A couple months before the 2016 presidential election, I came across a study that revealed that just nine percent of Republicans and eight percent of Democrats said their spouse or partner was a member of the other major political party. The study comprised survey results from the Spring of 2016 — roughly one year since then-candidate Donald Trump had launched his misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, and generally intolerant presidential campaign.
The results seemed to suggest a distinct shift from previous, similar surveys, including one from 1958 that revealed 72 percent of parents had no party preference for their child's spouse — compared to only 45 percent as of 2017. They were also in contrast with a trend of increasing interracial and interfaith marriages through the years. Party politics have indisputably become more polarized since the 1950s, especially as women have become more empowered to partake in politics and share opinions that may be different from their male partners. As feminist journalist Rebecca Solnit has pointed out, unsaid numbers of husbands have influenced or even controlled their wives' votes, and some still do today. But another stark reality is that young women — and women of all ages — are increasingly finding our voices, and this could yield long-term paradigm shifts in the worlds of dating and marriage.
For many, the option to stay silent about politics and social-justice issues with a partner in this political reality feels like a symptom of privilege at best and an impossibility at worst.
Of course, the divides between millennial women's experiences in relationships and previous generations aren't limited to politics: millennial women are getting married later, having fewer children — if having children at all — and more of them are the breadwinners in their households than ever. But their politics are different: young women have become one of the most reliably liberal political blocs, and an increasingly politically engaged one, too. Our growing independence and our politics are inextricably linked, and we're not afraid to disagree with and challenge differing views around us.
In either case, I didn't think much of the study about declining interpolitical couples at the time, even over the course of my own almost year-long relationship with a libertarian, Republican-leaning white man. (I'm an Asian-American woman.) We started dating a few months after I stumbled across the study. It would be almost three years later, at the onset of 2019, that I found myself thinking of the study once again and interrogating my own experience with an interpolitical, heterosexual, and cisgender romantic relationship.
It wasn't that my then-partner and I hadn't discussed politics. Frankly, politics was sometimes all we'd discussed, often in long, drawn out, and emotionally laborious debates that left me exhausted and disheartened. It often seemed that no amount of statistics or moral arguments I offered could convince him that something Trump had said was offensive, or that reproductive rights comprised an urgent, existential issue for many women — and specifically for me. As deeply as I wanted to show him my lived implications around issues over which we'd shared disagreements, comments he often made during our arguments deterred me from ever opening up about them. As a result, I never felt fully emotionally safe or close to him.
But why hadn't his politics bothered me enough to leave? Especially as an Asian-American daughter of immigrants, whose life had been deeply, personally affected by sexual violence and a taxing journey to access reproductive health care? The end of our relationship had been the result of disagreements over commitment; not whether abortion was a fundamental human right or the fact that he'd cast his ballot for Gary Johnson in a swing state. Three years later, with that question nagging at me, I decided to ask other women like me — specifically, liberal women of color who date men — to share their experiences in the hopes of shedding some light on my own.
What It's Really Like to Date Someone With Different Political Views
Well before 2018, Trump made his true colors clear as day. His actions since — overseeing the separation of migrant families, turning away survivors of domestic violence and children at the borders, locking migrant children in cages, and forcing a man credibly accused of sexual assault onto the Supreme Court — should have surprised no one. For many, the option to stay silent about politics and social-justice issues with a partner in this political reality feels like a symptom of privilege at best and an impossibility at worst.
In straight relationships, political gender divides carry deep implications. (Fifty-three percent of men voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, compared with 42 percent of women.) From #MeToo and the annual Women's March to the cultural ramifications of the president's notorious "grab 'em by the p-ssy" comments, gender and politics have become deeply interwoven into the American social landscape. It's no wonder the political, gendered conflicts that play out in public spill over into personal relationships.
As I continued to think of the 2016 study, I realized my assumption had been that the only way straight couples from opposing political parties could still exist was if those couples avoided talking about politics altogether. But when I started talking to such couples, I learned it wasn't that simple. These people had a wide range of experiences based on what, exactly, was being disagreed upon, the extent of the disagreement, and general feelings about whether discussions of politics and social justice issues were respectful and productive.
Melina*, 21, dated a man who shared her Filipino heritage for three months starting in 2017. She eventually ended their relationship over their vast differences — but not, she said, before plenty of lengthy, seemingly endless conversations and debates about a range of issues. She remembers that many of their disagreements weren't always as straightforward as Democrat vs. Republican, but, as she stated several times: "Existence is political."
Melina said her then-boyfriend made victim-blaming comments about the way women dressed, expressed discomfort with the idea of having an LGBTQ+ child, was frustrated with the #MeToo movement, and seemed "overly sensitive" in conversations about race. He also pushed back on her hypothetical preference to keep her last name if she were to marry, calling it "disrespectful." She said she challenged these views every time, requiring what she called "deep emotional labor" and significant amounts of time researching facts to counter his often problematic and troubling beliefs.
"All of it showed me that in your relationship, you have to feel mentally and emotionally safe," Melina said. She said social justice had been a deeply important part of her life for years, and her relationship had started to feel contrary to these values. "I thought a lot about privilege and the ability to 'opt out' of social justice, and whether social justice really means that much to you if you can coexist with and reward harmful views."
"Coming from a diverse, liberal part of California, and meeting his traditional family in Connecticut, showed me a side of the country I hadn't known before."
Amy*, 20, an Indian-American student at Boston University, also talked about the realities of privilege and its role in her ongoing relationship with a white man who voted for Trump in the 2016 election. According to Amy — who said her boyfriend has since recanted his support for Trump — their relationship is not only enabled but empowered by their ability to learn from each other and examine the vastly different cultural experiences and upbringing that were the source of their disagreements.
"Coming from a diverse, liberal part of California, and meeting his traditional family in Connecticut, showed me a side of the country I hadn't known before," Amy said. "Our conversations have shown me how other people think and helped both me and him grow."
But Amy acknowledged the presence of privilege in how their desire to be together, despite their differences, sometimes relies on agreeing to drop a topic. Occasionally, she said, they simply determine that something that divides them actually has little bearing on their lives, and therefore isn't worth fighting or harming their relationship over. "And obviously, there's privilege in that," Amy said. "We can avoid talking about some things, like how we disagree sometimes about LGBTQ+ and trans issues, or about people are overreacting to things Trump does, because we're not directly affected by those things ourselves."
According to Amy, she maintains boundaries and standards for decency she would require of any partner, noting that her boyfriend has been supportive of #MeToo and survivors of sexual assault. She said their relationship has expanded both their ways of thinking despite the fact that she's a Democrat and he's a Republican
Mariah*, 21, a graphic designer based in Orange County, California, shares Amy's sense of boundaries as to how far disagreements can stretch. She met her then-boyfriend, a white man whose experiences differed vastly from hers as a Vietnamese daughter of immigrants raised in a predominantly immigrant community, on Tinder. On their first date, Mariah said he had wasted no time in launching into a "conservative rant" about economic policies and his strong support for Trump's immigration policies.
"I never interrupted him, and that seemed to surprise him: that we could have mutually very respectful conversations despite our disagreements," Mariah said. "But meeting my parents, and learning their stories — that changed and moved him a bit. We both learned a lot from each other and that was so interesting."
Mariah said she draws the line when someone's beliefs shape their treatment of other people, or when their treatment of others is fueled by feelings of supremacy and disrespect. "The fact that he wasn't like that, and he respected and listened to me, made it easy to be with him," she said. Their relationship ultimately ended for other reasons, but Mariah said they remain friends, and she would not only be open to but may even prefer to date someone with different political views again.
Can Liberal-Conservative Romances Last?
Dr. Gary Brown, a Los Angeles-based couple's therapist who has been in practice for 25 years and takes pride in his diverse practice serving couples from all backgrounds, has encountered marriages and relationships troubled with political differences before. But according to Brown, political differences are seldom the sole issue rocking romantic relationships. Instead, couples often seek his help for a litany of other serious, relatively apolitical issues.
"Whether or not you stay in a relationship with someone with whom you have opposite views, I think, might be more about whether you really love each other and have a good relationship in the first place, all of that aside," he said, noting that tolerance "can very well help a couple transcend" their political disagreements.
""With all this polarization, there comes a lot of passion."
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist and couple's therapist based in the Chicago area, agreed that when couples who are deeply divided by political disagreements often initially come to her office seeking help with other problems. And certainly, this has become more of a trend in the last three years. "With all this polarization, there comes a lot of passion," she said.
That polarization has reached a head in the Trump era, and Lombardo said it often works in tandem with an inability to hear other views. "I call it 'conditional self-worth,' when you need others to agree with or see eye-to-eye or validate your views, to feel self-worth, when you need to be heard, so you don't let the other person speak," she said.
Lombardo posits that this is especially the case in a social media age, as we've become increasingly accustomed to sharing our views in tweets and posts in communities of mostly like-minded people. As a result, Lombardo believes people's growing need for validation could impact what they expect and demand from their partners. While she can't quite speak to generational differences in how women approach political disagreement with their partners, she can see a connection between social media and a growing need to have our beliefs validated and approved of.
According to Lombardo, there's "always a way" couples in disagreement can remain together. But certainly, that's a choice for each person to make based on their values and priorities.
How Boundaries, Mutual Respect, and Values Play a Role
But others, like Melina, see things differently, and view having basic agreements with your partner as a matter of standing up for social justice and morality in one's personal life.
For Melina, looking back at her relationship made her think of that of her parents and their upbringing in the Philippines. "I know there are things they disagree really sharply about," she said. While both of her parents are deeply religious, she said her mother tends to vote conservatively in contrast with her father's Democratic voting record. "But they don't really talk about this, and that's not always about privilege, but the cultural contexts in which some people are raised and what they're raised to see as too taboo to talk about — like LGBTQ+ identity or abortion rights, maybe."
Ultimately, as I tried to neatly tie together my thoughts about the 2016 study on interpolitical relationships in a fresh, 2019 context, I thought again of what Dr. Brown had said about a baseline of "mutual respect." Certainly, everyone has different boundaries and standards for what they seek in a partner, often shaped by identity and lived experience. But is it possible to feel respected by someone whose views and political participation disrespect the existence of other people like you? Of other groups you regard as equal? Of the fundamental values you hold at a time of nearly unprecedented assaults on these values? For all the frequent op-eds and cultural essays by men who refuse to date feminists — and by conservative women who refuse to date feminist men — don't women and feminists have standards of our own? Don't we have a fundamental need to feel respected, to be consistent in our values?
When I think about my own experience in a relationship with someone with whom I shared deep political and ideological differences today, what comes to mind first is how young I was. My conversations with Melina, Amy, Mariah, and doctors Brown and Lombardo prompted me to reevaluate my own past and all that I hadn't considered at the time. I realize I'd held an unshakable belief that I had not just the power, but the obligation, to change and unconditionally support someone — no matter the exhaustive cost to me personally. As I've struggled to take care of myself amid a constantly either draining or terrifying news cycle in the last almost three years, I've gradually come to shed that mindset altogether.
Relationships and human connections don't exist in a vacuum; different people find different interactions and conversations rewarding. But we are living in an age of children in cages and alleged abusers in the White House and Supreme Court. I understand the choice to opt out of the debilitating emotional labor of discussing with a partner why children do not belong in cages and abusers do not belong in power.
In the years since my last and only interpolitical relationship, the events that have transpired have shown me the importance of building relationships with those who share my fundamental values — those who see what is happening in the country and the world, and care. I'm proud to identify as a feminist and Democratic voter, with little patience for political stances propped up by misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance — and to say with confidence that I wouldn't enter my 2016 relationship as the woman I am in 2019.