Divided by politics, united by marriage

NEED TO KNOW
  • In some couples, one is a Democrat, the other Republican
  • They bridge political gaps, but it takes skill
  • Experts explain how to survive family political divisions
You think marriage takes work? Try marriage AND politics!

You think marriage takes work? Try marriage AND politics!

Melissa Reylek-Robinson's family is put through the grinder every four years. Not because of reunions, anniversaries or in-laws' visits. It's because of elections.

"That's usually when it gears up, when everything comes to the forefront," the 34-year-old mother of two in San Diego, California, told CNN. "Election time is probably the worst time for us. We definitely get into some heated debates."

The reason: She is a Democrat, who once protested military recruitment on her high school campus. Her husband is a Baptist Republican who made a career in the Navy. And yet, they've been happily married for 14 years.

One expert said there is something exceptional about couples divided by politics who still make things work, as Reylek-Robinson and her hubby.

"These are admirable couples. It takes a lot of patience and passion and respect for the relationship, especially where large political divides exist," said etiquette expert Anna Post. "To be able to do that successfully speaks to the kind of relationship these couples have.

Read more: What we can learn from politically divided couples

So what's their secret? Post said political differences don't necessarily have to be deal-breakers, as long as you deal with them right.

She said the difference between things working smoothly and blowing up in your face is not about WHAT you disagree on, but HOW you handle it.

"It has to do with the tone of the conversation and knowing why you're having it," she said. "It's not about what the differences are. It's how you choose to bridge them that will create a problem or make things work smoothly, knowing how to have a dialogue and which boundaries not to push or cross."

Another thing that can smooth things over is a life-changing event, such as a birth in the family.

Take Janet Davis and her significant other. She is a devout Christian Republican, who lives with an Atheist Democrat. As if that wasn't pushing the envelope enough, she is a Colts fan, while he is all about the Patriots.

They used to get into each other's face over politics for years. But when a child came into the picture, they mellowed out.

"How do we do it? Very, very carefully," she said. "No one really ever wins in a battle of personal beliefs. Since the birth of our son in 2005 we are both much more respectful of each other's viewpoints," said Davis.

Marriage and family therapist Sharon Rivkin said Davis is right on the money. Rivkin said life-changing events like the birth of a child can give a couple one important thing: a perspective.

"It's such a powerful experience that's bigger than the both of them," said Rivkin, author of "Breaking the Argument Cycle." "For many people, that's when they learn to respect each other, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of what's important."

Talking about perspective, couples have a better shot at bridging the political divide if they focus on the "two," rather than "one."

"For some people, they do not feel like individuals when they become married, they become one," said psychotherapist Karen Ruskin. "But that doesn't mean you have to share one position or one philosophy. It means you take care and look out for the other person as much as yourself. You love that person as much as that person loves you."

Read more: The voters next door -- who are they?

One good example are star political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin. Their full-time job is to talk (opposite) party lines on TV, but that doesn't prevent them from being married to each other. Both of their careers have grown since they became a couple.

"Instead of seeing it as conflicting you view it from the mental framework of acceptance, accepting that we have a difference in opinions," Ruskin said. "In a healthy relationship, a difference in opinion does not define the relationship or erode it. It's another puzzle piece to fit into the relationship as a whole."

How does that acceptance work? For Reyelek-Robinson, it meant learning how to live with her husband's picture of George H.W. Bush on the wall. She calls it "the giant Bush In the room." On the other hand, he has to tolerate a fridge magnet with George W. Bush's infamous quote "Rarely is the question asked, 'Is our children learning?'" She uses that magnet to display kids' homework.

Do they still disagree? You bet!

These days, President Obama's health care reform is a political power keg waiting to go off in the house. But it's not a problem that could derail the marriage.

"The fact that I believe in [government-mandated] health care and he doesn't is not something I'm going to divorce him over," she said. "At the end of the day you have to realize that you love the person for things other than their political beliefs."

Some surveys seem to back up her approach. A poll by dating site Ourtime.com found that 62% of adults would date someone whose political ideas are the complete opposite of his/her own.

It showed that political and religious views mattered the most in the South, but least in the Northeast.

That's despite that fact that Democrats and Republicans may be looking for different things in a relationship. A Match.com survey found that Republicans more often look for someone of the same background, who is interested in marriage. Democrats tend to look for someone with a sense of humor, similar lifestyle, sense of independence and someone they can consider equal.

None of that seems to be in the way for Julie and Steve Gild, who are so divided that they have both Obama and Romney signs in their backyard near Nashville. Sometimes they tackle political differences the old-fashioned way: by the woman calling the shots.

Read more: She's voting for Romney, he's going for Obama

"Usually, when it gets really bad, I'll say, 'Do you want to be happy tonight? Then I win'," said Julie, who is a Republican.

"I am OK with that," said Steve. "I just nod my head and say, 'Yes dear'. We then put on night caps and read our books, and there we go."

The Gilds also said there is a perk to having a house split along political lines. They said their three boys became much more knowledgeable about politics by listening to their parents' debates.

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