This story is one of three narratives in our “The way we live politics” package; check out its companion pieces about friend groups that bridge the political divide and young voters who navigate generational differences with their parents.
Jessica Howell first met Dave Pratt at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends in 2011. A while later, she sent him a message on Facebook. He took three months to respond. (In his defense, “I really don’t check Facebook very much.”) Soon after, they went out for barbecue at Fox Bros., where they were so absorbed in conversation that they were the last patrons left in the dining room as the restaurant was closing. Dave asked what she was doing the next night. “Going out with you,” she said.
Nine years, one marriage, and two sons later, their Kirkwood home is full of noise and music and fun. During family dance parties, Jessica, Dave, and their two young sons (one is five, the other is two) take turns dancing and egging each other on. No matter what song is playing, Dave will twirl Jessica and then pull her close for a kiss.
Like every married couple, the Pratts argue—about housework or how much screen time the kids should get—but there is deep tenderness between them. Dave, a consultant, typically logs longer hours than Jessica, who works for Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, and, when things get busy, he doesn’t get home until close to midnight. On those nights, before she goes to bed, Jessica writes love notes on Post-its for him to find when he walks through the door, and he brings her dessert from whatever restaurant he grabbed dinner from. “It’s kind of like Christmas to check the fridge when I wake up in the morning,” she says.
Going into the relationship, Dave and Jessica knew they had their differences. He’s Black, and she’s white. He grew up in a small town in coastal Georgia; she’s from metro Atlanta. He’s a 50-year-old Gen Xer; she’s a 38-year-old Millennial. But to many people, the difference that’s most surprising isn’t any of these: It’s that he’s a Republican, and she’s a Democrat.
When choosing a partner, there aren’t many taboos left. Interracial marriages have increased steadily since the landmark Loving v. Virginia case in 1967 and, as of 2015, comprised 17 percent of all new marriages. Nearly 40 percent of people who married between 2010 and 2014 wed someone of a different faith. And as of 2017, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a right, about one in 10 LGBTQ+ adults were legally wed. Relationships that transcend political party lines, however, have become something of an oddity.
In 2017, Dr. Tamara Afifi, a communications professor at University of California–Santa Barbara, surveyed 1,000 people and found that only about 80 were married to someone who voted for the opposite candidate during the 2016 presidential election. “It’s pretty rare for people to actually be in a romantic relationship where one of them would vote for Clinton and the other would support Trump,” she says.
It wasn’t always that way. Shared political affiliation has become increasingly important for couples, in part because partisanship has become shorthand for something much more divisive than which policies you support, says Dr. Alexa Bankert, assistant professor of political science at the University of Georgia, whose research is focused on the development and consequences of partisan identities. Party affiliation has become what political scientists call a “mega-identity” among strong partisans, more closely aligned with their values than even race, religion, education, age, or gender. “Partisanship aligns, at least in our head, with much more than ideology,” says Bankert. “We use it to infer so much about the other person and what they stand for.”
As more of our values divide neatly along partisan lines, Americans increasingly view members of the other party in a negative light and choose friends and love interests based on political compatibility. These days, we’re less likely than ever to have a conversation with someone from a different party, let alone marry them.
Jessica admits she had some initial reservations about embarking on a serious relationship with a Republican. She grew up in a moderately conservative household, became a Democrat early on, then took a “sprint to the left” while getting a graduate degree in public health. These days, she says, she rarely interacts with any Republicans other than Dave and some extended family members.
“My social circle is pretty homogenous,” she says. “I had assumptions about Republicans, and I spent some time thinking through the long-term implications, like, will this lead to fundamental differences about how we might raise our kids?”
For Dave, a political-science major at UGA who later studied negotiation at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the idea of dating a Democrat was of no concern. “As long as the person can voice their opinion in a convincing way, maybe I can be convinced. Jessica is very vocal about her beliefs and it’s one of the things I find most wonderful about her. . . . If you want to have a strong, enriched life, you’re not going to always agree.”
Couples that form across party lines may be judged harshly. Unlike interracial and same-sex marriages, which the majority of Americans now support, acceptance of interpolitical marriages has declined over the past several decades. Surveys from Gallup show that parents today are significantly more likely to care about their future daughter-in-law or son-in-law’s political affiliation than they were in the 1950s.
Jessica and Dave married in 2014, and their coworkers or new friends often express surprise when they find out that they’re wedded to someone of the opposite party. “During the Clinton years, when Democrats found out I was a Republican, they just laughed,” says Dave. “Then, once Republicans took control, it went from humor and disbelief to mild hostility. Since Trump came into the picture, it’s been overtly hostile.”
Dave says he sometimes gets judged by Trump supporters who are astonished that he’s not in favor of the President. But he receives the most hostility from Black Democrats, for being a Republican. “A lot of Black Democrats who meet me for the first time give me this look like I’m an Uncle Tom. If they never get a chance to get to know me, they always carry that,” he says.
It’s one reason why he thinks it’s so important to engage on a human level with people who believe differently than you. “If you never talk to them,” he says, “you just believe the memes and the tropes.”
Julie Shingadia, a moderate Democrat, has been married to Raj, a Libertarian who leans Republican, since 2004, and the couple has three children. She says as political polarization has increased, it’s been tough on their relationship.
“We’ve been together since the Clinton years, but I’ve felt the arguments [with Raj] more [acutely] over the past eight years,” she says. Julie, 42, was raised by parents who also didn’t agree politically and grew up having rousing, friendly debates around the dinner table. Now, she says, the friendliness has been removed from political discourse in general. Julie says that living in Suwanee, where her neighbors have expressed a lot of support for Trump, “conversations tend to get heated, even among friends. I’m not afraid to say that I support Black Lives Matter or gay rights or whatever, but I don’t want to get into a deep conversation about Trump.”
Raj, 42, who is Indian American and immigrated to the U.S. at age 10, is not a citizen and cannot vote. He considers himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate. “I support many of Trump’s policies and his position on China,” he says. “I don’t support his tweeting.” Still, the president and his rhetoric can act as an irritant in his relationship with his wife.
“He’ll defend some of the stuff that Trump does, and it drives me crazy,” says Julie. “When we start talking about candidates or people who are currently in office, that’s when we start butting heads more.”
“I’ll give somebody credit when they do something good, and I’ll bash them when they don’t,” Raj responds. “Trump is easy to bash, but I do give him credit for the times when he does something good.”
Because Dave and Jessica went into the relationship knowing that they were on different points of the political spectrum, they say they don’t get too fazed by disagreements. Still, the conversations aren’t always easy.
“I am almost always emotional when it comes to disagreements,” says Jessica. “Conversations escalate quickly to me flailing my hands in the air and raising my voice, and Dave is trained in keeping a cool head and bringing it back to the issues.” The downside is that sometimes “for him, it’s a fun debate, but for me, it’s upsetting. It gets to the point where I’m like, Stop negotiating with me. Let’s just talk about this like two people.”
After the 2016 presidential election, Dave, who initially supported Jeb Bush for the party’s nomination, was wary but hopeful that, once in office, Trump would become less antagonistic and polarizing and would work collaboratively with the Republican establishment. Jessica was crushed.
“The next day, my coworker and I watched Hillary’s address and just wept in my office. I remember thinking, This is going to be such a disaster, and Dave and other Republicans saying, Once he’s president, he will be more presidential.”
“I understood her point of view, and I also believed, then, it was a little bit of an overreaction,” says Dave. “I took [Trump] at his word, and I deferred to the judgment of the Republican leaders. It did not happen as I had envisioned. It probably didn’t happen how they had envisioned.”
Dave’s initial tepid support for Trump evaporated in the wake of the President’s reported disdain for fallen soldiers and feuds with Gold Star military families and Senator John McCain, who Dave considered a personal hero.
Even so, Dave isn’t willing to say that he is definitely voting for Biden this time around. He desperately wishes that another Republican had thrown their hat in as an Independent, and it clearly pains him to think about voting against his party. As of September, the most he’ll admit is that, “Right now, [Trump] does not have my vote.”
Asked how her husband’s statement makes her feel, Jessica says: “I don’t think there’s any chance he’d vote for Trump, and I would be shocked if he did.”
Dr. Jeanne Safer is a psychoanalyst and a Democrat who has been married to a Republican for more than 40 years. She says for many couples, political fights are really about being seen by their partner. “People don’t realize what these fights are about. They think it’s about Trump. But they’re really about the fact that somebody that you care about sees the world very differently than you do. That’s devastating to a lot of people,” says Safer, whose latest book I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics plumbs the complexities of interpolitical relationships.
She says couples have to focus on what they have in common and figure out a way to let the other things go—even if it means that some arguments never really get resolved. “People who agree politically can still have terrible relationships. People can be good partners even if you don’t agree,” she says.
In their marriage, Julie and Raj have embraced the idea of “letting go,” even if they aren’t always sure that it’s the right thing to do.
“We do talk more about those things we agree on, which tend to be social issues and human-rights issues,” Julie says. “I want to make sure that the kids absorb those values.”
“I don’t think we’re so far apart on the fundamentals,” Raj says. “I bet if we worked through those differences, we could find consensus.”
“But maybe not in terms of a candidate we support,” Julie adds.
Jessica and Dave both admit that they aren’t sure if they’d even have met or started dating after Trump’s election. The friends who introduced them are Republicans, and “I don’t think I’d have even been with that group of friends, given all of this,” Jessica says. Even if she had, “I would see that ‘R’ next to Dave, and been like, No.”
Finding couples to interview for this story was not easy. One source said all the couples she knew who had voted for opposing candidates in the 2016 presidential election had since divorced. In fact, every couple that agreed to be interviewed had something in common: at least a baseline agreement on President Trump.
Afifi says that’s not surprising. “I think what people are having a hard time with in the Trump era is that, as the parties move further apart ideologically and the rhetoric gets more poisonous, a vote for your values can become a vote against my values,” she says. When she surveyed couples in which one person voted Trump and the other voted Clinton, typically at least one partner would say, Politics don’t really matter to me, actually.
“It’s kind of softening the blow,” she says.
Safer, who interviewed dozens of couples while researching her book, says that, in the last few years, the number of relationships that are mixed politically is getting much smaller. “I think Trump has made the whole dynamic much worse. People think, How can you love me if you voted for this person?” she says. “They can’t even conceive that they could have a friendship or a marriage with someone who voted for the other side.”
That’s a shame, says Safer, because human connection is perhaps the only way to break the self-perpetuating cycle of polarization and antagonism between party members. The fewer crosspolitical relationships there are, the easier it is to believe the worst about the other side.
Samantha Phelps, a 24-year-old Democrat, has been dating her boyfriend, Nik Oesterle, a 30-year-old Republican, for three years. Nik’s last girlfriend broke up with him in 2017 because she couldn’t get over the fact that he voted for Trump, and Samantha’s previous experiences with Republicans made her feel like she was “talking to a wall.” They say that the key to their relationship has been keeping an open mind. As a result, they’ve intentionally worked hard to remove themselves from their respective echo chambers.
The couple, who live in South Forsyth, turn to Google and Apple News to stay informed (Nik deleted his Facebook account because his feed has become so politically charged) and seek opinions from both sides on conservative and liberal YouTube channels. Afterwards, they discuss how both sides presented the story and try to sniff out biases.
“I tried to have so many conversations with my ex-girlfriend about politics, and it was like a window that was always closed,” says Nik, the Atlanta branch manager of a national home-service company. “After we broke up, it was very important for me to find somebody who was open enough to have these conversations.”
“We’ve evolved as we’ve been dating. At first, it was more, I’m right, you’re wrong,” says Samantha, a market researcher who was recently laid off during the pandemic. But “if we kept saying, I’m right, you’re wrong, then, no one grows, and you don’t feel respected.”
The couple say their approach to their relationship has made them more centrist in their views and more supportive of politicians who are willing to work with members of the opposite party. “People don’t see the middle as bringing about change,” Samantha says. “But to us, that’s the way that you build consensus and actually make things happen.”
This article appears in our November 2020 issue.