They had me at the title: “Good Neighbors, No Politics.” In a contentious presidential election cycle, do you talk politics with your friends? Your family? Your spouse?
I read this New York Times column with great interest, as it addresses neighbors divided by political differences. I couldn’t help but consider my own friendships — not to mention what happens when political arguments insinuate themselves into a marriage.
Must we learn to steer clear of divisive topics? Can political differences signal serious rifts ahead?
I recall when my husband — or should I say, ex-husband — made his position known during the 1992 election. It had never occurred to me to talk politics with the man I was marrying while we were dating, though now, that concept has me shaking my head.
I had watched as he routinely engaged in heated debates with friends and family. He felt strongly about politics, but at the time, I didn’t.
I did feel strongly about him. I knew his shortcomings (as he knew mine), and the fact that our political views dwelled at opposite ends of the spectrum seemed immaterial.
I was wrong.
I knew just how wrong when that first big fight ignited in the midst of our marital calm, as he insisted that I should vote the way he wanted me to.
I refused. As if it weren’t shocking enough (to me) that he thought he had a right to control my vote, it turns out our politics were indicative of our value systems — and the vast gulf between his world view and my own. We aren’t talking matters of tax rates or deficit reduction, but social policy; his “every man for himself” approach could not have been more different from my own “reach out and help” belief system.
At the time, we were in our thirties, both working in corporate America, and doing so in a stable economy. We had one baby and another on the way. We relied on a host of employer-provided benefits including medical and dental care, life insurance, short term disability, long term disability, and briefly at least -– the promise of a pension plan in addition to eventual social security.
That this economic (and thus financial) stability might change wasn’t even on the radar. In fact, it never changed for him; it altered dramatically for me some years later, when divorce and layoff hit simultaneously.
I have never fully recovered.
Perhaps the years that followed have deepened my inclinations toward the “reach out and help” approach. The reason is simple: I lived more than a decade of struggle, no longer enjoying the advantages of an employment relationship, and like so many — was cut off from “services” I once took for granted for myself and my children. If not for the help of others, the kindness of strangers to a large degree, I’m not sure how we would have survived.
The expression “there but for the grace of God” comes to mind; moreover, I am fully aware of how much worse things could have been. And even as many of us reflect on our good fortune (health, family, friends, work — if we are so lucky), shouldn’t we keep in mind that none of us is exempt from unforeseen hardship?
Looking back some two decades, I also view my original approach to marriage and parenting as laughable. Discordant marital expectations were at play from the beginning: When it came to division of labor and mutual professional compromise, I would characterize my expectations as impossibly naïve -– and impossible to achieve. I was the caretaker of the children, I was the one to take days off if they were sick, I was the steady presence in the household, and although my career continued, it was downshifted to a lower gear. This, in part, allowed my spouse to take the opposite route as he pursued his options more aggressively and freely.
I was okay with this arrangement initially, convinced I could “do it all,” and unaware of the repercussions that might come later.
Greater financial vulnerability. Narrower options in the job market. Extraordinary fatigue.
It certainly never occurred to me that our political differences -– which became glaring when we hit our first presidential election as a couple -– could indicate serious troubles ahead.
Politics as a predictor of marital harmony?
I wouldn’t have guessed it. On the other hand, it’s logical, isn’t it? Don’t our politics point to our value systems?
A few years back I read a provocative column by journalist Delia Lloyd, “How Diverse Are Your Friends Politically,” in which she takes on the issue of politics and friendships. She mentions differences in ideology, and how easily we make assumptions about those we know. That was a time before the rancorous threads on Facebook were quite so prevalent. That moment also marks the first time I connected the dots in my marriage — realizing that if I had paid attention to my future spouse’s political positions, I would have questioned our compatibility in ways that proved to be vital during our marriage… as well as in life after divorce.
Vigorous discussion over economic policies? That’s one thing. Over fundamental value-based social programs? A world view? Very different indeed. It’s so easy to talk about how to marry the “right” person without giving sufficient priority to value systems. And politics offer one way to measure whether or not common values exist.
Worth noting: In my dating experience in recent years, I’ve learned a thing or two. I don’t enter into a relationship with someone whose political views diverge dramatically from my own.
Given today’s polarized political climate, we may also find ourselves suddenly at odds with those we know online. It can get ugly. Very ugly. And without the benefit of seeing each other and hearing each other — operating purely by virtue of exchanges on the flat screen — we may assume too much based on too little; we may overreact.
Then again, we can just as easily find ourselves at odds with our carpool line acquaintances, fellow church members, the pharmacist with whom we’ve chatted pleasantly for years.
There is a purpose to our privacy as we mark our ballots. We draw those curtains closed for good reason: We each own our vote. To be swayed, goaded, or emotionally blackmailed into voting the way a spouse or lover or friend or congregation wishes — or parent or employer for that matter — is throwing away a fundamental right.
As for the conclusion that strong political opinions may highlight differences that will divide us in the future, that may indeed be true. Still, we shouldn’t forget that with time, just as life changes us, so too may our views on issues evolve. So, should we find ourselves in disagreement with a friend or neighbor, as the Times article points out, we can choose to keep mum, or to avoid potentially controversial topics altogether.
My preference? We can engage in some measure of debate (as well as listening to the other side) — and then, if preserving the relationship is important, know when to back off.
By way of example, I have a long-time friend whose position on a number of issues couldn’t be more different than my own, and yet she is certainly not a believer in “every man for himself.” On the contrary. She is kind, generous, responsible, compassionate. At moments, when politics comes up in conversation, I have to bite my lip, and I imagine she does, too.
Of course, she and I don’t live together, we don’t see each other daily, and we aren’t drinking morning coffee over the latest news or snuggling at night after shutting our tablets on our endless feeds. These days, I can’t imagine bringing presidential politics into the bedroom, or rather, political differences; as I said, I’ve learned that talking politics early in a relationship is a necessity. For me, certain topics are deal breakers. There’s no getting around it.
Yet when it comes to friends and neighbors, while I believe that politics reveals a great deal about a person, I agree with this statement from the Times editorial:
… People aren’t simply their political opinions, not even the most deeply held and sacred ones. Surely we are all so much more than the shrill conversation online implies…
Politics may, as in the case of my ex-husband, shine a light on facets of personality or behavior we might have wished to know sooner. After all, one’s politics reflect both cultural and personal values, enabling us to draw at least a few conclusions relative to how a person will interact with us over a lifetime of ups and downs.
But not always. The years have taught me that we are, all of us, far more complex than that.
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