Do You Have To Agree On Politics For A Relationship To Work?

Dear Sugar Radio

Courtesy of WBUR

Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

In this week’s episode, listeners ask what to do when they have political differences with their partners and in-laws. The hosts are joined by the liberal writer Samantha Dunn and her husband, Republican political operative Jimmy Camp, who help the Sugars understand how a politically divided relationship can work. Here, (Love)Stuck Behind Party Lines seeks guidance on just that.

Dear Sugars,

I am a 27-year-old female. My boyfriend and I have been together for two years, and we are stuck. Lovingly, oh so stuck. We often talk about our future together. We are open and honest. If I shared this letter with him today, not a word about it would surprise him. He is kind, affectionate, brilliant, generous, thoughtful, understanding, forgiving, patient and so beautifully sensitive — he tears up when he sees dead animals on the side of the road, every time.

And off the bat, we identified some differences in how we view the world: our definitions of purpose, financial goals, ambition, social justice, religion, health, taxes, world affairs and — of course — the boxes we check in the voting booth.

If I were to define myself, I would say first and foremost, I am a strong feminist. And it’s extremely important to me that my partner is a feminist as well. My boyfriend gushes about how much I’ve “taught [him] about the world” and opened his “eyes to new views.” But I can’t seem to get on board with some of his views. Am I simply stubborn and one-sided?

We try the “active sharing and learning” route: sending each other articles, and we end up in heated discussions for hours. He tells me these discussions are “exciting and energizing,” whereas I feel defeated, frustrated and angry. I often wind up in tears — cringing at the thought of him teaching our children ways about the world I don’t agree with.

I want a family and a big, deep love with my partner. I am 27, but I feel the clock ticking, in the sense of wanting to start defining if this is “the” relationship for me, or if I should move on. I don’t want to leave my boyfriend whom I love so much because of my own inability to connect with someone different than myself. How do I know if I should let go, or continue?


(Love)Stuck Behind Party Lines

Cheryl Strayed: This is a hard one. Honestly, my feeling about her situation is I would have these same doubts. Those kinds of very different political views are a deal killer for me. And (Love)Stuck, for that reason, alarm bells are going off. The fact that you’re writing to us tells us that this is a big deal to you — it’s something that you’re haunted by.

Steve Almond: One thing that’s very odd to me is that you talk about the importance of feminism in your life, and you say it’s important that your partner’s a feminist as well. And then you don’t tell us, “and I’m glad to say, that when it comes to equality, my boyfriend is totally on board with that.” I’m unsettled that there’s no mention of it. I think it would be mentioned if he was affirmatively saying: Yes, you’re right, women — equal work, equal pay.

The other thing that’s unsettling is that the attempt at discourse, which I think is great — the sharing and learning approach — you find defeating and thwarting. And right after that is: I cringe at the thought of him inculcating our children with these values that I don’t agree with.

I wonder, you say your boyfriend would be OK with hearing this letter. Would he be OK with hearing that? You’re right, since you want to have a family, and your political views are really important to you, you need to figure out whether you can be compatible in this way.

Samantha Dunn: I actually didn’t know specifically what the issues were. She spoke more in abstractions. And I wondered if she was so attached to the abstraction of being a feminist — she didn’t look at what the relationship actually looks like. Is there equality, is there respect in the relationship? Is the practice there, versus the label? That’s what made me wonder if she should just abandon labels and just be with this person that she loves.

Steve Almond: Interesting. So, Cheryl and I were very focused on how defeated her interactions are with him around trying to align their values. And what you are saying is: Hold on a second, what about the whole beginning of the letter?

You can choose to focus on the parts of the relationship that are nourishing and supportive or you can get fixated on the places where you have political disagreements and maybe even moral disagreements. But that’s not ultimately what you should be focusing on for long-term happiness.

Samantha Dunn: That’s exactly it.

Cheryl Strayed: (Love)Stuck, only you know if you actually have common ground with your partner. It’s not clear to us from your letter if that’s the case. If you find yourself seriously at odds — feeling like you don’t have common ground, feeling like your ideas aren’t valued and you really can’t hear your partner’s ideas — that to me is a real red flag in a relationship. And it might be one that you want to take seriously.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. This week is the second in a two-part series about political differences with family and friends. They further consider this letter from (Love)Stuck Behind Party Lines and take a letter from Lefty Lucy, a progressive Democrat who has married into a conservative Oklahoma family and is finding it increasingly difficult to stay silent about her true beliefs.

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