It started like a ’90s rom-com: We met in junior high through our siblings and remained friends all through high school. We both loved science fiction, fantasy novels and cashew chicken, both reveled in hiking and dancing like idiots. He gave me a ride to a party one Halloween; by coincidence, I was dressed as a hippie and he as a soldier in his ROTC uniform — we were already communicating our political differences subliminally. Despite a decade of quiet but persistent matchmaking by our friends, we never dated. That is, until May 2016, when the presidential primaries were all but over.
I knew we disagreed on some things. We had debated gun control, private versus public education and refugee admission. But these conversations never raised barriers and only surfaced occasionally during the nine months we were together. Judging from his opinions and coming, as we do, from New Mexico — the state that elected Gary Johnson to two terms as governor — I assumed he was a libertarian. But amid my rising suspicions, he confirmed in January that Donald Trump had received his vote in the presidential election.
The polarization of U.S. politics isn’t bypassing relationships. By virtue of divergent values or a failure of effective communication, politics have barged into our bedrooms and seems determined to stay.
It wasn’t always like this. A 2001 study found that from 1939 to 1996, having a similar political background was essentially irrelevant. Yet as early as 2004, this was changing. A quick scroll through online dating profiles will yield such statements as “First and foremost, I am not a Trump supporter” and “SJW [social justice warrior], feminist and proud of it!” A recent survey from Wakefield Research found that 22% of Americans know a couple whose relationship has been negatively impacted by Trump’s election. For millennials, the number rises to 35%.
Like many Trump supporters, my boyfriend had been quiet about his support, a trend some believe explains the underestimation of Trump voters in national, but primarily state, polling in 2016. This self-moderation plays into “social desirability bias,” where individuals hold back unpopular opinions to avoid discord or distancing family and friends. But restraint isn’t healthy for individuals or their relationships. Multiple studies have found it erodes satisfaction and intimacy. Judging from the nights I spent lying next to him — not touching and feeling worlds apart — they’re right.
Our attempts at communicating were, with the ever-clear insight afforded by time, flawed. Daily texts centered on his work at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and my courses in grad school, The Aeronaut’s Windlass and other books we suggested and shared, our mutual friends and planning trips to see each other. Unlike the phone calls I overheard between my roommate and his long-distance girlfriend, our discussions rarely covered philosophy or politics.
Our relationship hobbled along for almost two months into the new administration in Washington, as I initiated more long phone calls and discussions. But on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, he sent me an email with a four-page document attached in which he broke up with me, citing our “incompatible values.” Our political differences ended first our relationship and then our friendship.
In his letter, he noted he avoided starting conversations about what “separated us on the political and social spectrum” so as to avoid starting a “fight.” And subconsciously, I must have as well.
Despite the age-old adage that opposites attract, people tend to be attracted to those with whom they feel similar, with shared interests, lifestyles and beliefs, even punctuality habits.
Dating sites like OkCupid have taken to incorporating political beliefs into their matching algorithms. Among OkCupid’s “match questions” about smoking habits and fetish-friendliness are overtly political and timely inquiries, including “Did Russia hack the last U.S. election?” and “Would an immigration ban that targets Muslims make the country safer?” It began immediately after the inauguration with what Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s chief marketing officer, calls the “Trump filter.” Many of these questions are contributed by users.
“We are finding that politics is becoming a bigger dealbreaker when it comes to dating,” Hobley said in an email interview. “Since the election we have seen that our members are marking these questions as two times more important.” OkCupid has seen as much as a 40% increase in users prioritizing “same politics” over “great sex,” Hobley said.
When responding to match questions, OkCupid users select from multiple choices, mark the answers they’ll “accept” and rank how important the question is to them. Match percentages are based on these questions, which quickly become a means of screening out unlikely matches. At its most fundamental, dating is about finding someone you’re compatible with — and when navigating the veritable deluge of potential partners, anything to lessen the flow is a blessing.
Coffee Meets Bagel, a dating site founded in 2012, conducted a February survey about politics and found that most singles across the political spectrum said it was more important their matches’ political views were similar to their own.
We had our last real conversation a couple weeks before we split, and every minute of it was about politics. Amid the media fervor to explain why the election had gone the way it had — a disenchanted and marginalized middle class, underemployment, frustration with seemingly endless foreign wars — I desperately wanted to understand, to justify his choice.
He directed me to the alt-right principles of Vox Day, a virulent conservative blogger and author of such books as SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police and Cuckservative: How ‘Conservatives’ Betrayed America — and whose pen name is phonetic for the Latin phrase “the voice of God”). Reading through the alt-right movement’s values — from anti-equalitarianism to diversity inevitably leading to war — a black hole formed near my intestines. And while he tried to explain his reasoning for the value of autonomous ethnospheres, his voice faded as it was sucked into the bottomless dark.
Not all relationships across political differences are doomed to fail spectacularly. Sometimes there’s a value difference that is insurmountable and sometimes there’s a failure to communicate, empathize and see the similarities that remain. For us, I think it was a bit of both. And while I’ll still consider dating a conservative, I’m now achingly aware of the divides that are too wide for me to shout across.