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The Red-Blue Divide: Politics in Your Relationships

image source: washingtonpost.com

Throughout the United States, talk of current events and the upcoming Presidential election seems more rampant than Pokemon Go players moving about. The political climate can feel more heated than a scorching August afternoon. Many Americans are divided along political lines. In fact, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, more people embracing strongly polarized political beliefs report fear of or anger toward those with opposing views than ever before (since this question has first been scientifically polled in 1992).¹  Similarly, polarized political differences in opinion between members of a romantic relationship exist. If you are someone who feels strongly about your political viewpoints, imagine what it might be like to have a partner with opposite political opinions during this heated time. How much does this divide matter, and what are people’s ideal preferences for choosing a romantic partner when it comes to political ideology?

Does love trump the divide?

Perhaps there will soon be more scientific data on this topic in the future, particularly as it relates to the 2016 election. In the meantime, however, we can gain insight into the role of politics in relationships this question by looking at recent data looking at how strongly political attitudes and beliefs impact idealized partner selection. In 2014, Pew conducted a telephone survey about political polarization, calling over ten thousand randomly selected US adults and asking them to endorse statements that matched their political beliefs.² Each statement represented a value/ belief that represented either a Conservative (e.g. “Homosexuality should be discouraged by society”) or Liberal stance (e.g. “Homosexuality should be accepted by society”). The summed score of the respondent ratings to these statements constituted the respondent’s Conservative/Liberal score. Based on their score, respondents were considered either “Consistently conservative”, “Mostly conservative”, “Mixed”, “Mostly liberal”, or “Consistently liberal”.

Respondents of this “Political Polarization of the American Public” survey also answered a series of lifestyle-related questions, including questions about selecting a romantic partner. Specifically, they were asked, “How happy would you be if someone in your immediate family married a Republican/ Democrat?”

What did they find? Overall, only 9% of respondents would be unhappy if an immediate family member were to marry a Republican, and 8% would be unhappy if an immediate family member were to marry a Democrat. This sentiment changes, however, for respondents who are more ideological in their beliefs. For those “Consistently conservative” and “Mostly conservative”, nearly half of respondents reported they would be unhappy about the prospect of welcoming a Democrat into their family (30% and 15%, respectively). Nearly one-third of Liberals reported that they would be unhappy about their family member marrying a Republican (23% of “Consistent liberals” and 8% of “Mostly liberal”).³ Thus, these findings suggest that while most respondents are comfortable with political diversity in their households, this is less often the case for those with polarized political views.

It’s a heated time, but can relationships stand the heat?

To answer the question of whether politically divided relationships can survive election season, we need to make inferences from data assessing related questions, because there is not direct data on this question. Topic for which there is ample data include how frequency politics is discussed by politically-inclined individuals and the political ideology of close friends. Additional Pew Political Polarization survey questions investigated both of these topics.

While in a non-presidential election cycle, the survey found that Republicans talk about politics more frequently than do Democrats, on average. Nearly half (49%) of Republicans and 39% of Democrats discuss politics at least a few times a week. Not surprisingly, political discussions are considerably even more common among those with ideologically consistent views, for both Liberals and Conservatives. Over half (69% of “consistent conservatives” and 59% of “consistent liberals”) talk about politics a few times a week or more. Thus, there is frequent political talk among individuals with stronger views.

Not surprisingly, having a high frequency of political discussions is related to partisanship in friendships. Regardless of political affiliation, people with a consistent ideology are more likely to seek out others who share their viewpoints. Of those who are “consistently conservative”, 63% report that most of their close friends share their political views, 30% report that some of their friends share their views while many do not, and 7% do not know what their friends think about politics. The pattern is similar (though not as large) for those who are “consistently liberal;”  49% of consistent liberals report that most of their close friends share their political views, 39% report that some of their friends share their views while many do not, and 12% do not know what their friends think about politics. 

Of course, time will tell as to whether politically polarized relationships can weather the heat of this election. The odds suggest that if a couple has thrived in spite of their divide to this point, this is a good sign! If you’re in a relationship with someone whose political views can be described as polar opposite from your own, we certainly hope you are weathering the heat OK!




Dr. Marni Amsellem

Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis) is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology. She is a research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, as well as a practitioner. Her research interests include how physical health and health-related behaviors affect individuals and their relationships, and vice versa. You can reach her via twitter @smartpsychreads.


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