A growing number of unhappy couples are having heated arguments about Clinton versus Trump and now making appointments for marriage counseling. It is no surprise given that the APA just concluded half of U.S. adults say this election is a significant source of stress. In fact, half of the couples that I counsel place political arguments at the top of their sparring list. Let me describe how I have tailored my guidance for conflict resolution skills for these couples.
First off, I insist that couples understand the difference between disagreements and arguments. Disagreements are normal and plentiful in healthy long-lasting marriages. Arguments, especially those that are fiery, are not. Disagreements between parents do not adversely affect children. It's actually beneficial for children to see their own parents modeling a realistic picture of marriage so they can internalize those skills for their own marriages later on. It is not good for children to be raised in high-conflict marriages.
Next, I refer to the indispensable research of Dr. Jon Gottman with each couple. Gottman found that two thirds of relationship issues in normal couples are perpetual (Oy!). Examples of the most common disagreements are: childrearing, finances, intimacy, in-laws, and household chores. In his "love lab" Gottman discovered that these issues will never be resolved and that really doesn't matter. It is the "regulation" of conflict not the "resolution" of conflict that matters.
I haven't seen this many political arguments in my whole career as a couple’s therapist. There has not been so much dissatisfaction and stress as with presidential candidates Trump and Clinton. The problem is not as simple as spouses stating, let's just agree to disagree. If it were that simple, marriage counseling would not be needed.
The fundamental truth is that each couple has the instinctive skills to solve their own problems and cultivating/nurturing those skills may be my most important role as a therapist. It is imperative to change the habitual patterns of unfair arguments. Most couples know how to de-escalate as well as how to escalate a disagreement. These Clinton/Trump disagreements turn into raging arguments that go for weeks and escalate at the risk of causing long-term damage. When the wife says to her husband, you are an arrogant thick conservative just like your father, and the husband says to me, Dr. Singer it’s no wonder my wife supports Hillary because they are both lying liberals, they need marital triage, fast. When she shouts, he is insane and I don't know how I ever married him and they question each other's character, the situation is spiraling out of control. What started as a disagreement over political viewpoints is threatening the fabric of their marriage.
The first priority for me is to assess their communication as best I can in a short time span. I ask them to continue their argument in front of me for 20 minutes while I study their facial expressions, body language, tone and volume of their voices. After a glimpse of their sparring style, it is time to get to work and tone down the rhetoric.
These are the treatment steps that seem to be most helpful:
Number 1: Teach couples how to de-escalate by calling a time-out when things get heated and they both get flooded. A time-out can’t be for five quick minutes because that is not enough time to calm down. Try an hour or a day or a week or just table the whole discussion and lock it in a cabinet. If the couple doesn’t calm down quickly and speak in a normal tone of voice, I apply some pressure by asking, you have ten years invested in your marriage and two children and you are ready to flush it down the drain for political differences? Last, who dreamed up that you have to resolve all your marital differences before bedtime each night? Do you know what spouses need to do each night? They need to express respect, affection, and appreciation to each other. Tomorrow is another day.
Number 2: I re-focus the couple back to the topic of politics and not each other's character. I establish a new ground rule: no personal attacks on your spouse in any shape or form. Otherwise this “external” conflict devolves into an “internal” struggle. Keep it on the outside; keep it external. It cannot be allowed into the inner sanctum where you store feelings, emotions, hopes, and dreams for you and spouse, your family, and your community.
Number 3: I remind each couple of the marital commitment they made in front of family, friends, and God. It is not a commitment "as-long-as" the love is strong, intimacy is passionate, and you remain a Democrat. Rather it is a commitment “no- matter-what”. Too often these days, commitments are like Velcro, it holds well but is easy to pull apart (Dr. Bill Doherty). Commitment is crucial as we humans are evolving and dynamic beings. Remember the common arenas of marital conflict? Circumstances change; life happens. Just because you don’t have an in-law issue this year, doesn't mean your mother-in-law might not move in with you next year. You don't argue about child-rearing with your toddlers currently, but have you prepared yourselves for them as adolescents? Not arguing about finances now is great, but what if you are laid off in an economic downturn?
Number 4: The Last Resort. I give couples an ultimatum that they must tone down the rhetoric, halt the character attacks, and start repairing immediately. I don't have a crystal ball, but I will predict that if you both continue down this road you will very likely destroy your marriage. The consequences of that choice not only impacts you both but will double the chances that your children will get divorced.
Final note: This is a disagreement that will not end on November 8 with the presidential election. One candidate will win the other will lose. In a “scorekeeping relationship”, which is both common and destructive, one spouse will believe that he or she has “won” the argument. And if the losing spouse rubs it in for years with quotes like See I told you that this is the kind of president she will be, it is a recipe for continued provocation and strife.
Don't be under the misimpression that marriage is a 50-50 arrangement; it's not. Do you know how to really win big? By giving more in your marriage, not by taking more.