5 Ways to Keep This Election From Wrecking Your Relationships

Paula Stout, a high-tech executive with a long Democratic pedigree, has been dating lifelong Republican Kevin Kirkpatrick for more than four years, and they've been engaged since 2014.

Recently her fiancé told her that if they didn't stop talking about the presidential election, they'd have to break up.

He wasn't kidding.

"I love Paula very, very much," Kevin says, "but--or I guess 'and'--I love my country even more."

Paula and Kevin's situation would sound extreme--if it weren't happening in relationships, romantic, familial, and otherwise, all over the country.

Hundreds of articles have been written as to why 2016 is an especially volatile cocktail: whether it's the perfect storm of two of the most disliked candidates in history; rampant and overt sexism; or the climate of political divisiveness and economic disparity that's been brewing for decades.

On both sides of the aisle, this year emotions seem to be running hotter than ever before, taking a toll on a lot more than just polite political discourse. But how do we keep our personal relationships from being casualties on November 9, and beyond?

I asked a few friends struggling to maintain civil relations in their various relationships--including Paula and Kevin--for their advice (some names have been changed to avoid incinerating anyone's personal life):

Rick Banning is a talk-radio personality and political commentator in a conservative suburb of Florida who has grave reservations about Donald Trump's candidacy. "To me he represents a really scary dark vision of America that I think could lead to some pretty serious civil unrest." Yet his wife is voting for the Republican nominee.

Olivia Okonek's father-in-law's impassioned support for Trump led Olivia--whose parents are Ukrainian immigrants--to put a ban on all further conversation about politics, telling him, "If we don't stop this conversation right now, our relationship is going to be damaged."

Sherry Friend's two sons seem to take delight in needling her with their support for Trump, despite her pointing out that the Republican candidate's sexist comments are a direct affront to her. "It pisses me off."

Elle Marsh and her mother became so heated in their political discussions that they now dance around talking about anything remotely related to the election, despite living down the street from each other. "The morning after the last debate, we were so desperate that we discussed the history of Great Britain's monarchy and the possibility that Princess Diana's death was not an accident," she relates dryly. "Like I said, we were desperate."

Jenifer Sarver is a lifelong conservative Republican who worked with the Bush administration, and has long found common ground with her close extended family, all of whom are also religious conservative voters. Yet when Sarver, unable to reconcile Trump's words and actions with her party and personal values, openly declared her support for Hillary Clinton, some members of her family began launching attacks on her social media. "I don't care what most people on earth think about me," she says, "but when people who are closest to me in the world question my faith and my integrity publicly, it's hurtful."


1. The first line of defense may not be a good offense--but a cease-fire.

Like Paula and Kevin, or Elle and her mom, or Olivia and her father-in-law, a lot of people whose views strongly differ from loved ones' have simply chosen not to engage to avoid pyrotechnics and preserve the relationship.

"It's a coping mechanism," Paula says. "I'm sure some expert will say it's not healthy, but it's been the way we cope. Nothing political should derail a relationship, whether it's family or love."

"I think you have to compartmentalize it. It's not worth ruining your relationship over politics," deejay Rick echoes, citing the apparently healthy, happy relationship of well-known politically opposed couple James Carville and Mary Matalin as an example.

2. Respect each other's right to their point of view.

Jenifer Sarver's Republican family questioned her religious faith--the most important element of her life--when she announced her support of Hillary. "I did not expect the negativity and hatred I sometimes feel from people that I'm related to," she says. "I don't feel that they respect me."

"You have to respect other people's opinions," Rick Banning says, despite his deep concerns about the "politics of meanness" he feels his wife's chosen candidate, Trump, has contributed to creating. "You may think they're insane or demented or drinking the Kool-Aid, but it's their Kool-Aid, not yours.... I don't think that a person who supports Trump is a bad person."

Right about here is where passionate NeverTrumpers' heads explode.

"If you are supporting someone who says Muslims are terrorists and Mexicans are rapists and women are pigs, I don't want to know you, I don't want to hang out with you," says Olivia Okonek. "But," she adds after a moment, "that's really tough when that person is actually a good person. I can't figure out how to separate it. How can I keep this person in my life without thinking this is a horrible person?"

That's where this next step comes in. Take a deep breath, now...

3. Try to understand that point of view, or at least where it might be coming from.

Kevin, a strong supporter of Trump, explains his ultimatum to fiancée Paula as an outgrowth of feeling invalidated by her arguments against his candidate: "Sometimes I think it makes me out that she thinks I'm a fool for believing this way, and that bothers me. I really do get upset."

So it helps to try to put yourself into the mind of the person who's blowing yours. "I always try to look at things from different perspectives," says Olivia. "[If someone says] 'Mexicans are taking our jobs'...maybe they don't have a job, can't find a job, and they're trying to find someone to blame. This rhetoric is something they're clinging to [out of] fear of living in poverty, fear of the future."

Sherry Friend knows her sons are influenced by their Trump-supporting grandparents whom they deeply love, and are both stretching the wings of personal autonomy. "[My younger son's] subtext is, 'Is it okay if I have an opinion different from you, is that okay?'"

If you care about someone, then taking time to dig to find out what's really underneath their politics that make you stabby may awaken some compassion and empathy for their feelings in you, even if you can't understand their vote.

4. Put yourself in their shoes.

Both parties may feel that the other candidate offers a worst-case scenario, or at best an almost equally poor alternative. If you're a liberal Dem, imagine how you might feel if Donald Trump were running as your party's candidate (which could easily have happened, based on his past politics), and the alternative were, say, Ted Cruz? If you're an alt-right Republican, imagine Ronald Reagan running against Adolf Hitler, and you might get some inkling of how Clinton supporters may regard their candidate's battle against Trump.

"I'm truly disappointed that the same woman who taught me to be a strong, independent woman is voting for a man who clearly has no respect for women," Elle Marsh says. But, she adds pragmatically: "I think you have to respect that people have their reasons for the choices the make--for instance, my mom wants a Republican in office and has decided to wear blinders and vote along party lines. I don't agree, but I'm at least comforted that she doesn't share any of Trump's disgusting rhetoric."

5. Engage (if you're brave or foolish enough) with civility and respect--and substance.

Jenifer Sarver's experience with her family has spurred her to engage more with those who make comments she may find offensive or disagree with. "I think there's a way to point out [racist, sexist comments], and question them, and show facts." Even if some of her listeners resist those facts, "I think that doesn't mean that I don't have a responsibility not to keep pointing them out."

When Olivia Okonek's mother--who legally immigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine with Olivia's father--expressed support for Trump early in, Olivia chose a completely different tack from her shutdown of her father-in-law: "Look what he's saying," she told her mom. "He's against everything that you at least used to believe in.... Now she's all about Hillary--she hates Trump," Olivia relates proudly.

Of course, that kind of worldview shift is the unicorn of political arguments. Far more likely is the best-case outcome that both parties will agree to disagree, or just entrench more deeply in their own opinions.

But despite the tensions with her fiancé, Paula takes a bright-side view of their future--and America's: "The politics of compassion, I believe, in a civilized society will always win out."

Phoebe Fox is the author of the Breakup Doctor series. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.