When Jeanne Safer appeared on national television several years ago, the reporter interviewing her was outraged that she was in a mixed marriage, calling her a “traitor” who turned her back on her own people. Safer, a liberal psychotherapist in New York City, didn’t marry across a racial or ethnic divide. Nearly 40 years ago, she married a Republican. Her husband, Richard Brookhiser, is a historian and political journalist — as well as a senior editor of National Review.
“Somehow,” the reporter said, marveling at their loving relationship, “they never learned how Democrats and Republicans are supposed to interact” — that is, with the hostility and contempt that we see on cable news and Twitter and in the hallowed halls of Congress.
The segment aired on The Daily Show in 2015 — and it was, of course, a joke. But four years and one presidential election later, political differences in love are no longer a laughing matter. As Safer points out in her new book, the election of Donald Trump has thrown many intimate relationships into crisis. Twenty-seven percent of respondents in a Pew Research poll she cites said they blocked or unfriended someone on social media in the lead-up to the presidential election — and one in ten couples, according to another survey, ended their relationship over politics, a phenomenon dubbed “the Trump divorce.” (The figure is 22 percent for Millennials.)
Moved by these stories of breakdown and estrangement, Safer has written an important book to help people protect their relationships from the menace of partisanship. She introduces readers to a series of people who let politics get the best of them: There’s the young Hillary supporter who tried to convince her best friend, a conservative, to vote for Clinton with a PowerPoint presentation sent via email titled “Great Sh** Hil Has Done.” The subject line? “Reeducation.” There’s the boyfriend with a windshield decal of Trump urinating on Hillary, which his girlfriend wants him to remove. There’s the liberal father who unfriended his own son, an NRA supporter, on Facebook. There’s the conservative daughter who bought her progressive mother a subscription to the Wall Street Journal — another kind of reeducation campaign. And there’s the Millennial gay couple, both Trump supporters, who came to such blows over a disagreement about the president that they ended up in a wrestling match (collateral damage included a broken marble table and a smashed cell phone).
These people are flawed, to be sure — a reminder that human relations are as much comedy as they are tragedy. But Safer’s gift is her empathy. She writes with the clear-eyed, matter-of-fact voice of a seasoned clinician, but also with warmth and humanity. Despite her own political commitments, she covers Trump supporters with fairness — and is as quick to question the “obnoxious” behavior of those on the left as of those on the right, while acknowledging that there are limits to empathy. “You won’t find encouragement to tolerate a mate or a friend or family member who is a recalcitrant racist, a sexist, or a supporter of the antifa or the alt-right.”
But those cases are rare. Most relationships, Safer insists, can withstand the pressure of conflicting politics, even when the disagreements are about the most polarizing issues. Her own marriage is a case in point. She is passionately pro-choice and Brookhiser is passionately pro-life. The key to overcoming conflict is understanding what the disputes are really about. Her core argument is counterintuitive but absolutely compelling: When people in intimate relationships fight viciously over politics, they’re not actually fighting about politics. They’re fighting about something else — something much deeper.
Take the case of Phyllis and Mark, a married couple in their mid sixties. Mark was a Democrat but switched parties in the George W. Bush years and then voted for Trump in 2016. Phyllis, left-leaning, was heartbroken. “I forbid him Fox News,” she told Safer. Phyllis, Safer points out, demands “lockstep political agreement” from her husband and sees its absence as the problem with her marriage. But Safer sees it as a symptom of a bigger issue: Phyllis’s equating “political unanimity with true love.” Phyllis’s image of an ideal marriage came from her own left-wing parents, who marched in protests together. If she can’t reenact that with Mark because he’s strayed politically, then that means, in Phyllis’s mind, that he doesn’t love her. “Not only has he rejected her philosophy,” Safer explains, “but he has abandoned her altogether and left her completely alone.” Like so many of the people Safer interviewed, Phyllis fears a loss of connection from the one she loves most as a result of political rupture.
The fear of abandonment is one reason that political disputes can become so radioactive. Another is the fear of rejection. In the most tender chapter of the book, “Enemies No Longer,” Safer profiles the married television personalities John Avlon, a centrist Democrat, and Margaret Hoover, a staunch Republican and granddaughter of Herbert Hoover. The two nearly broke up because of a fierce disagreement about Sarah Palin in 2008. In time, they realized they didn’t want Palin to determine their romantic fate — and that it wasn’t about Palin, anyway. “It was really about whether I was rejecting Margaret and her family and her identity,” Avlon told Safer. A decade and two kids later, the two still disagree politically — but they don’t have to be kindred political spirits in order to have a happy marriage. “The real issue,” Safer writes of all these couples, “is our mistaken belief that intimacy is only possible with people who agree with us on everything.” What makes intimacy possible is “accepting and appreciating our very real differences.”
For many couples Safer counseled, including Phyllis and Mark, the path to healing lay in focusing on what they shared rather than what set them apart, and remembering what drew them to each other in the first place. For Safer and Brookhiser, who met in a group that sang Renaissance religious music, a love of music brought them together. For Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia, in another politically incorrect friendship, it was a love of opera.
For other relationships, the key to peace is establishing goodwill. Hoover said that before meeting Avlon, she loved “people based on their politics.” But Avlon helped her see “it’s more important to be attached to people because you love them rather than because of the way they vote.” In other cases, simple courtesy mended a breaking bond. The man with the offending decal of Trump removed it and told Safer, “There’s nothing more important than consideration — having that sticker on my car was communicating something she disliked.”
In some cases, though, politics is too radioactive — and the only solution, Safer argues, is for couples to avoid discussing it altogether. This advice may seem like an unacceptable solution for many people. For better or for worse, politics is increasingly an integral part of identity, and people feel they should be able to share the fullness of who they are with the ones they love. Here, too, there’s an underlying psychological need rearing its head — the desire to be truly known and understood by another. But Safer is pragmatic. “Part of maturity,” she writes, “is recognizing that there are some issues that cannot be discussed between you without misery ensuing.” Elsewhere in the book she points out, “The sobering, but ultimately liberating, truth is that nobody will ever fully understand or accept the world exactly as we see it — and nobody has to.”
Safer has written a wise, humane book that gives hope to people whose relationships are unraveling because of partisanship and leaves them with practical tools to help them repair the bond. One of them is the “chemotherapy test,” based on her experience of being treated for acute leukemia. “When you’re lying in bed with an IV in your vein receiving chemotherapy,” Safer writes, “you don’t ask the political party affiliation of the person standing by your side, faithfully getting you through it.”
In other words, even in the age of Trump, there’s more to life than politics. There’s love.
This article appears as “Love in the Time of Trump” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.