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Clinton, Trump, or a Breakup? How to Debate Politics While Dating

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Clinton, Trump, or a Breakup? How to Debate Politics While Dating
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Your parents probably told you never to bring up religion or politics at the dinner table. They probably told you that doing so could illicit ideologies from the guests that, when spoken aloud, might inspire vocalized riots in between courses. They probably also told you that these topics, above any others, should absolutely never, under any circumstances, be raised while on a first or second, maybe even third, date. Your parents have most likely changed their minds this year—the year of the Hillary Clinton–Donald Trump 2016 presidential election.

Right now, how can you not discuss politics publicly? How can you not have strong, pent-up frustrations on whatever end of the extremely polarizing voter spectrum you fall on? At a time when there have been reports of married couples considering divorces and separation because one partner wants to build the wall and one wants to deal in, how does one date and debate politics? While Trump may not think he has to do the necessary legwork for his impending debate with Clinton, in the dating world, it’s always a good idea to be prepared, should a debate arise.

Setting aside the now-defunct parental advice, The School of Life—an establishment dedicated to “developing emotional intelligence”—has taken it upon themselves to offer us a few constructive tools for discussing Clinton/Trump while entering the dating pool. The sound tips come from relationship psychologist and author of How to Choose a Partner, Susan Quilliam. So go ahead and bring it up. Speak your peace, listen carefully, and maybe opposites, even in this sensational, highly emotional election season, really can attract.

Below, Quilliam explains how to talk the talk.

Step Up to the Debate
Unless you and your date are supremely uninterested in politics—or haven’t an argumentative bone in your bodies—there will be some interesting discussions ahead as the election year climaxes. Sidestepping the issue likely is not possible; instead, lean in.

It will help to start with topics you’re less invested in, building up to more contentious or polarizing ones. Then, hone your approach. When you hold the floor, make sure of your facts; keep points focused and not rambling; regularly cede rather than clinging to your turn. When listening, major on giving attention and holding back from interruption; repeating back the main points shows that you have been respectfully concentrating.

Temper Passion With Calm
The problem is that the above basics can fly out the window when your deeply held beliefs are energetically challenged by a dating partner. How to cope? Reduce the temptation to strike back by calming yourself physiologically—take a deep breath, deliberately relax, slow down, and soften the tone of your voice.

And even if you don’t agree with your date’s views, help reduce their stress levels by giving body language signals of approval, like nods, smiles, holding hands, and offering a hug. Know when to call a halt, switch topics, break the tension, and know when to congratulate yourselves for perseverance.

Use Argument as Diagnostic
Can politics serve as an evaluation of a partner’s suitability? Actually, yes. Bring curiosity to discussions and you’ll gather vital information, not only about your date’s party loyalties but, more importantly, about what values those loyalties reveal. Whether or not you vote the same, those votes’ underlying motives may be so similar that you feel united—or so different, you become divided.

As well, compare your arguing styles. Studies by John Gottman (professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington) suggest that while debate crimes such as insult and accusation are bad news, it’s not the frequency, length, or intensity of disputes that predict relationship success, but whether you’re comfortable with each other’s conflict style.

See Dispute as a Mirror
Debate also reveals how you yourself truly feel about your date. Are you more motivated to be right than to bond, more set on conquering than on finding a win-win solution? Can you let your partner hold their beliefs without pressuring them into yours? Conversely, can you hold on to your own beliefs even if that risks hostility? Opposing politics in someone we care about can trigger our deepest fears about rejection. Is your relationship sufficiently important that you’ll hang in there regardless? If not, best to realize that now.

Create Attachment Through Dialogue
If you stay the course despite difference, the results can be surprising. Open up about your own views, values, emotions, and you’ll likely feel closer to a partner. Explore a partner’s perspective, perhaps by actually learning about their party’s platform, and you’ll draw them toward you. Find common ground and points of agreement, or practice respectful acknowledgement even without agreement, and you’ll forge a deeper bond.

Build for the Future
Navigating an election debate is not just about keeping your relationship together short-term. It can also build long-term partnership strengths. Gottman’s work suggests that even in the most successful couples, most disagreements are never actually resolved. We need to be able to manage the tension that creates.

How? Holding your partner’s right to their beliefs as equal to your right. Containing the strong emotions that can result from discord. Learning how to handle conflict of whatever kind. Master these skills and your relationship will be noticeably stronger by mid-November.

This article originally appeared on and was written by Brooke Bobb

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