“Because the difference between a friend and a real friend is that you and the real friend come from the same territory, of the same place deep inside you, and that means you see the world in the same kind of way. You know each other even before you do.” –Laura Pritchett, Sky Bridge
Do you know who Mary Matalin and James Carville are? Even if the names don’t ring a bell, if you have watched a political show in the last 30 years or so, you have probably seen one of the two as a guest commentator defending their political party and/or bashing the other party. Mary has been a top Republican operative and advisor to President Reagan and both Presidents Bush. James, meanwhile, has been a leading Democratic strategist and frequent ridiculer of all things Republican. They have been against each other in elections going back to the first Bush vs. Clinton in 1992. Their views, seemingly, could not be more opposite. They are like oil and water. So, what binds them? They are married! Yes, married. What? How does that even happen? More importantly, can it survive?
Lately I have been thinking a lot about relationships and how people with very different outlooks can co-exist. Well, it is more than co-exist; we all should be able to do that. I’m thinking more about people who are married, people who are the best of friends, who talk about everything. How could they be true to their beliefs—and openly speak about them with their spouses—without stirring up an absolute firestorm in their own home?
We all figure out a way to get through our days more or less peacefully with our neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances. That way is called denial, a.k.a. compartmentalization. Simply put, we choose to not address the topics that might make us dislike each other. Everybody knows the old adage that the two topics that are off-limits at dinner parties (or most anywhere else) are religion and politics. It’s really just an energy-saving strategy. After all, life would be a constant challenge—even more than it already is—if we had a beef with just about everybody we crossed paths with in our day.
You don’t want to know that Sally from across the street would condemn you to rot with Satan for eternity because you are pro-choice, and you don’t want to know that Jim in the next cubicle thinks that all Muslims are terrorists. They, meanwhile, would rather not know that you voted for marriage equality and stricter gun laws. They don’t want to know because they actually like you in your current, bland package. They think you are a swell neighbor and co-worker because you regularly return Sally’s dog when it runs away, and you cover for Jim when he is late. If they knew what you believed and you knew what they believed—and worse, if you continued to talk about it the way we talk about sports or the weather—the everyday, friendly banter would soon disappear. Tension and arguments would become the norm. The neighborhood and the workplace would lose their welcoming feel. So, we avoid those topics. We deny in order to keep the peace. It is simple self-preservation.
But what about at home? What about when we are hanging with our very best friends? How about just with our spouse, the one who has sworn to love us for better or for worse? Can we finally be honest about our beliefs then, or are we still forced into silence to keep the peace? Surely we are free to speak our Truth at home to a welcoming, supportive audience. Right?
What do couples do who hold polar opposite viewpoints on key political or religious matters? How do Mary Matalin and James Carville thrive and fully support each other in their marriage when their politics are so different? Aren’t politics basically an outward expression of one’s values and beliefs? And if so, how can people with such different politics be each other’s best friend and biggest fan? I am having a hard time seeing how it works. I honestly don’t think I could do it.
This issue exposes one of my biggest flaws as a human being. I am oversensitive to the point of being unable to stomach being around people whose views differ too widely from mine. I don’t tolerate disagreement well at all. I just don’t get over it. I don’t move on. When someone’s character traits or values reveal themselves to me in a negative way—whether through treating me poorly or a conversation that goes political—I shut down in a hurry. It is as though my hypersensitive system does not allow that kind of energy in its space; it’s like an allergic reaction. It happens both with people and situations. As soon as something doesn’t sit well with me, I must remove myself immediately.
It’s a strange dichotomy, too: as open-minded and accepting as I am philosophically, my heart and my sensibilities have very strict boundaries. They do not like to be violated. Not at all, I mean. It is as though my feelings are hurt by the shallowness, foolishness, and coldness of others, even when those things are not directed at me. Because of this, political and religious discussions are dangerous for me. I have very liberal positions politically. I am passionate about them, too, and have, with the help of my journal, thought through them very deeply. So, I feel like my positions are well-grounded (I have written to you before about how bad I am at compromise and how I always believe I am right, which does not exactly help my cause here). But, as everyone knows, most of the people in this country—not to mention in my family, my neighborhood, and my place of business—are not very liberal. If I chose to engage all of the people in my little world in religious and political conversations, I would soon be a raw nerve of isolation, disappointment, and hurt feelings. I would be a mess!
So, what do I do? I keep my opinions to myself in most public situations: with co-workers, most friends, and even family. I politely insert my views where I can without stirring up the hornet’s nest too much. I write to you. And I talk to my wife. Yes, my outlet for thoughts of the political and religious nature, the ones that reveal what moves me and what I am all about.
It is both sad and scary that I have but one true outlet—one human outlet, anyway—for the real me (probably a topic to unravel in a later post). But at least I have my wife. I can’t imagine not having her to share that with, to have someone. Well, no, check that. As I write that, I realize that that is not the point. It is not about having someone—I went many years with only my journal knowing my true values, and I was perfectly happy—but rather about the fact that when I did agree to make a life with someone, that I could let the guard down and know that we could have peace without all of the denial and compartmentalization. A peace without the cowardice and pretense that cheapens the rest of my peaceful relationships. A peace whose foundation is Truth from both parties.
James Carville and Mary Matalin swear that they don’t talk politics at home. I still don’t know how they pull off a marriage without that. As I said, I know it shows weakness on my part that I don’t co-exist well with people who don’t see eye-to-eye with me on things that matter most. I am not proud of my intolerance or my hypersensitivity. But I know myself. I know that–especially since I never wanted to marry and wouldn’t wish me and my issues upon anyone—if I am going to be a husband, it has to be to a partner who shares my values and understands where I am coming from politically, and gives space and respect to where I am coming from spiritually. Thank Goodness I picked a good one!
How about you? How honest can you be with the person closest to you? Open up your journal and take a look at that relationship. Who is that person? Spouse? Best friend? Sibling? Parent? When it comes to the tough topics of politics and religion, how much of who you are can you share with them? Are there topics—e.g. abortion, marriage equality, President Obama, the afterlife—that you know you must steer clear of in order to keep the peace between you? What makes these topics so toxic? Are you, unlike me, good at having disagreements about these types of issues but still keeping a very positive opinion about the other person? How much of a filter do you need in order to keep your romantic relationship peaceful and happy? How does that compare to previous relationships? How does it compare to the relationship with your non-romantic best friend? Which relationship is more honest? If you were very liberal and somehow fell madly in love with someone, only to later learn that they were extremely conservative (or the other way around, whichever is easiest on your imagination), do you think your relationship could survive, or is that just a time bomb waiting to explode? Think about all of the denial and compartmentalization you do with the people in your life—neighbors, co-workers, and family—and all of the things you completely avoid talking about. It’s kind of disturbing, isn’t it? What do you think would happen if we all spent a week without our filters on—still polite, but open and honest about all sorts of topics that now go unmentioned? Would it be refreshing or too damaging for the long-term peace in your little world? What would you like to talk more about with your loved ones? What would it take to get you to bring it up? I dare you! Leave me a reply and let me know: Could you live happily ever after with someone whose values and beliefs were quite different than yours?
Trust in your value,