It’s happened. The presidential election has come and gone, leaving some to feel victorious and others to feel distraught. One of the most challenging things we may experience right now is a division in political beliefs within your own household. However, this does not have to be the demise of a relationship. Let this blog post be a place of insight that can help you and your significant other tread the waters of democracy together peacefully.
Relationship expert, John Gottman PhD, discovered in his many years of research that he could predict whether a couple would remain married or divorce based on four types of unhealthy communication that may or may not be present in a relationship. Known as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” these communication techniques include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Each of these unhealthy communication patterns were present in our homes, whether we liked it or not, through the televised debates and smear advertising campaigns endorsed by both republican and democratic parties. This does not have to set the tone for your marriage for the next four years; that is, if you do not allow it to.
This concept may be the easiest to spot when disagreeing with another person. It happens when someone specifically targets characteristics of another person. This is different from the term complaining, which is actually a more positive communication technique because it specifically targets another person’s behavior or action rather than the person themselves.
What it looks like: Criticism can take many forms: belittling, name-calling, generalizing negative personality traits by using “always” and “never” statements without any solid proof. An example could be a person telling their spouse, with the recent election in mind, “I can’t believe you voted for ______. You never think about how your actions with affect the people around you, and your vote tells me how selfish and ignorant you are. I can’t believe I married someone like you.”
What to do instead: Focus on specific behaviors, use “I statements,” and offer a solution for change. A little compassion and understanding goes a long way in this scenario as well. We are all entitled to our opinions and beliefs; you may be one marital unit, but you both have different DNA, different fingerprints, different upbringings, so your political stance does not need to be identical. A statement without criticism would be, “We voted for different people, and that is okay. However, I do not appreciate your negative remarks about my candidate of choice. Could we make an agreement to respect one another’s decision to vote for who we choose?” Understanding, check. Behavior complaint, check. Solution, double check.
This one is tricky, and is considered to be the most destructive to the marital bliss we always dreamed about. Contempt is when someone holds resentments, is disrespectful, or is hostile towards their partner. It can be disguised as humor with sarcasm, in which small jabs can be taken at one another. Contempt can also be as minor as a facial expression (e.g. sneers, rolling eyes).
What it looks like: In the aftermath of this election, contempt has mostly taken the form of hostility and condescension. Telling people they are wrong or making people feel insignificant or unknowing is unfair; we are all adults that have reasons for our beliefs and, ultimately, for our vote. With contempt, the positives are discounted, as if they never happened, and the negatives are held against the other at all costs. If you tell me that contempt did not overcome this election, then I am calling
B-S. Good try!
What to do instead: There is no simple fix for contempt. It is sneaky and hard to identify in the heat of the moment. One solution is to develop an appreciation for your partner and accept their stance, no matter what, because their political views are not what you fell in love with. Respect their decisions, but remember that their humor, their warmth, their morning bed-head, or whatever little qualities you fell in love with are still present. Neither political party took that away.
This communication is the response to criticism and contempt, an effort to defend themselves when feeling attacked. However, this rarely ends an argument and usually leads to saying things that are damaging to your relationship. Defensiveness is an easy trap to fall into when we feel injustice or wronged, but all you are doing is protecting your pride. It is self-serving and not for the good of your relationship as a whole.
What it looks like: Blaming others, arguing in a “one-upping” way, repeating your stance on a topic but ignoring the input of the other person. For example, the continuous back and forth conversations exclaiming, “But what about the racism? The sexism?” and replies of, “But what about the emails? The investigations?” This argument could go around in circles for hours with no resolve.
What to do instead: Have control of your reactions. Ever heard the phrase, “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar?” This is a perfect example of when respect and understanding for your partner’s opinions would land you a calm conversation, and would potentially give them an opportunity to peacefully talk about your views as well. No matter how much you are provoked, you always have the choice in your reactions. Choose healthy communication. The future of your marriage depends on it.
This communication style, or lack thereof, is when a partner refuses to interact during an argument. This is when a person shuts down emotionally and verbally, or removes themselves from the argument with the intention of sweeping the issue under the rug.
What it looks like: Ignoring or tuning the other person out, refusing to speak, avoiding conflict at all costs, or physically leaving an argument. Avoiding the issue only escalates the emotions, adding fuel to later fights rather than putting out the original flame in the first place. How many household political arguments ended in radio silence and sleeping on opposite ends of the bed this election cycle? Probably more than either of us can count. Was it worth the damage done to their communication? Never.
What to do instead: Work on being honest with one another and accepting each other unconditionally. Honesty means airing grievances or complaints in a respectful tone, and working together to reach a compromise. Even if that compromise is “to agree to disagree.”
Overall, the next four years will come and go, and if you were serious about your marital vows, no political stance should make your marriage vulnerable. If you have seen these unhealthy communication tactics in your own marriage, hope is not lost. Sit down with your partner and determine the next steps, whether it is coming to a mutual compromise or gaining an objective view through counseling. Invest in your marriage. After all, it is your significant other sharing your bed for the next four years, not a politician.
Williams, M. (2012). Couples Counseling: A Step by Step Guide for Therapists.