A growing number of unhappy couples are having heated arguments about Trump versus Clinton and, as a result are now making appointments for marriage counseling. It is no surprise given that the American Psychological Association just concluded that half of U.S. adults say this election is a significant source of stress. In fact, half of the couples I counsel place political arguments at the top of their sparring list. I haven't seen this many political arguments in my 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, marriage counseling wouldn’t be needed. Here’s how I have tailored my guidance for conflict resolution skills for these couples.
The fundamental truth is that each couple has the instinctive skills to solve their own problems and cultivating and 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. The wife yells at her husband, you are an arrogant thick conservative just like your father, and the husband sneers back, it’s no wonder you support Hillary because you are both lying liberals. 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 spirals out of control. What started as a disagreement over political viewpoints is threatening the fabric of their marriage.The first priority is for me to assess their communication. I ask them to continue their argument in front of me for 20 minutes while I study their facial expressions, body language, tone and the volume of their voices. After a glimpse of their sparring style, it is time to get to work and tone down the harmful rhetoric.
These are the four 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 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? It is preferable for couples not to go to sleep angry, but resolving all differences is an unrealistic goal. Do you know what spouses should do each night? 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 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, your spouse and family.
Number 3: I insist couples understand the difference between a disagreement and an argument. Disagreements are normal and common in healthy long-lasting marriages. Arguments, especially those that are scorching, are not. I reference the indispensable research of Psychologist Dr. Jon Gottman. Gottman found that two thirds of relationship issues in normal couples are perpetual. Examples of the most common disagreements are: parenting, money, work stress, intimacy, in-laws, and household chores. In his "love lab", Gottman discovered that it is the "regulation" of conflict not the "resolution" of conflict that is critical.
Number 4: 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, or as-long-as our political views remain in-sync 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 (Professor Bill Doherty). Commitment is crucial as we humans are evolving and dynamic. Circumstances change; life happens. Just because you don’t have an in-law issue this year, doesn't mean you won’t next year. After all, your mother-in-law might move in with you. You don't argue about parenting your toddlers currently, but have you prepared yourself for adolescence? Not arguing about finances now is great, but what if you are laid off in an economic downturn?
As a 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 likely destroy your marriage. The consequences of that choice not only impacts you both but doubles 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 be the winner; the other the loser. In a scorekeeping relationship which is as common as it is detrimental, one spouse will believe that he/she is the winner of the argument. If the losing spouse rubs it in for months with quotes like I told you this is the kind of president she will be, it is a recipe for continued provocation and friction. Also, keep in mind that marriage is not a 50-50 arrangement. Do you know how to really win big? By giving more in your marriage, not by taking more.