“Don’t discuss sex, politics, or religion” is standard conversational advice. Considering how much polarity there is in the country right now, the words seem to ring true. But when it comes to your lifelong partner, you're going to want to dig down into those hot-button topics. It's a good thing: Having deep discussions about politics can actually improve intimacy, says Stacy Hubbard, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Gottman Therapist.
This is true even if you and your partner don't always agree. In fact, “erotic chemistry grows when we see our partner separately from us and our relationship,” says Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., Sociologist & Clinical Sexologist. “By debating with your partner, you experience the differences between you, which can heighten the desire to come together sexually."
Political conversations can also help couples learn to talk about difficult subjects and "fight fairly,’" says Shelley Galasso Bonanno, a psychotherapist in private practice in the Detroit area. “While it may be easier for some couples to avoid conflict, constructive fighting that respects boundaries and allows both individuals to express themselves can strengthen relationships and build trust.” (See here for more tips on how to argue better.)
Talking about politics helps you get to know your partner better.
Above all, it lets you recognize your significant other’s conversational style. According to Hubbard, individuals can be placed on a spectrum, with conflict-avoidant on one end and volatile or passionate on the other. Conflict-averse types treasure harmony and interpret a lack of disagreements as a sign of a successful relationship, while volatile types value debate. Meanwhile, validators straddle the middle, taking a more neutral position. While two people in the same category can work well together, it’s more challenging for opposites. Always respect your partner’s inclinations — don’t coerce the conflict-averse into heated debates.
It helps partners learn to set boundaries with each other.
You're not always going to be into the idea of a rousing debate. Consider agreeing to only discuss politics at certain times — not at family functions or over a meal, for example — and to not spring issues on your partner, Hubbard says. You can also try limiting the time allotted to political discussions, Bonanno suggests.
In general, “keep these conversations fun and light-hearted,” Dr. Melancon says. Perhaps most importantly, if you see the other person getting truly upset, back off, says Deborah Tannen, University Professor and Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. Once you get into the habit of communicating your conversational needs to you partner, you can use the technique for other issues, too, and set boundaries for other topics, like when and how you make big life decisions together.
Accept that you won’t always see eye-to-eye, but you will be heard.
In general, people want to feel listened to and understood, Dr. Tannen says. So, when discussing politics, listen to what your partner says without interrupting and consider re-stating it to show you’ve taken it in, she suggests. Take turns expressing points of view, and then ask each other follow-up questions. Don’t try to convert your partner to your position and don’t insult them, even when you don’t agree. “The goal is to respect them,” Hubbard says.
This style of active listening will benefit your relationship in other areas, too. "All couples have perpetual or ongoing issues based on differences in personality, background, or values,” Hubbard says. "Similar to money, intimacy, or religion, these are big issues, and your partner’s views probably won’t change."
And that’s okay. “Feeling safe to disagree is an essential aspect of successful relationships,” Dr. Melancon says. “Remember, the point of these debates isn't to win, but to enjoy hearing each other's opinions.”
Political discussions give you a chance to look for common ground.
While conversing, seek out shared values, Bonanno says. For example, while you may not agree on candidates, you could be in alignment about issues, like funding the arts or education. Or, maybe both sets of your parents had a penchant for discussing politics around the dinner table or volunteering for local political campaigns.
Remember, it’s not always about the politics: In general, conflicts arising during these conversations might not be about more than just the political topic in question, Bonanno notes. “Often, couples are instead disagreeing about underlying themes, such as not feeling listened to or accepted by their partner,” she says. If things get too heated, try to find your way back to a place of agreement, or figure out what's really behind those emotions.
Try asking these questions.
The goal for these conversations should be deep dialogue, so you and your partner learn more about each other, says Hubbard. She suggests the following open-ended prompts, which can be applied to any political issue.
- In an ideal world, how would you like us to discuss politics?
- How strongly do you feel about this issue?
- Why is this issue important to you?
- What beliefs do you have about this issue?
- How does this issue relate to your childhood or background?
- What fears do you have around this issue?
- What’s your ideal outcome concerning this issue?
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