Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Q: I have a wonderful girlfriend of two years now. There's only one thing that makes me worry about the future of our relationship: her political views. I'm liberal, and she's conservative. I tell myself this isn't a deal-breaker, but when we discuss politics, it usually gets pretty heated — and it's usually because I think she lacks empathy, while she thinks I'm TOO empathetic to people's situations (subject example: collecting unemployment).
I'm at the point in the relationship where I want to take it to the next level, but is this going to be a big problem in the future? Are our polar opposite political views a sign of polar opposite values that will make it hard to be married or raise a family?
I'm not the most politically savvy person, but I think the reason I get so upset when we debate politics is that she doesn't really pay attention to the news, so her opinions, while strong, are never as informed as they could be. If they were and she disagreed with me, I could take comfort in the fact that she really knows what she's talking about.
Everything else about the relationship is great. She doesn't seem to think the political differences are a big deal, but every time we greatly disagree on a political topic I find myself doubting the relationship.
Carolyn: Couples can survive political differences, but they rarely thrive when one half doesn't respect the other. It doesn't matter where it takes her; if you don't respect her thought process, then, deal-breaker.
Anonymous: How do you cultivate respect for a person under the circumstances where they decisively and firmly argue uninformed opinions? If a person is plowing forward (in an argumentative manner) with opinions that aren't based in fact, where is the place you go in your head to conjure the empathy and therefore respect for them? I agree that a relationship cannot survive a lack of respect, but what if someone is displaying behavior that isn't exactly making respect a walk in the park?
Carolyn: Then you accept that you don't respect the person, and it might be over.
There might also be areas of life this person handles with grace, though, and challenges s/he seems to master while you struggle, which can justify staying. There are many ways to strike and appreciate a balance.
Where you can't just break up (family, say) and there aren't those mitigating elements, you go exactly where you suggest: empathy. Generally you can think of areas where you've been off-base, right? Or you can imagine emotional reasons people choose the positions they do, and argue them with the fervor they do, and close their minds to contrary facts as they do. It takes unusual guts to say, "Wow, I've been spouting off for years about X when there's readily available proof X isn't true."
I do think that, while a quest for mutual respect is good for the soul and necessary with people you don't choose, like parents or neighbors, it's best not to work that hard with a mate. Hold out instead for mutual respect that comes from sources that are natural, abundant and enduring.
Tuesday: Shocker! People have much to say on this.