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Over the past two years I’ve run into a number of people who are horrified to find that their romantic partner is a Trump supporter. Many people who find themselves in this situation express doubt that they can continue in the relationship, given their fears about what voting for President Trump says about their partner. (For some reason the Trump supporter usually seems more hopeful that the relationship can go on.)
Clashes over political differences are nothing new, but support for Donald Trump‘s presidency seems to evoke much stronger reactions than for other recently polarizing figures like Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. If you find yourself in this situation, I offer five tips for how to respond.
While these tips may be more relevant with regard to President Trump, they apply to any political disagreements that could alienate people, whether involving Trump, Clinton, Ocasio-Cortez, or even internal fights that liberals and conservatives have.
Tip #1: Don’t Panic
First and most important, keep breathing. It’s almost certainly not as bad as you think. Don’t do anything rash as you take some time to let the news sink in. It might feel like everything you thought was true about your relationship is crumbling before you, but that’s unlikely if you know your partner fairly well (this bombshell aside).
Rather than shutting down, practice opening to what’s in front of you. You can even express gratitude to the universe for giving you this experience, which like anything else is an opportunity to face your fears and grow.
Tip #2: Check Your Assumptions
When you discover that your partner supports Trump, you might fear that they’re racist or anti-immigrant or that they condone sexual assault. However, these fears are probably unfounded, especially if your partner has given you no other reason to suspect these things. People support President Trump—or any politician—for all kinds of reasons. Granted, Trump does have the support of some racists and people on the alt-right, but other MAGA people simply favor smaller government and lower taxes, for example, or like the president’s Middle East policy.
The Trump supporters I’ve talked to seem more than willing to concede the points on which they disagree with him. Most likely your romantic partner doesn’t agree with every decision or tweet from the president, just as you probably don’t have a hard time seeing the negatives of your favorite political party and politicians.
Or maybe you march in lockstep with your own party, in which case it may be important to examine your ability to think independently. Could it really be that through your own rationality you would align with every position that the Democrat or Republican party (or third party) takes? It could be that Trump is a very obvious indicator and activator of our tribalism—our fierce affiliation with a group to which we’ve attached our identity.
Tip #3: Practice Living in Complexity
Is there anyone you agree with one hundred percent of the time? How boring if you do, like living forever in a Facebook echo chamber of Likes and Thumbs Up.
If you spend enough time with anyone, you’ll find things to disagree with, even those on your favorite political or religious or Paleo diet team. Why do we assume that a political disagreement is a dealbreaker? Some of the nicest people I know, who seem to genuinely work toward improving the lives of the least fortunate, are Republicans who voted for Trump. And they seem to recognize Trump’s complexity, even while they’re unapologetically supportive of his presidency.
Supporting any politician doesn’t imply wholesale agreement with their every decision or policy; for example, an Obama supporter could acknowledge the limitations of the Affordable Care Act, or aspects of the Obama team’s Middle East policies. So keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with your partner or make them agree with you in order to stay in the relationship.
In fact, it’s probably healthy not to agree with someone on everything. Unless you discover that they’re fundamentally not who you thought they were, disagreements can actually strengthen a relationship as we embrace all of the person and not just the parts that reinforce our sense of being right. And dwelling in that complexity instead of escaping to a whitewashed bubble of your choosing is an increasingly rare and valuable skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life.
You might practice using language that embraces complexity. For example, look for opportunities to replace a negating “but” with a joining “and”:
He seems like such a nice guy, but he supports Trump becomes
He seems like such a nice guy and he supports Trump.
In this way, the two ideas can live alongside each other, which is a closer reflection of reality than our tendency to reduce whole people to single dimensions of “good” or “bad.”
Tip #4: Listen More Than You Talk
You’ll probably want to find out more about your partner’s political views, so keep in mind the “two ears/one mouth” principle as you practice truly listening. Resist the urge to lead with outrage and accusation. Assume the person is as reasonable as you are as you ask them about their stance, with genuine curiosity.
Be sure to ask real questions—for example, “What do you like about Trump?” (try not to wrinkle your nose)—versus combative or rhetorical ones (e.g., “How could you vote for a racist?!”). Be honest without shutting down the conversation. Assume you don’t know everything about the person’s beliefs and motivations, and that their views are as nuanced as your own.
Tip #5: Recognize the Workings of Your Own Ego
If you pay attention in moments of outrage, you may discover that your ego has been activated. “Ego” in this context means the part of our minds that sees differences as threats to existence, and so can’t tolerate another person’s having thoughts in their head that are different from our own.
Making space for disagreements and complexity requires a mini death of the ego, which understandably our egos resist. When you find yourself saying, “I don’t know if I can live with a person who believes these things,” that could be the voice of the ego as it confronts an existential threat.
So when you think you’re feeling righteous indignation or moral outrage, consider that it may be something less noble and more primitive—less about defending the disadvantaged and more about protecting a frightened ego. To this end, start to recognize the ego’s signature—a rising panic, that sour churning in the stomach, the pressured sense of needing to change the person’s mind, the activation of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system as it prepares you for battle.
By recognizing the ego’s activities, you’ll have an opportunity to release yourself from its grip, and have an actual conversation with another human being rather than an unproductive and contentious debate that only yields hurt feelings and more polarized beliefs.
And finally, remember to have fun with it! How interesting to be with someone who doesn’t share all of your beliefs! At least it won’t be boring. And if you want to be with this person, take heart—if Kellyanne Conway and George Conway can make it work, maybe you can, too.
See things differently from me? I welcome your comments.