My boyfriend and I are of opposing political parties, though if you put us in an actual room with an actual political aisle between us, we could reach across it and hold hands. So it’s safe to say we lean more middle, with tendencies toward one side on particular issues.
In the polarized political climate we’re all experiencing, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to reach across the aisle to so much as look at each other or communicate, let alone date and cohabit. Extremism seems to dominate the political landscape and being able to talk about differences without starting relationship-ending arguments feels impossible to a lot of the people I know.
I never had a desire to delve into politics or religion on my blog, mostly because I’ll be the first to admit that there’s still so much I don’t know on both fronts to comfortably make claims or engage in thoughtful, well-rounded discussions. I prefer to sit back and listen to others share so I can observe dynamics and gather new perspectives. Call it whatever you like – laziness, apathy, blissful ignorance – it’s how I’ve grown into adulthood, for better or worse.
Dating someone from “across the aisle” has provided many insights into the political dichotomy that I never expected. It’s opened my eyes and ears and grown my compassion and patience in ways I couldn’t have predicted. So while I recognize that the issues we’re all so passionate about can create a real divide between people formerly considered friends, I want to take a second to reflect on what I’ve seen and learned in two years of dating “the other side.”
You can disagree respectfully and still maintain a relationship.
We don’t always have the same view on things. Many times, we do, but there are some instances where I have a hard time understanding his perspective. Fortunately, we’re good at communicating, something he taught me at the beginning of our relationship.
Patience and maintaining composure during a disagreement are not qualities I come by easily. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m incredibly reactive. I grew up seeing reactivity in response to conflict. When I sense conflict, I immediately put up my porcupine prickles and prepare for an assault. And that’s the worst thing anyone can do during a disagreement.
Fortunately, my boyfriend does not. He taught me early on how to de-escalate a situation, a skill I hadn’t really experienced in my life before. I’d seen explosivity or avoidance. I think that’s pretty standard for most conflict-riddled circumstances. This was new and different, and I liked how it felt. It was maddening, to some degree, because the more I spiraled and melted down, and the longer he stayed sturdy, the crazier I felt. But between all that emotion, I was able to clearly see a skill I wanted so desperately to learn. I’ve been practicing and chasing that calm ever since. Being on anti-anxiety meds has helped that tremendously.
That moral insult you feel when someone has a polar opposite view to yours is almost involuntary.
Prior to dating each other, neither of us had pleasant experiences with the opposite party. We observed the worst parts – the generalizations, the accusations, the ignorance, the extremism, the disdain, malice, and utter disgust. We heard demeaning and dehumanizing sentiments. We’ve all experienced that. It tastes like eating burnt popcorn over a smoking stove. It’s hard to forget, and harder to trust that experiences in the future won’t be the same or worse.
As people, we tend to tie our religion and political views so closely to our personal identity that it feels like an attack on our character. It’s why so many people get so heated when it comes to discussing the two topics above. It feels so very personal. It’s why we lose all control, focus, resolve, and dignity.
What I’ve learned in my relationship is that the knee-jerk feeling you get in your gut to just react? That never really goes away.
Political views were brought up pretty early on in our relationship. “I sense that you identify more with this party based on some of the things you’ve talked about. And I identify with the opposite side. And I don’t want this to be a problem going forward,” he said over dinner one night.
“Does it have to be?” I asked.
We dove headfirst into our experiences, him sharing first that in the past, he had been spoken down upon for his views. When he finished sharing, I replied, “You know… I’ve had those same experiences with people who identify with your side. Funny, isn’t it?” He then brought up a subject he felt passionate about, though I can’t remember exactly what it was, and while I had another view, I actively chose, in that moment, to do one thing differently than I had ever done before. I simply asked, “Why?”
And in that moment, I learned the biggest lesson of all. Asking “Why” opened up an entire dialog that resulted in a revolutionary realization: We actually believe the same thing. We just get there differently and we call it something different. This moment will forever stand out to me because both of us were able to wrap up the conversation feeling like, “Wow, I finally met someone from the other party who wants to listen to my reasoning and who doesn’t shame me for thinking differently.” It was incredibly refreshing.
Notice – this was something that I hadn’t done before: I asked why. Have I always been this open to conversations with differing view points? No. Has that caused unnecessary turmoil and faulty assumptions? Absolutely. Was it the best way to handle things in the past? Not one bit. Did I miss opportunities to learn and grow and challenge my thinking (something we should all be doing every day)? You betcha.
I make this point to illustrate that this isn’t something that comes naturally to me (and probably most people), but that it is something that can be practiced and learned. It’s something I practice constantly, and it still feels odd, but it always deepens trust and creates a stronger bond with people I would have dismissed in the past. And it’s actually changed some of my views on things that had a very one-sided representation in my life.
This is where we all fall short, and this one question can drastically change the trajectory of an entire conversation. So many of us miss it because we’re so eager to share our views, to lay out all the reasons to the contrary. We don’t ask for more. We don’t look to understand each other and exchange knowledge. We look to convert each other. And has that ever worked? Nope.
In the time since, I’ve been able to use it with people on both sides of the aisle. And it’s always been really eye-opening. I’ve used it with my parents. It’s empowered me to ensure that the people around me aren’t falling prey to the “us vs them” fallacy. That we aren’t spreading more discourse and divide. No one really likes to get gut-checked, so I can’t say they’re the most comfortable moments, but I’ve discovered one way that tends to work best:
“You don’t love it when people lump you into the extremist version of your party. Why do you do that to someone else, especially when you haven’t had a conversation with that person yet?”
I challenge you to just ask why. Don’t accuse, don’t assume, don’t name-call, don’t get defensive. You can disagree with someone’s views. You can also do it respectfully without trying to reduce someone’s dignity.
Does this mean all interactions are going to be hunky-dory? Probably not. There will still be those extreme interactions and people who, no matter how hard you try to hear them out, will be shitty anyway. And in those cases, it’s okay to walk away from it and think, “Hey, fuck that guy.” Just don’t dump that onto the next person you meet.