Every election year, do you find yourself thinking, “I want a divorce”? You’re not alone. As our country becomes even more divided, couples also struggle within their relationships.
You and your partner might get along in so many other ways. You might enjoy doing certain things together, have very similar values and beliefs, and love spending time together. You’re generally a happy couple. BUT… every four years, when there is a presidential election, you feel suddenly like you live in a house divided.
You have a terrible time trying to talk about your different beliefs, and discussions can quickly escalate into fights that end in name-calling, blame, and emotional injuries. You leave these discussions feeling hurt, alienated, and lonelier than ever. You feel like you don’t even know your partner, and you wonder why you married them. You might even think you want a divorce.
What is going on?
For many of us, political preferences meld into moral beliefs that we are quite attached to. When our attachment figure, the one person we turn to for contact, care, and comfort, expresses vastly different political beliefs, we then suddenly experience what therapists call “attachment distress”.
We notice a jolt of adrenaline related to the “fight or flight” response, where our bodies prepare to either fight (send out a verbal missile) or flee (withdraw to another room). In this state of fight or flight, our discussions go awry. How we react when triggered by our partner’s words then triggers our partner, who subsequently also goes into fight or flight. And now we’re in a cycle, fueled by attachment distress, that disconnects us from each other. This conflict can continue even after the election. We wonder how our partner, friend, or family member could possibly have voted for the other side.
Instead of fight or flight, what can we do to reconnect with our partner, friend, or relative and feel close again?
I’m reminded of the writings of Dan Wile, a therapist and author living in Seattle, which describe what can happen following attachment distress. He states:
When we experience distress with our partner, we can avoid talking with them; this turns them into a stranger, because now they don’t know how we are thinking or feeling. Alternatively, we can attack our partner; this turns them into the enemy, because now they are getting defensive or attacking back. And finally, we can confide our vulnerable feelings to our partner; this deepens our connection with them, because sharing vulnerable feelings bonds us closer together.
What might this look like?
Let’s take an imaginary couple, Carly and Steve. Carly is a democrat, whereas Steve tends to vote republican. When Steve tells Carly that he voted for Trump following the election in 2016, she immediately feels furious, then notices fear and sadness that she and Steve seem suddenly so different from each other.
This mix of fear and sadness is attachment distress. She can, of course, choose to avoid discussing these feelings with him. So at the outdoor patio of the restaurant they are enjoying that Friday night, she asks him how his day is. She feels distant from him, she feels the sadness, fear, and anger, but she doesn’t bring that up. As a result, he doesn’t know about her feelings; she is a stranger to him.
In the next scenario, Carly can’t hold it in any longer. She blurts out, “How could you vote for such an evil, stupid person?” Steve sees the hurt and anger in her eyes and feels attacked. As anyone does when they feel attacked, he gets defensive and/or attacks back; she is an enemy to him.
The alternative to these two disconnecting scenarios is for Carly to confide the most vulnerable of her feelings. Carly looks within and detects sadness and fear amid the anger. She turns and says to Steve, “I am feeling some sadness, and maybe I’m scared, too, thinking that we might be very different from each other”. As this is vulnerability and not attacking, Steve is able to turn toward Carly, and the two can have a discussion that might ultimately bring them closer together.
In Part 2 of this article, I will discuss other ways to come closer to your partner in times of political distress and disconnection.