What do money, time, sex, in-laws, the kids and politics have in common? They are the topics of the most heated arguments amongst couples. Now that elections are looming in the United States, the couples who come in to see me are adding political fighting into their already contentious environment. Read these scenarios and see if you find similarities  in your relationship--and if you can spot the underlying problem.

#1.  At a dinner party, Rob "held court" for over half an hour arguing and preaching about politics. His wife Rachel was mortified. These people were really her friends, and she thought Rob was rude to get them riled up.

#2.  Sara, after an unpleasant weekend with her parents, "lit into" her husband Sam about not taking into consideration politicians' stands on women's issues such as rape and domestic violence.

#3.  Katy hated that her partner Karl always "talked over her" about politics whenever they were with other people. 

As you probably guessed, regardless of the subject matter of your disagreements with your partner, there is an underlying emotional engine that drives these fights and keeps them revved up. 

Even though political debates may not be central to your relationship, politics can act like a giant vacuum cleaner and suck in just about any hot and on-going matter.  So what is the secret to peaceful co-existence in couples such as Mary Matalin and James Carville who have opposing viewpoints?   Here are some tips for dealing with political differences--and almost any other explosive issue.

1.  Act with respect. In the first and third scenario above, Rachel and Katy both regarded their partners behavior as disrespectful to them. The women felt under-valued and over-looked. The primary rule in getting others to listen to you is to treat them with civility. Rudeness, raised voices and prevention of others from getting a word in edge-wise broadcast the speaker's lack of maturity. Explain this concept to your partner. After all, risking being labeled immature is exactly the opposite of what a conversation-hog wants to achieve.

Realize, too, that political views, like religious beliefs, are highly emotionally-charged. Their roots originate in family and life experiences and provide personal meaning--all the more reason to act with respect.

2. Find the engine behind the issue. When disagreements about anything last too long, get too intense or happen too often, you can bet that the argument is about a deeper emotional matter. In the second scenario, Sara was reeling from negative feelings and memories from her childhood. Her unloving parents didn't celebrate her educational and career accomplishments and often complained that she "should just concentrate on having children."

Sometimes, you don't realize that a political argument can activate left-over feelings from your past.  When an issue gets too out of control, apply this guide:  Begin by stepping back in your mind and getting into self-discovery mode. Now ask yourself:

  • When have I felt like this before?
  • Which family member or situation does this current situation remind me of?
  • What is going on in my life recently that might make me more emotionally reactive?

The connections between past and present can help you calm down.

3. Develop empathy. Just as you might be arguing about your hidden issues, your partner might be doing the same thing. Learn more about how your partner developed his or her world-view. Did something happen in your partner's life to solidify beliefs?  Wouldn't you want your partner to be considerate of your views? In a public place such as a restaurant, ask your partner to explain how his or her opinions developed. Sometimes, we are not aware of the history and formation of our values.  Also--just to throw in a wrench--some scientists found that a genetic pre-disposition exists for personality aspects such as shyness, leadership--and even political leanings.

4. Forget about "winning" and instead be in charge of your own education--and only yours. Have you ever tried to convince someone of something--and failed?  Usually, arguing prompts the person to solidify their position. You can't teach a closed mind. Instead of preaching and pounding ideas into another person, offer instead a mix of articles or books. Tell the person you'll be happy to swap your reactions.  Of course, the other person rarely will take you up on your suggestion, and this reluctance is a big, flashing warning light that he or she is more interested in winning rather than learning. 

Get yourself in learning mode, too, and listen to another. Here's an interesting take: Why don't you act as though you and your partner are a pair of political sleuths. Your mission is to learn more about the topic from different viewpoints. 

Finally, resist the temptation to "beat your opponent."Making your goal to win only makes you look like an insecure, angry and disrespectful jerk.

5. Celebrate differences and don't trounce on them! Learn from each other, value each other's contribution. Mutually happy couples who have been together for a long time report that their different styles and views added richness to the relationship. Each person said that they grew and matured from learning from their partner. Love is not a contest of wills, and love can only grow in a welcoming environment.