New psychology research indicates “there is hope for couples who are feeling the effects of political polarization.”
The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, suggests that increasing relationship maintenance behaviors can decrease the perceived stress and conflict between partners who voted differently in the 2016 presidential election.
“I became interested in the topic because I just developed a new theory called the Theory of Resilience and Relational Load that I was starting to test and this was the perfect context in which to test it,” said study author Tamara D. Afifi, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara.
“I was also teaching a graduate class on Stress and Communication at the time and all of the graduate students were stressed because of the election of Donald Trump, which happened during the class. We decided to turn the stress into a class project.”
In the study, 961 married or cohabitating individuals completed three online surveys between January 7, 2017 and February 21, 2017, during the transition to the Trump presidency.
Of the sample, 42% reported voting for Hillary Clinton, 32% reported voting for Donald Trump, and the remainder reported voting for third party candidates.
Most of the participants (65%) said that their partner voted for the same candidate as they did, and these participants tended to report significantly less election-related stress and less conflict compared to those who reported that their partner voted differently from themselves.
“If couples vote dramatically different from each other today, it can be stressful and conflict inducing and affect their feelings of communal orientation or unity in their relationship. This can negatively impact the degree to which they invest in their relationship,” Afifi told PsyPost.
The researchers found that ongoing relationship maintenance predicted less perceived stress about the Trump presidency and less conflict. Participants also reported feeling a stronger bond with their partner and felt more able to successfully resolve differences when they had higher levels of relationship maintenance.
Relationship maintenance includes behaviors such as complimenting one’s partner, being physically affectionate, having dinner together, saying “thank you,” and doing something thoughtful for one’s partner.
“Couples who actively maintain their relationship are better able to ‘weather the storm’ of the election because it builds up positive emotions in the relationship that protect the relationship during difficult times. So, even if you vote differently, if you are actively maintaining your relationship, it can help keep you feeling emotionally connected to each other and reduce the propensity for stress and conflict,” Afifi explained.
But there is still a lot we do not know about how political polarization influences romantic relationships.
“Even though this study was longitudinal, we need a much longer time period to assess the notion of relational load or the wear and tear that chronic conflict and stress have on romantic relationships,” Afifi said.
The study, “Explaining the impact of differences in voting patterns on resilience and relational load in romantic relationships during the transition to the Trump presidency“, was authored by Tamara D. Afifi, Nicole Zamanzadeh, Kathryn Harrison, and Debora Perez Torrez.