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What we can learn about relationships from politically divided couples

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 10:22 AM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
Couples who disagree politically can still get along, experts say, with some rules in place.
Couples who disagree politically can still get along, experts say, with some rules in place.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Politically divided relationships can last if both sides agree to disagree, therapists say
  • It takes openness and honesty to weather political partisanship in a relationship
  • It's a matter of accepting that opposing viewpoints don't invalidate yours
  • If you're a person who needs to be right, stick with someone who shares your values

(CNN) -- The first sign of their political differences surfaced on the first date, when she noticed the photo on his wall of him posing and smiling with George H.W. Bush.

He was a 30-year-old petty officer in the Navy and a Southern Baptist from Georgia. She was from a liberal family in San Diego, a 19-year-old who had protested military recruitment on her high school campus.

Still, he was charming and handsome, so she gave him a chance. Though he identified as a Republican and she as a Democrat, they agreed on social issues that she considered deal breakers, like supporting abortion rights. They've been happily married for 14 years now, but the ideological differences still come to a head during election years.

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"We have our differences and it really becomes apparent in election time. That's usually when it gears up, when everything comes to the forefront," said Melissa Reylek-Robinson, a 34-year-old mother of two in San Diego. "Election time is probably the worst time for us. We definitely get into some heated debates."

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For many, political loyalties can make or break a relationship. But couples who have learned to successfully weather political partisanship could teach us all a thing or two about relationships in general, said etiquette expert Anna Post.

"These are admirable couples. It takes a lot of patience and passion and respect for the relationship, especially where large political divides exist," said Post, spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post. "To be able to do that successfully speaks to the kind of relationship these couples have."

Political differences don't always lead to political discord, she said, and shouldn't be considered insurmountable. If Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin can talk along party lines on television as full-time jobs, others can learn to do it in small doses.

"It has to do with the tone of the conversation and knowing why you're having it," she said. "It's not about what the differences are. It's how you choose to bridge them that will create a problem or make things work smoothly, knowing how to have a dialogue and which boundaries not to push or cross."

As a devout Christian and Republican who's also a Colts fan, Janet Davis is rarely on the same side as her significant other, an atheist Democrat who roots for the Patriots. After years of loud fights, it took the birth of their son to mellow them out.

"How do we do it? Very, very carefully," she said. "No one really ever wins in a battle of personal beliefs. Since the birth of our son in 2005 we are both much more respectful of each other's viewpoints."

Life-changing events like births or deaths can change a couple's perspective on what really matters in their relationship, said marriage and family therapist Sharon Rivkin.

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"It's such a powerful experience that's bigger than the both of them," said Rivkin, author of "Breaking the Argument Cycle." "For many people, that's when they learn to respect each other, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of what's important."

If a couple can coexist with different political views, it creates a foundation for a healthy and long-lasting relationship, psychotherapist Karen Ruskin said, because they've learned to see each other as two individuals within a relationship.

"For some people, they do not feel like individuals when they become married, they become one," she said. "But that doesn't mean you have to share one position or one philosophy. It means you take care and look out for the other person as much as yourself. You love that person as much as that person loves you."

It's not easy, she acknowledged, and probably impossible for someone who needs to always be right. It's a matter of learning to not be threatened by another position and accepting that what works for your partner doesn't have to work for you.

Again, James Carville and Mary Matalin come to mind, she said. Their careers have grown over the years together even as they've worked on different sides of the aisle.

"Instead of seeing it as conflicting you view it from the mental framework of acceptance, accepting that we have a difference in opinions," she said. "In a healthy relationship, a difference in opinion does not define the relationship or erode it. It's another puzzle piece to fit into the relationship as a whole."

Reylek-Robinson has learned to live with the "the giant Bush in the room," as she likes to call her husband's photograph. He tolerates the fridge magnet she uses to display her children's homework depicting George W. Bush and his infamous quote, "Rarely is the question asked, 'Is our children learning?' "

This year, the hot-button issue has been President Obama's Affordable Care Act, she said. As someone who has epilepsy, she said she supports "Obamacare" even though she has coverage through her husband.

"I have way too many pre-existing conditions and no one would touch me with a 10-foot pole if I didn't have his coverage. I wouldn't be able to afford all the medication I need if I had to get insurance without the Affordable Care Act," she said.

Her husband doesn't think it should be mandatory, "but we just agree to disagree."

"The fact that I believe in (government-mandated) health care and he doesn't is not something I'm going to divorce him over," she said. "At the end of the day you have to realize that you love the person for things other than their political beliefs."

Are you part of a politically divided couple? How do you cope? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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