“Shortly after the election is when I became aware of it,” says Lois Brenner, a New York–based divorce attorney. “People were thinking about splitting up their marriages because of political differences.” She’d never encountered this before, but she’s since found herself litigating two such divorces. “After people got over their shock,” she says, “they started arguing.”
By now it’s a truism to point out that the election of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement have prompted a wholesale realignment of American politics. But it’s also sent shock waves through heterosexual romance.
Donald Trump and the Republican Party have plenty of female supporters, of course, especially among white women. But politically speaking, as evidenced by the recent midterms, there is an undeniable, and growing, gender divide in American politics: In 2018, almost 60 percent of female voters supported Democrats, compared to 47 percent of male voters — outpacing the gap in other recent elections. What can make matters unworkable for couples whose viewpoints aren’t aligned, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies at Evergreen State College, is that Americans have become increasingly contemptuous of those who hold different positions on divisive political issues — and contempt is singularly destructive for long-term relationships. “Mary Matalin and James Carville,” says Coontz. “How the hell do they make it work?”
Many people with divergent perspectives from their partners have not been able to make it work in the Trump era. A Reuters/Ipsos poll completed in early 2017 found that in the months following Trump’s election win, 13 percent of 6,426 participants had cut ties with a friend or family member over political differences. This past summer, another survey of 1,000 people found that a third declared the same. More generally, 29 percent of respondents to a May 2017 survey said their romantic relationship had been negatively affected by Trump’s presidency. And even people ostensibly on the same side of the issues as their partner have run into challenges, with the climate exacerbating or revealing new fault lines. Herewith, two couples, and four individual women — all except the final pair using pseudonyms — talk about how conflict over politics is testing, or even ending, their relationships.
“Kristen,” St. Louis, Missouri, 56
Growing up, my parents were very liberal. My dad’s gay, he’s been with his husband now for over 40 years. That was my normal. My mom remarried a guy who’s very liberal. I was taught that everybody is equal. But when I was at school, I heard the N-word dropped. I heard Jewish people spoken of very negatively. My step-dad’s family was Jewish. So what do you do? You kind of laugh it off to fit in. In high school, I also had a major drinking problem, but I got great grades so I could fly under the radar. Fast-forward, I was an art major at this big university where I really didn’t fit in. All these girls had curling irons and were rushing sororities, but again I didn’t want to rock the boat. So I just kept partying more. Then at the end of the year, I was raped at a fraternity house and didn’t say anything about it.
So I go home and I meet this guy. I’ll call him Geoffrey. He was a big Republican, and I wasn’t, but he was also a big drinker, like me. We started dating. It was a kind of revenge, that I could get a guy like the guy who raped me — I could get him to be nice to me. Looking back, it was all very strange. But then [Geoffrey and I broke up], and I got married and then had my son, and that relationship lasted for about 14 years. After we got divorced, I got sober, and then in 2010, I found Geoffrey on Facebook. It looked like he was single and had grown up a lot, and we started talking. We had a good time together. I didn’t really want to get married again, but I didn’t want to make anybody mad. So I said, “Sure, let’s get married.”
When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, it was a wake-up call. I couldn’t believe that the cops left his body lying on the road for hours. I also felt embarrassed that this was the first time I was seeing this. Where the hell had I been? I never went to the protests, though, because Geoffrey didn’t want me to. And instead of saying, “Screw you,” I said, “I’ll protest in my heart” — some stupid shit. That was when I started feeling resentment.
I don’t think Geoffrey voted for Trump. But he might have voted for John Kasich or Jeb Bush. I think they’re all idiots. But I didn’t get involved in the Hillary campaign. I just knew she’d win. So when she didn’t, I fell into this black hole. Then in January 2017, I was watching Rachel Maddow, and this guy Ezra Levin popped up, explaining how he and a bunch of ex-congressional staffers had put together a manifesto about how to talk to congresspeople. I thought, Shit, it’s a workbook and I’ve always been good at workbooks. So I started a group called Indivisible St. Louis. I think Geoffrey figured it would be like the needlepoint pillow I never finished. But we started having these meetings. We decided to have a march to protest this Muslim ban. All of a sudden, I was in charge of a march for 1,000 people. I bought poster board, we made signs in Starbucks. The day of the march, I said to Geoffrey, “Hey, come with me.” He said, “No, that’s okay — how much money did you spend on that poster board?”
I was really energized. The people I was meeting were so bright and interesting. The world opened up. I thought, Oh my God, I’ve got so much reading to do. Every week I was also going to [Missouri] Senator Roy Blunt’s office with a group of people. I took a class called Witnessing Whiteness and realized that racism is at the core of the problem of this country and that the only thing I can do is be an ally and show up and shut up. Geoffrey never went to one rally or meeting. He just didn’t care. When I left for a protest after [former St. Louis police officer] Jason Stockley wasn’t indicted for murdering another African-American kid, Geoffrey was like, “Have fun!” It was so tone-deaf.
Things started falling apart at home. Then a girlfriend of mine got cancer, and I realized if I got cancer, I would’ve lived my whole life pretending to be something I’m not. All of a sudden, I thought, I can’t be married anymore. There’s no time for complicity. There’s just none.
Geoffrey was absolutely shocked. He said, “Are you 1,000 percent certain?” I said, “I am.” I told him I really wanted to work on making the world a better place, and I didn’t feel I could do that within the confines of our marriage. He downloaded a divorce agreement, and we went to the notary public at the UPS store. The music playing — get this — was “Landslide,” by Fleetwood Mac, and “White Wedding,” by Billy Idol. I left feeling free, like in high school when your parents are out of town. I’d found a passion and wanted to spend all of my free time doing it. And that’s exactly what has happened.
It’s kind of sad, that in this horrible time I found myself, but I’m also grateful, both for what I had with Geoffrey and for where it allowed me to end up. Finally, I’m the feminist I should have always been.
“Sarah,” Southwest, 30s
My husband and I got married a year after we met. Eventually, we landed in the Southwest, where we have family. Our lives weren’t any kind of fairy tale, but it was a normal life. Where we both agree is the problems — the kind that make you think you need to separate — began after the 2016 election, when I ramped up my political activism.
What’s funny is talking about the Trump election makes me more emotional than the end of my marriage. I’d been drinking the data Kool-Aid on how utterly unavoidable Clinton’s win was, and I volunteered to be an election-site partner. I was going to be part of the process that elected the first woman president! This is so dorky, but I even wore white in honor of the suffragettes. By the time I walked out of the polling center, though, Donald Trump was the presumptive winner. It was crushing.
Through grad school I’d been busy, but I was still around for dinner. I’d still sit on the couch and binge-watch TV. After the election, though, the moment our kids were in bed I’d hop on the computer, or on the phone. Politically my husband and I are completely aligned, but he was lonely. He felt I was always gone, and even when I was there, I was preoccupied. Whereas our kids don’t feel this as much. They often come with me and have tons of little activist kid friends. They know all the other activist women’s dog’s names. They know we go to basketball some nights and other nights to rallies or politicians’ offices.
That’s not how my husband wants to spend his time. He’d say, “Yeah, I love a strong woman. Everything she’s doing is badass, I’m super-proud of her. But I want her to do less of it.” For me, the fact that he’s so uninterested in what I’m doing has fundamentally changed the way I see our partnership.
My husband’s in the military and has had two wartime deployments, and afterward we went to counseling — as is fairly common, it took some time for him to acclimate into civilian life — but we haven’t even talked about trying that now. I think we understand this is an essential disconnect. It’s down to the core of who we are. And I don’t have a problem with who I am. It breaks my heart whenever he says he’s lonely. But again, I’m like, You don’t have to be lonely if you want to put up street signs with me.
Part of it is that he has the perspective that this too shall pass. In my opinion, that comes from the privilege he has as a white male Protestant. But I have family members who are Muslim, so when the Muslim ban happened, that was a direct rejection of my family and friends. And of course the same is true for sexual abuse and threats to reproductive freedoms. Also, the activism I do is very gendered. Again, I’d describe my husband as a feminist, but he doesn’t want to be the only dude in the room. Which bleeds into why I’ve never thought, Maybe I should just stop all this and save my marriage. That would teach our kids something I don’t want to teach them. It almost feels like the 2018 version of the woman who gives up her career to stay home.
He does take care of our children so that I can be at a political meeting until 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight, and he sees that as him putting skin in the game. That is absolutely true, but it doesn’t feel like enough, especially with our military background. I’m like, Dude, during your deployments I was a single parent — he met our first child when he was just a few months old, and left again when our second was super-young — and I didn’t consider that anything special. But he finds that offensive, especially because he knows a lot of guys who don’t pitch in at home at all. He’s better than them, so he feels like the amount of support I want is beyond the pale.
We now talk very openly about how this is probably not a sustainable life. We’re trying to look at what it would mean to be good parents and friends but not partners. That’s a regular post-kid-bedtime conversation in our house.
“Samantha and John,” both 50, New York City
Samantha: We’ve been married 25 years, and we’re both lefties, and he thinks Trump is as much of a blight on the world as I do. But throughout the hiring of the Steve Mnuchins of world, the white privileged men, and with every single Cabinet member and Jared Kushner and Ivanka, he had much less rage than I did. Eventually he was like, “We can’t go to bed talking about them and wake up in the morning with you still spewing about them.”
I’ve worked in Hollywood for 20 years, since back when sexual harassment was something people laughed at, and as a woman in that industry, I’ve experienced a lot of sexism; I’ve seen racism. Now I see ageism. It’s infuriating. So there’s a fair amount of anger that’s grown over the years, and that is definitely my de facto mode. I am trying to get rid of it through therapy. I don’t particularly think it’s healthy. But he has much less understanding about where all this comes from. For him, it’s a huge learning curve. It hasn’t broken up our marriage. But the rage that I feel, the toxicity I exhibit is something he often doesn’t understand.
I’d told him some of my stories about harassment, but when the Harvey Weinstein stuff started coming out, I told him more. I know he feels bad about the things I’ve been through. It’s more a global understanding he lacks. With #MeToo, for example, my feeling was, Let them all go down. He said, “You see no gray area in this?” And I said, “I don’t.” But he went to private school in New York City and then to Yale. There’s been a certain ease through life that I haven’t had. I grew up upper-middle class, so I’m not someone who was fighting their way through life, but I also went to an anti-Semitic public high school in Pittsburgh where I was called “kike.” I think that fans the flames of rage. Though I should add he takes my constant rage with a sense of humor. If he took it personally, he’d probably be reduced to a little nub.
With Brett Kavanaugh, the first thing he said about him, before any of the allegations, was that they were once on a panel at some alumni thing and that he seemed like a nice guy, which of course started a fight. I said, “A nice guy based on what?” Everyone is a nice guy. And then at first, when Dr. Ford came forward, his reaction had an element of “Boys will be boys” and, you know, “It was 30-something years ago.” Even after Debbie Ramirez came forward, he was like, “Do you still think he could change after college?” I was like, “No.” At each stage, he’s had to reassess his feelings. And at each stage we have yet another argument.
Part of what causes fights is that I don’t want to hear his side, and he hates that. Mostly I tell him he needs to think about this more clearly before he talks to me about it, and then I walk away. I’ve heard his side for 30 years. I’m ready to hear new points of view. Change can’t happen if we keep talking about excusing behavior.
John: Pre-Trump, we got into it now and then, probably on something about women’s reproductive rights. But it was a fraction of what’s happened since. Back then, Samantha was also much, much, much less engaged in political and civic life. She’s gone from zero to 60. And while I think I hate Trump as much as she does, Samantha is much angrier and almost more obsessed with it. The flip side is it’s also given her a new community and some new projects that have been meaningful to her.
It’s friendly differences; other than that, it’s also deadly serious. When I talk about things like Brett Kavanaugh, for example, I have a far less innately insane — well, not insane — passionately hostile reaction to him than she does. I knew she was foaming at the mouth about him even before Dr. Ford came forward. I saw him a year and a half ago on a reunion panel where he seemed downright avuncular. It made me think as long as we’re getting a right-wing asshole Republican judge, he seemed less crazy than the next candidate could be. If I had any chip against him, it was that he wrote the Starr Report. But for Samantha, with Dr. Ford’s testimony, she immediately saw it as disqualifying.
It’s not like beforehand I was Attila the Hun. Because sexism hasn’t impacted my career in the same way, though, sometimes Samantha and I will see things differently. She looks back and she’s pissed that there haven’t been more women running Hollywood, or about what should have been, could have been, though I don’t believe she has really suffered that much in terms of sexual harassment.
I think a healthy marriage requires being deaf a little bit, and definitely a little bit of, Yes, dear. If I were to say something like, “Is it really disqualifying that Brett Kavanaugh was so drunk he took his pants off in front of Debbie Ramirez as a college freshman?” we’d really get into it. So that’s a good time to say, Yes, dear. The way I see it — and I don’t share this with her — is that sometimes she goes overboard in a way that she begins to lose credibility. A few times during the hearings, she’d refer to Kavanaugh as a rapist. I’d say, “He’s not a rapist.” But I don’t get any points in my marriage for pointing that out.
“Elizabeth,” 50, Surprise, Arizona
My husband and I met when we were 13 and literally grew up together. Our backgrounds are pretty different. I’m Anglo and he’s Hispanic and has family who are not legal. I also grew up more upper class, and he grew up poor economically. We’re both registered Democrats, but honestly he’s apolitical. If it weren’t for me saying when we both got driver’s licenses, “You will register to vote,” he wouldn’t have registered. We’ve now been married 25 years, and for most of it, we subscribed to the idea that you don’t talk about politics and religion around the dinner table. My husband would say, “Don’t talk about politics, I don’t care.” I’d say, “What do you mean you don’t care?” I think it comes down to how we were raised. My parents always told me, “If you don’t like something, do something.” But with his parents, it was like, “Oh well, there’s nothing we can do.”
He’s a high-school physical-education teacher, and one day before the teachers’ walkout where we live, he came home and said this walkout is real, it’s happening. I thought, Oh shit. How long will this go on? Is it going to impact his paycheck? Enough of being this nice wife who will go along to get along. After that, I was at the capitol every day; I was posting on social media. My first public Facebook post about politics, I immediately got hacked and got death threats. He was like, “That’s what you get for getting involved.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’m doing this for your job!” Another of our things is I’d be on my way out the door and I’d say, “Get the bail money ready.” He’d say, “You can make yourself look a fool and get yourself on the news if you want, but I’m not bailing you out of jail.”
He was also annoyed I wasn’t doing as much stuff around the house. I’ve been disabled for six years, so I’ve been able to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day and keep a clean house. He’s gotten spoiled. We went through a really, really tough time. We got to where he’d come home and go into the bedroom and slam the door. I’d sit on couch in living room and obsessively watch Rachel Maddow.
The tipping point came after my daughter was sexually assaulted. Afterward, I didn’t want her to leave the house. I was obsessing about it. So I put myself in counseling and realized something I’d suppressed, which is that when I was 16, I had a date-rape situation and that doing politics was a way to take back my power. Finally I asked my husband if he’d go to one of my counseling sessions with me, and I explained how important all this is to me and why. And since I love him and he loves me, it was a matter of him understanding that. Now he’s getting more informed. He’ll see things about border security in particular that he knows aren’t true — his grandmother’s house literally faces the border — and I’ll say, “Do you want the data to combat it?” It’s still a balancing act, but at least he gets it. He grumbles when he helps me put the yard signs in the car, but afterward he asks how it went.
“Betsy,” Brooklyn, 52
I’ve been sexually assaulted and raped, but for a long time I didn’t identify in that way. I didn’t like the idea of seeing myself as a victim. It’s only recently, with the amount of coverage [sexual assault has been getting] that I’ve realized, Oh, if I verbally dissented, just because I didn’t fight someone off doesn’t mean I wasn’t assaulted and raped.
My husband and I have been together 14 years and I’ve mentioned it vaguely, but I’ve never given him details, partly because one of the guys is still in my life, and they’re kind of friends. Frankly, I’m also afraid he’d see it more from the boys’ point of view. When things come up, like with Garrison Keillor or John Hockenberry, I think there is a part of him that thinks it could have been misconstrued flirting. He often is empathetic for the guys. And I have a lot more empathy for women.
Recently we had some friends over for dinner, and we had an argument about whether this kind of trial by mob that’s happened in the press is unfair. My friends, a man and a woman, took the position that a man shouldn’t have his reputation ruined because of an allegation. I disagreed, and as the conversation kept going, I got upset. Finally I said that it’s obvious none of them had been sexually assaulted, and I think that the statistics bear out that women never get due process when they’ve accused someone. My line is, cultural change is like a steamroller. It flattens distinctions, and some people will get hurt, and I’m okay with that.
Later my husband told me he thought my intellectual points were good, but he didn’t respond to the emotional outburst I had. I think it’s hard for him to see me hurt, so he tries to intellectualize it. But really, I wish he would feel like, Fuck those guys. I want to punch them. How dare somebody treat the woman I love like this? I hate that happened to you. That’s what I’m looking for.
My husband doesn’t really know how to support me in this moment. It’s easier to sort things out with girlfriends who’ve had similar experiences. But it’s also weird to be going through your day holding back tears or texting frantically with girlfriends and to not talk about that with the person you live with. He just doesn’t seem like the right person, though. I mean, I wrote to the man who assaulted me, the one who’s still in our lives. He said he didn’t remember, and that it turned his stomach to think I’d been carrying around this thought about him, but he fell short of accepting responsibility. I wasn’t going to share that with my husband; I don’t think he can understand. But it also seems like I’ve set the stage so there’s eventually going to be a big reveal — and my husband better respond correctly. We’re going to go to counseling to address it.
Craig Lambert, 62, and Debbie Seid, 61, San Diego, California
Craig: Debbie and I met through JDate about three years ago. She’s a hypnotherapist and life coach and I’m a couple’s therapist, so we do workshops together, but the thing that drew me to her was that we had this synergy as far as lightness and humor. I’d been married twice before, and this was one of first times in my life that we laughed all the time.
I’m very liberal, but it was only during the election period that I realized we were on opposite ends of the spectrum. My first response was shock, and then there were a lot of emotions — anger and sadness and lots of judgment.
Debbie: The fact that I wasn’t liberal, while his whole family and friend circle is — it was like, wow. I’m not far right by any means, so it wasn’t that much of a difference, but in their minds it was.
Craig: Neither of us are very sophisticated in our knowledge or debate skills, but initially I tried very hard to discuss politics. One of big turning points with me was when Trump offended John McCain. That was a huge argument, and I felt very self-righteous. Also, as a therapist, I’m able to diagnose people using the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders, and I’m comfortable believing Donald Trump has narcissistic personality disorder. I’d often fall back on that. When I was feeling very triggered, the racism card came up. And then the whole “Grab them by the pussy” thing. What became clear is that she was looking at policy, and I was looking at behavior. And she was able to look past behavior and I was not.
Debbie: I felt Trump was passionate about accomplishing an agenda, and that Hillary was coming more from her ego, like she just wanted to be the first female president and this historical person. If it’s a choice between Trump and Hillary, it’s a no-brainer for me, and that started a divide, because Craig was like, “I can’t believe you’re going to vote for that man.” And once Trump won, whenever something would happen, Craig would be like, “How do you feel about your decision now?”
Craig: The night of the election we weren’t together, but afterward, it became pretty rough. I was trying to resolve whether I could marry and live with a person who supports somebody like that. I was looking at our values, basically. Even though I am a relationship therapist, it became difficult to apply the skills I’d learned in my training. And I wasn’t the only couple’s therapist struggling with this. I practice Imago therapy — it involves a process called intentional dialogue, in which two people reflect back what they hear their partner saying. Right after the election, I was at a conference for other Imago therapists, and there were some significant arguments between people not able to use their tools. Here we were, a few hundred relationship therapists, and it got nasty, like there were a lot of put-downs. So some of the master therapists agreed to do an intervention — imagine a huge room, and everyone sitting or standing around two therapists, a man and a woman who didn’t know each other but had been having a significant argument about politics. It went beautifully; there were tears everywhere. Seeing that gave me great hope for me and Debbie.
A few months after the election, we both decided, Let’s stop watching news and stop talking about this until we can calm down. Debbie also taught me a term that helped put things into perspective — confirmation bias. I began to recognize my own blind spots and that I was not allowing Debbie to feel safe with her perspective. When she started to talk, I’d cut her off and try to make my point. But as I started to practice deep listening, she began to feel less judged. And actually we began to have a deeper connection. We got married last January.
Debbie: Craig wasn’t sure if he could do this. But I didn’t feel that way. It’s not that I don’t hold my beliefs, strongly in some cases, but Craig is more passionate about all of it. As we listened to each other and listened to each other’s news stations, though, I think we understood the other person’s views better. I might not agree, but I get where you’re coming from.
Craig’s also been able to see liberals being pretty disrespectful about my voting for Trump. We went on a group tour and became quite close with another couple. One night at dinner she was going on and on about “these Republicans,” and Craig said, “Before you go much further, you might want to know that Debbie voted for Trump.” She gave me this amazing look of disgust and said, “I thought everybody on the trip was vetted.” The rest of the night she was very cold. Since I’m not a racist and all these awful things, Craig has realized the generalizations people make about Trump supporters are not true.
Craig: Let me make it clear, though. I still dislike Trump and his administration tremendously. The only thing different is that I allow our perspectives to coexist safely, even though it’s difficult sometimes. Have you ever heard of the poet Rumi? He says something like, “Out beyond right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” I love that.