One of my life’s sickest, saddest ironies was sitting in couples' therapy toward the end of my marriage and realizing that the main thing my husband and I had in common (aside from our devotion to our kids) was that both of us seemed to feel unheard, unappreciated, taken for granted, and mischaracterized by the other — often, it seemed, with an outrageous level of willful ignorance. We’d been trying to improve our marriage for years, and had functioned reasonably well as a unit, at least on a day-to-day level. But like a cigarette ash that defied physics, remaining intact on the end of a butt for a surprisingly long time, when it finally fell, there was just a tiny stub of our relationship left.
This, it seems, is what is happening to two chunks of our country, imperfectly represented by those who voted blue and those who voted red. Things weren’t exactly a lovefest between these two groups for a long, long time, but aside from a few issues that flared up on social media (say, the shooting of a Black man by police, where one side sees racism and the other a guy who, had he behaved differently, would still be breathing), they managed to enjoy one another’s speed-recipe videos and insanely cute videos of puppies snuggling kittens.
And then Election Day happened, and now we are a nation in the middle of a bitter divorce that has none of the pretentious-but-well-intentioned optimism of Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling.” Online, on cable TV, and even in real life, one side accuses the other of being sore losers and tells them to “get over it” (because that always works so well when someone is emotionally devastated). The other side calls people who voted for the president elect misogynistic, among other less-than-flattering ics and ists. “Thank you so much for opening my eyes! I’m going to dedicate myself to exploring the subtle ways in which I acquiesce or even contribute to rape culture!” said no one ever. Both camps are alternately shouting and pivoting the conversation (“Well, what about the time YOUR candidate did THIS?”) and assuming zero nuance in the other’s thinking.
Engaging on Facebook has given me couples’-therapy-pleather-couch flashbacks more than once. One Republican voter I spoke with on a friend’s thread was furious that people assumed, because the president-elect proposed policies that would ban Muslims from entering the country and boasted about sexual assault, for example, that she must be racist and sexist since she voted for him — and this disdain was in fact why she ended up supporting him. She insisted that she, too, is against treating people with disrespect and feels misunderstood. “Perhaps you can understand why, after months and months of being called 'evil' or 'Hitler supporters,' we moderate Republicans are tired of the name-calling,” she wrote. Another poster answered that he’d never call anyone names, but he said, “I will not forgive and forget that you contributed to making the U.S. more dangerous for my daughters…and regardless of WHY you chose to vote for Trump, you DID vote for someone neither mentally nor emotionally capable of governing patiently, wisely, or courageously.”
This was a relatively thoughtful exchange, given some of the verbal feces being flung online. Yet, these two were nowhere near “really hearing one another,” as our couples therapist used to say. On a different thread, a friend played counselor when I wrote something that she was worried would send another commenter into a defensive tizzy. “I think what Stephanie is trying to say is…” she wrote, rephrasing my statement in more neutral language. Our couples' therapist used to do that, too, and while it can help, sometimes it made me even more apoplectic. I needed my husband to hear the emotion behind, not just the content of, what I was saying, even if it was going to get us absolutely nowhere.
Here’s what I can tell you, having in effect already been through this kind of breakup: My divorce, like most divorces, was hideous. Six years later, with time and careful parsing of words and sincere expressions of appreciation and, most important, the shared goal of the stability and well-being of our children, my relationship with my ex has coalesced into a functional, even friendly, co-parenting relationship — one I know I from other people’s divorces that I’m lucky to have. Our kids are doing great, and while our partnership will never be what it was, my ex and I have a shared purpose, one that seems to have dulled any lingering rage or feelings of betrayal.
If our country is, in fact, going through a divorce, successful co-parenting of the handful of things we agree upon is a decent goal to have. It’s also a more realistic one, perhaps, than true unity — let alone putting the spark back into our metaphorical sex life, if it was ever there. The feeling of hopelessness that our position (never mind our feelings) will ever be understood by the “other” is one thing we all seem to share — which tells me we all may be right about that. In the end, salvaging the relationship between large groups of Americans who are this alienated may be more of a matter of turning that relationship into something else entirely, and that means defining “success” differently.
If you had told me in the "screw mediation, I’m getting a lawyer" days that, someday, we would thank one another (without sarcasm!) for handling some tedious kid task, or that we’d sit together at a recital laughing and applauding our child’s ukulele prowess, I’d have said you were sniffing too many Sharpies. Yet, here we are. And a big reason is that we let our relationship evolve into what it wanted to be, rather than trying to force it into something else.