeneath

        …But I could never vote in favor of what the South seems to be voting for. Imprisonment just makes matters like these worse. And imprisonment is based on keeping the public safe from repeat or potentially repeat offenders, in addition to just deserts. To me, such policies are radical and force me to go pro choice. Yeah, I am in a hellish middle, not necessarily neutral.

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  4. A timely post, Dr. Stein. We have become very polarized with our politics which can upend our relationships. More so, when it happens between spouses and other family members. My younger son recently declared that he is a libertarian. He’s been listening to some influential guy on YouTube. As you say, “[w]e believe our point of view is well-considered and unassailable.” I listen with a loving heart. I have found that time is the best teacher for those who are paying attention.

    When it comes to choosing a life-long partner, I agree with your advice to “choose…with discernment, not ignoring their outlook in a world where the middle ground is small.” We humans have become masters at complicating our lives with our diverse ideological constructs. Our thinking brain should have freed us to achieve our fullest potential. Instead, it has enslaved us within our self-made invisible walls.

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  5. drgeraldstein

    Well said, Rosaliene. Unfortunately, our thinking brain — when under pressure — often remains hostage to the instincts of our ancestors, still ours.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. drgeraldstein

    I think there are many stories out there. Some of them are the opinions of people who themselves did not have abortions or contemplate them, but have an ax to grind on the issue. The women I heard from in my practice either had them or contemplated so doing. Their’s was a personal disclosure, not an attempt to make a public statement about their desired policy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hiddenlayersbeneath

      True. The people I spoke with in both past and present are a good mix of left and right and middle. Some felt such guilt after having an abortion, because their religion told them so. Some felt relieved. Some repeatedly had abortions in their late teens and early adulthood lives. Some never had an abortion but contemplated it. For me, my ex wanted me to have an abortion, but I could not do it. I just could not. But I have known friends who decided to have an abortion. I cannot judge them for their choice. I cannot even say that I am 100 percent in belief that abortion is right or wrong. I just knew what I wanted is all. One of my former bosses was so panicked and distraught when she found out she was pregnant. She contemplated going to Mexico to have an abortion. At the time I told her that I could not do it, but that if that is what she really wanted, the insurance covers it. She worried about affording an abortion and about others finding out. She felt relieved when I shared those options with her. I knew at that time that I could not do the “Christian” thing and give her a lecture. I knew that she was set on getting it done no matter what. It was better for me to help her find options, including not only health care covering the abortion, but also health care covering mental health sessions she could take before the abortion. She was really scared, and I did not want to see her suffer. I had no idea if she was in a bad relationship or had health issues, etc. It is stories like those that make me think. But then there were other stories I had heard, too, which also made me think. It is hard for me to vote. I try to lean on stories for answers, and science, but both are inconclusive when it comes to these things.

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  7. hiddenlayersbeneath

    The truth is, years ago I was judged by a lot of Christians for having a child out of wedlock. They instilled the “fear of God” in me when they claimed that abortion was a sin, or murder. I chose life, and adoption, but not because of them. Still, those fears of going to hell of I even voted wrong got the better of me. I spent years blaming myself for my own sin when I was abused and later assaulted. I felt that maybe I was being punished. Religion and politics are a dangerous mix, in my mind. When in doubt, I do not vote. When I am forced to choose a side, I choose neutral, because I despise the hate and polarization. I believe in pro choice, but I fear that even my belief would render me hell-bound. Having had some inpatient trauma treatment for “spiritual healing,” I am able to take the first step, since 2007, to acknowledge my fears and reactions to Christianity’s threat on my global and spiritual (eternal) life. Last time I checked, trauma, by definition, includes a threat to your life. I have not been able to move past the first steps of spiritual healing. Cultural beliefs have a stronghold over my life and mind. I find some validation when reading about communal narcissists and their narcissistic abuse (control) over others they unknowingly victimize. I want freedom and peace, not vitriol. But trauma, ecological and spiritual and ritual traumas, turns a victim into an offender whenever the survivor cannot let go of the internalized threats within. How many others vote that way, I wonder? And how many others are afraid to vote for the same reasons? They ought to do a psychological study on politics and political decision-making. I am sure that I am not the only one.

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    • drgeraldstein

      “God’s Word” can be used as a hammer to judge and control. An experienced therapist will tell you that some so-called fundamentalists appear to justify their anger in the name of a higher power, certain of their righteousness. They are inclined to say they are acting for “your own good.” Those who have been indoctrinated to believe in such a group’s unassailable moral high-ground risk being ground to bits. I am sorry you had to experience such awfulness in your life. You might wish to read Alice Miller’s “For Your Own Good.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • hiddenlayersbeneath

        Thank you, Dr. S. I will get Miller’s book very soon! I have been searching for answers for so long. It did not help that I also experienced sexual abuse from my uncle who was a 33rd degree mason wannabe. He is the main reason for my dissociation. The Christian stuff came later in adulthood, when I broke down completely. And back then I thought the church was trying to heal me. I wound up needing more healing after their abuse. My mind and emotions feel more calm now.

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  8. hiddenlayersbeneath

    I just got the book today and started reading the first chapter. OMG, the answers to my questions are finally here! And I have only read a few pages. It does bring up a lot of emotions, but it also explains a lot of those emotions that often come without thoughts. This is why identifying triggers are challenging for some, esp. those with dissociative disorders. And this is so healing to read, alone or in the company of a therapist. I cannot wait to share this with my therapist.

    On another non-personal note, I once conversed with a former professor of mine who does research on gestures of infants. I had mentioned to her that it would be interesting if they did research on trauma and gestures. I thought that there would be some preverbal clues offered in such research, something that would falsify premises related to predispositions and instead emphasize early childhood traumata. Hostile gestures, for example, are forms of non-verbal threats to a child, and could be considered emotional abuse and neglect. Miller mentions gestures early in her book, as well as how poisonous pedagogy is also damaging. I can see where she is headed, and it would explain some politics.

    Thank you for recommending this reading. I sure it would be beneficial to a lot of people.

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  9. drgeraldstein

    You are welcome. Glad the book resonates.

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  10. I am grateful my husband and I are of the same mind politically. A nice way to learn about another person’s culture is to attend street festivals that celebrate the ethnicity of a particular culture. I attend many and photograph the people and the events, and these interactions have enriched my life. We all are the same….with the same aspirations, hopes and dreams. We may enjoy different music and food, but experiencing this is awarding also.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Indeed. If our ethnic food choices suggest another past life as some other ethnicity, I must have lived in several parts of Asia at some point!

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