In this column, appearing every two weeks or so, Asheville-based therapists Jennifer Gural and Jonathan Esslinger answer readers’ questions to help with the language of love and loss. Submit questions through Jennifer and Jonathan’s website, kisskissbyebye.com.
Question: I have met a woman online whom I would really like to pursue. She is charming, educated, active, beautiful and of a different political orientation than I am. I have been a lifelong liberal. I went to school in California, have written for progressive publications and have made a home in a progressive oasis intentionally. My question is, can this relationship work? Will we be able to enjoy the great parts of each other without coming into conflict over our political differences in this polarizing climate? —Polar Opposite, 53, Asheville
Jennifer’s input: This is the question of our times: Can two opposing political viewpoints look past ideology and find love? I believe the answer will be personal to each couple.
Some couples enjoy talking about current events and participating in community and volunteer opportunities that align with their progressive or conservative values. This may never be an option for you, due to your opposing viewpoints.
If you do want to create closeness, my advice is to participate in events that you both agree on. Investigating areas of shared values may bring opportunities to come together and work towards shared goals.
If you’re a person who enjoys a healthy debate that ends not in changing of minds but in mutual respect for differences, this relationship might also work for you. The answer to your question requires looking deep within yourself. You have to decide if you can be with someone who may not be able to offer you emotional support when you feel despair or hope with the direction policies are heading. However, if you are a man that likes a healthy dose of friction, this relationship just might work.
The fact is, there are lots of healthy relationships in American whose partners have opposing political viewpoints and they’re working just fine. You will need to focus on areas of sameness rather than difference.
Jonathan’s input: Let me start by stating that yes, Polar Opposite, you can have a deep and meaningful relationship with someone who does not share your beliefs. It is completely possible for two people to have different beliefs and still have a great relationship.
People do it all the time — they connect even though they have different views. Even political opposites get together, with estimates that about 10 percent of married couples are politically opposed. One of the more famous examples of a politically mismatched couple is the marriage of Mary Matalin and James Carville, who are both wholly opposed on political topics. They co-wrote a book exploring this called “Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home.”
Your concern, Polar Opposite, is that you will have a lot of conflict resulting from your political differences. To this, I also say, yes. Indeed, there is a great chance for intense conflict around your political differences. Carville and Matalin, for example, reported horrible, loud, angry disagreements over some of their political discussions.
But, don’t fret about potential conflicts. Most happy couples have had some intense, horrible, loud and angry conflict over any number of different beliefs. Common areas of conflict are opposing beliefs around child-rearing, money management, gender issues, sexual desires, chores and other sources of differences. Even if you find someone of the same political persuasion, there will usually remain some area of different beliefs.
Polar Opposite, don’t avoid this potential relationship out of a fear of conflict. Why? Because you can reasonably expect every healthy relationship to have some conflict — conflict is unavoidable, unless you convert yourself into a door-mat.
What I would suggest you focus on, Polar Opposite, is how the two of you are able to navigate the conflict. Perhaps you are able to agree to disagree, or maybe the disagreement throws you apart for days? Can you each at least partly understand how the other person believes what they believe, or do your beliefs lead you to devalue the other person? Does the disagreement help you to understand each other better, or does the conflict merely make the other person seem impossible to understand?
Polar Opposite, you deserve a chance with this charming woman. She also deserves a chance with your own charming self. Don’t let your fear of these differences keep you from exploring something deeper and more meaningful with her.
Focus on boldly sharing your honest feelings and see how she reacts. Hopefully she will bring a similar focus. That will be the test of your relationship compatibility, not the inherent differences between you both, rather how you both treat each other’s differences.
Jennifer Gural and Jonathan Esslinger are Asheville-based authors, clinical trainers and therapists who specialize in relationships, personal development and addiction.
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