The days have shortened, the air is chillier than just a few weeks ago, and where I live, the snow is beginning to fall. Yes, you and I will soon be sharing more of our time with family and friends as we celebrate the upcoming winter holidays of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. Full of tradition and ritual, these celebrations carry with them the explicit message of gratitude, unity, peace, hope, and rebirth. Each tries to lend light to the darkening times. Each give us courage to face the changes we are undergoing.
But for many of us, this year feels very different. I’ve talked with friends and family who feel like the U.S. election has added a nuanced complexity to their interactions with others, especially with those they are closest to. Some feel unnerved, out-of-balance, and fearful with the results. And knowing that the holidays will soon be upon us just adds stress and dread.
This year, disagreements between couples about fundamental candidates, issues, or policies, can create thick walls of pain and anger. We look at this person we share a bed with and wonder: “How can they make this huge mistake?” “I thought I knew this person, but maybe I don’t.” We see a crack in this relationship that we never noticed before.
In a recent New York Times article “He Likes Trump. She Doesn’t. Can This Marriage Be Saved?” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/fashion/marriage-politics-donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html?_r=0 Sridhar Pappu talks with a handful of couples who found themselves in opposite camps over the presidential elections. And their relationships had clearly hit dark times as a result. Their stories ring with disappointment, shock, and anger, expressed at their partner for supporting “the wrong” candidates. One wife said of her husband’s plan to vote for Donald Trump, “I would just be disgusted on every level . . . And also a little fearful. Disgusted on the marriage level, but fearful for our society.” Some couples Pappu interviewed even talked of divorce.
Even dating couples, Pappu noted, had either parted as a direct result of their political views or declined to begin relationships with those they were otherwise interested in after learning of their support for another candidate for president.
While many couples have found ways, no doubt, to get along regardless of their differing political beliefs, the challenge to some relationships is brought home to me. My sister and her husband voted for different presidential candidates after the exhausting election season brought to light their divergent views on issues that matter greatly to them both. These two are feeling real distance from each other after the election–and real pain as a result. They made a shaky truce: not to talk about their views. But both are suffering a sense of being misunderstood and unappreciated.
So how do we move forward in our relationships when we feel so divided from those we most cherish? How can we gather our tools for the upcoming holidays, and for the long term? I am not a therapist, but I have benefited from couples therapy, and know that we all can afford to learn more about dealing with the challenges, big and small, that every relationship faces. So I went searching for the experts’ advice for couples grappling with the post-election/pre-holiday blues.
Based on his 30 years’ experience as a marriage counselor, Craig Lambert offers his wisdom to couples feeling the strain of the election season. http://craiglamberttherapy.com/how-couples-with-different-political-views-can-survive-an-election-year/ I’ve distilled Craig’s ideas here.
First, think. Recognize that all couples share differences. Our disagreements aren’t in and of themselves warning signs. In fact, you CAN love someone who doesn’t see the world in the same way you do. You both can love each other deeply and still disagree. Truly, sometimes our love is enhanced by the very act of honoring another’s right to his or her own beliefs.
Next, act. Ask your partner to tell you why they feel the way they do. Try to listen without judging. That act of listening to someone else, paying attention, and repeating back to them their thoughts as they have stated them is one of the most powerful ways to express your love. You’re saying: I hear you. Don’t expect your partner to offer you this same opportunity, either. Give freely. Don’t keep score. Marriage is not a football game.
Finally, change. You can’t force a change in another’s viewpoint, but you can change your perspective. Like an eagle, push yourself to rise above the daily struggles and disagreements; just for a moment look at your relationship with new eyes. Does your political disagreement reflect deeper fissures in your relationship? Or does it simply make you feel uncomfortable, challenging your sense of your knowledge of another person? Ultimately, what matters more to you: the next four years of a presidential officeholder or the entire journey of years you have invested in traveling together with this particular person? Can you see the bigger picture?
These are tough questions that will require time, attention, and hard work to answer.
Meanwhile, you both might be able to agree on a few basic ground rules to reduce the damage either of you can do to your relationship.
- Agree to disagree. Remember to also keep in mind what you share in common.
- Agree to not talk politics, if talking politics results in hurt feelings.
- Try to choose love and respect over judgment and disrespect. You won’t always be able to succeed in doing so, but you will get better at it. And you will be honoring your loved one by trying. And they will feel your love.
- Do no harm. Your behavior can communicate clear signals that your partner is not lovable or that your relationship is less important to you than ever. Sending these signals is a choice. Choose, instead, to act in loving ways.
If we are fortunate, we learn that love is not a finite thing. It can’t be measured out or kept back or given in like proportion. Our primary relationships are not tit-for-tat interactions, but full expressions of humans’ deepest and most powerful nature to love and need to feel we are loved. And this beautiful truth is one of the greatest parts of being in a loving partnership with another person.
For now, let’s all take a deep breath, light the candle, and be inspired by the spirit of the upcoming holidays–gratitude, unity, peace, hope, and rebirth. Let’s “ring the bells that still can ring” and let the light in.
I wish you and yours a loving holiday season.