How to Survive Election Season (When You and Your Spouse Disagree)

Did you vote for a different presidential candidate than your spouse or fiancé at the polls today? If so, you’re not alone—researchers estimate that roughly 25 percent of married couples vote a different way. The most heated arguments in marriage often revolve around money, family, or sex, but in a bipartisan relationship, a casual discussion about the merits of team Barack or Mitt has the potential to turn into an ugly shouting match that can be just as damaging.

Right now, you might be thinking, "Well, so what’s the point if I call my husband a $&*% buffoon for backing someone else?" But in this year’s tight race, undecided voters can be just as persuaded by their partner as they are by all of those political ads and shows that we watch on TV. The New York Times reports that the political orientation of a undecided voter's spouse is so important, that it actually influences how Obama and Romney’s campaign organizers court voters. A new poll by The Times and CBS News this week reveals that the majority of Romney supporters are male (51 percent) while Obama backers are primarily female (52 percent).

Over the past 50 years, both Republicans and Democrats have become less tolerant of their daughter or son marrying someone who falls on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Sociologist Claude Fischer notes that in 1960, about 5 percent of Americans expressed a negative reaction to political intermarriage, while in 2010, about 40 percent did (Republicans about 50 percent, Democrats about 30 percent).

Marriage and family therapist Sharon Rivkin attributes this change to our political parties becoming much more polarized on important issues—such as abortion, gay rights/marriage, health care and taxes—to the point where there is almost zero acceptance of differing opinions. Political differences have become about putting down the opposition: Who could forget all of the eye-rolling, mocking laughter and interruptions that went on during this year’s Vice Presidential debate? “When this happens on a national/global level, it seems to create less tolerance for differences in couples and families,” said Rivkin, author of “Breaking the Argument Cycle.”

Being happily married with opposing views starts with a solid marital foundation:

1. Resist the temptation to always be “right.”
Rivkin advises that the more you’re able to “get out of yourself” and really listen to and respect your partner’s political position without viewing it as a personal attack, the better off you’ll be. One of the most famous examples of a red-blue marriage is James Carville and Mary Matalin, politicos who butted heads on the campaign trail and then fell in love and got married. Carville admitted that in the early years that they were together, he attempted to change his wife’s opinions, “and went to hell with that.” Political views are deeply rooted in our upbringing, genetics, and personality, so instead of struggling to change your spouse’s mind, you need to find a way to hear out their opinions (without necessarily agreeing) and find common ground to connect on.

2. Treat your husband or wife as if they were your best friend.
The next time that your partner expresses something about politics that you find simply mind-boggling, ask yourself, “If this was my best friend, how would I respond?” Ideally, you’d be supportive, understanding, empathetic, honest and caring (aka not unfriend them on Facebook after they “Like” your political arch nemesis). “We owe it to ourselves and our partner to treat them with dignity and compassion—kindness goes a long way,” said Rivkin. For example, you should be able to have a disagreement and then go out to dinner and be able to talk about something else besides politics, without holding grudges or making snide remarks. Baby steps…

3. Nip problems in the bud.
According to Rivkin, the origin of huge conflicts is really smaller arguments that never get resolved. Small conflicts can actually create closeness—the more you resolve past issues and know your trigger points, the less likely disagreements turn into full-blown wars. For example, let’s say a woman feels like her husband doesn’t take her seriously because she’s had less education than he has. Once they start hashing out Obama’s healthcare act, her pre-existing feelings of insecurity and being put down escalate, because she feels that it’s yet another time when he isn’t taking her seriously. “Before they know it, every argument they’ve ever had prior to this will be present in the political conversation,” said Rivkin.

4. Remember why you fell in love in the first place.
Similar behavior, values and beliefs can transcend even the most opposing political views. One of the biggest examples of this is Janna Little, who gave up her career as a Democratic Washington lobbyist to become a wife and mother, and help her husband, V.P. candidate Paul Ryan, build his career as the leader of his party in Congress. Despite their obvious differences, they’re both committed to family, public service, and are extraordinarily nice people, according to Ms. Clark, Little’s college roommate. It doesn’t hurt that they both enjoy fishing, hunting, and spending time in nature together.

5. Strive to create a safe haven for your marriage.
One lesson all couples can learn, even if they do come from the same political party, is that their marriage should be a place where they can express their deepest opinions and feelings without judgement. “Happy marriages are made up of two conscious individuals who have the desire to work on themselves…they have their partner’s best interests at heart, and, therefore, build trust with their partner,” said Rivkin.

—Stefania Sainato