Can Your Relationship Survive An Election, COVID & The Holidays

Photographed by Savana Ogburn.
Sophia C. met Arthur on OkCupid in 2017. For their first date in New York City, they met up for pizza before stumbling into a kitschy West Village shop filled with chess boards. He taught her how to play. He let her win. He walked her to the subway station at the end of the date. She immediately liked how respectful he was. How “decent.” She didn’t find out that they disagreed on politics until two years after they met.
Hillary Clinton’s name came up on a road trip, and Arthur seemed to scoff. Sophia asked him why. He told her he was a Republican, and she said she supported Clinton. That was the end of the conversation… until this election season.
Advertisement
Politics has always been important to Sophia, a Democrat, who asked us not to use her last name for privacy reasons. Sophia, who was born and raised in Carolina, Puerto Rico, was particularly disheartened by President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis when Hurricane Maria hit her home in 2017. “I was on the island when Maria passed and developed PTSD from it,” the 28-year-old says. “Plus, as a Latina, I can’t ever give someone my vote when they’ve publicly humiliated a disabled journalist, been accused of sexual assault, defended other men accused of sexual assault, and believe in labeling certain groups as ‘thugs’ or ‘rapists.’”
Meanwhile, Arthur (whose name has been changed) is a 28-year-old Republican who hasn’t voted in the last two elections. Protecting the Second Amendment is an issue he cares about, he told us over email.
The two have generally avoided talking about politics throughout most of their relationship. But during a year like 2020, it’s nearly impossible to skirt the subject. As some couples like Sophia and Arthur navigate the toxic waters of 2020 together, many are realizing that they aren’t aligned politically, and that those differences are starker and harder to avoid now more than ever. Others always knew they didn’t agree, but the divisions have been highlighted in a new way amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight for racial justice, and the recent election cycle. A growing number of people who are looking for a partner believe it’s not possible to date someone across political lines, according to last month’s Singles in America report from Match.com. Seventy-one percent of Democrats said that if a potential partner voted for Trump in 2016, it would probably or definitely be a dealbreaker, and 47% of Republicans said the same of voting for Hillary Clinton, according to April research from Pew. All this begs the question: Is it possible to date across party lines?
Advertisement
Many experts say it is, but agree that it’s always going to be complicated. So much so that it may even lead to post-election breakups this year, says Damona Hoffman, a dating coach and host of The Dates & Mates Podcast. “This election seemed to stand for a specific set of values on either side, and the differences may be insurmountable for many relationships,” she notes. “On top of that, the holidays add to relationship stress and make many people think of starting over… When we add the complexities of COVID-19 into the mix, we have a perfect storm for breakups.” 
Election week in and of itself may have been enough to put pressure on relationships, especially for those who feel that their partner voted against their interests, says JaNaè Taylor, PhD, a psychotherapist and founder of Minding My Black Business. “Some of the things on the ballot are particularly, well, Black and white,” Dr. Taylor says. “It can feel offensive or even disrespectful to learn that your partner has decided to agree to whatever one party is saying.” When those policies impact you directly, the stakes are even higher. 
Even post-election, tensions may still be high, particularly since we know change won’t just happen overnight in January after President-Elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. If someone didn’t vote, that can also cause tension, even now (especially if you live in a state like Georgia, where votes were too close to call). 
All this may leave you standing at a crossroads, and you’ll have to decide whether you want to stay with this person or ditch them for someone whose views you can respect. This isn’t a decision to make lightly, but there are some clear indicators: If someone’s opposing views make you feel unsafe or unsupported, that would be a good sign it's time to break up, says Hoffman. 
Advertisement
But the way someone is registered to vote shouldn’t be enough to write them off immediately, argues Jeanne Safer, PhD, a psychotherapist with 40 years of experience and the author of I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics. Just because you disagree on tax reform, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your central values are different, she says. “Core values are not the same as political views,” Dr. Safer says. “If you just look for people who have the same politics as you, you’re going to miss out on an awful lot of the world.”
Safer knows from experience; she’s a Democrat who’s been happily married to a Republican since 1977. They met in a New York-based singing group. He was a baritone, and she was a soprano. He was conservative, and she was liberal. They’ve been by each other’s sides for 42 years in sickness and in health — including through cancer. “When you’re lying on a bed having chemo, you don’t ask the political affiliation of the person standing by your side getting you through it,” says Dr. Safer.
But, that doesn’t mean it will always work out, or that you yourself are able to look past someone’s views and make it work despite your differences. No two relationships are alike, but if you're weighing your decision, our experts have a few litmus tests to help. First: Ask yourself if they treat you right when you’re not talking about politics. Dr. Safer says she worked with a couple once who vehemently disagreed about who the president should be. But when one of them wanted to go to the Women’s March on Washington, the other made sure she had warm clothes and snacks and took her to the bus. Dr. Safer says you should give more credence to how a person treats you than to how they vote. 
Advertisement
Another approach is talking through it with a therapist or trusted friend, Dr. Taylor says. Make the conversation about what you want, and not about what they think. "Family and friends will, on occasion, have all sorts of opinions about your relationships and your partner choices," Dr. Taylor says. "It's up to you to decide how much, if any, say you want them to have in your romantic relationships." When you do have these talks, parse through how your partner’s differing views impact you emotionally and physically. Will you always feel resentment? Does it make you feel betrayed? Or can you live with it and agree to disagree? Does your decision to stay or go align with your core values?
If you do decide to break up, Dr. Taylor says it’s crucial to not forget that this person is human and to be respectful as you talk through why you’re ending things. “Even if your differences are too fundamental, and you decide to respectfully part ways, this is someone you cared about and who cared about you,” Dr. Taylor says. “I think part of it is having the conversation where you say, ‘As much as I care about you, I care a lot about my human rights, and feel that this is a slight against them. We’re not going to agree, and we need to acknowledge that fact. Because of that, I think it’s best if we go our separate ways.’” Be forthcoming and honest, while also being tolerant, she recommends.
Advertisement
If you do decide to stay together, Dr. Safer says it's best not to bring up politics constantly, particularly if it’s a fight you’ve had before and already agreed to move past. However, staying totally silent on the subject can sometimes backfire and lead to miscommunication. When Sophia found out Arthur was a Republican two years into their relationship, they didn’t have a lengthy conversation about it, and she just assumed he was a Trump supporter. It wasn’t until this past Saturday that she found out that wasn’t true. 
They heard cheering in their New York City neighborhood, and he asked her what was going on. “I told him Biden won, and he was like, ‘Whooo Biden,’” Sophia says. “[That] actually brought up a conversation because I said, ‘Sorry for your loss.’” He asked her what she meant. “And that’s when he actually told me for the first time that he never supported Trump… I was relieved to say the least, but our lack of communication over that subject definitely created assumptions from my part that weren’t real. I feel more comfortable with my partner now.” 
Miscommunication happens all the time, but Dr. Taylor says you shouldn’t feel like you can’t bring up the subject of politics with your S.O. without getting into a blowout fight. If that’s the case, it’s something to be examined, Dr. Taylor says. “In these moments, one would benefit from asking themselves why they don't feel safe to have tough conversations with their partner,” she notes. “Are they worried that it could lead to a fight, or a breakup? In relationships, we have to have all types of tough conversations, and this certainly falls in that category. Maybe people don't feel equipped or have the words to even begin this type of conversation, [but] a starting point could be, ‘I've been thinking more about the election and how we each voted, and I'd like to talk to you about it'”
Advertisement
If you do decide to have that conversation, Hoffman suggests establishing boundaries before you dive in. “Set rules around political discussions that allow you both to be heard while never feeling attacked or like the other person is trying to sway your position,” Hoffman says. It’s also crucial to not go into these talks with the idea that you can force the other person to change their mind, Dr. Safer adds.
Sophia and Arthur have found this approach generally works for them. They don’t try to change each other, and they don’t bring up politics when it’s not necessary. “The key, in our case, is that there is so much more to our relationship than our political beliefs,” Arthur says. 
Sophia agrees: “I think it has to do a lot with respect for the other person’s point of view, experiences, and beliefs.” She believes that their upbringings have a lot to do with why they each believe what they do. “I was raised in Puerto Rico with parents who reject statehood and who believe in independence,” she says. “So of course I lean more towards liberal views, while he was raised in a small town in Maryland where he wasn’t exposed to other races until well into his high school years.” 
But the bottom line, according to Sophia: They care about each other. A lot. “We’re people who found each other and love spending time with each other,” Sophia says. They’ve very different people, and they know that. But they make it work. “We don’t see people as Republican or Democrat," Sophia says. "We just see them as them.”

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series