We Can't Talk About Religion or Politics. Can This Be Fixed?

My husband and I have been married for over 10 years and have a good marriage and great discussions, except when it’s about religion or politics. He’s a Catholic and very conservative and I’m atheist and very liberal. We enjoy bantering about issues on both topics but he finds it necessary to cram his opinions down my throat (and frankly, he can be very narrow-minded). When this happens, I often agree with him to end the discussion or shut down and feel incredibly defensive. When I shut down or get defensive, we end up not speaking for days. Childish, I know. I’ve spent years trying to understand his opinions and views but I’ve never felt like he is open to my way of thinking. How do I overcome this hurdle and learn to have healthy discussions on these topics and not always agree? Or is it better to just steer clear?

Sophie

I’m an amateur sociologist. I’m fascinated by studies of people, how we think, what our blind spots are, and how to overcome them. Some of my favorite books in the past few years are about heuristics and behavioral economics, “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer, “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, “Nudge” by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, and “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz. (Why all of these books are by Jewish men is a completely different question.)

Anyway, after reading all of these books, I’m increasingly conscious of something called “confirmation bias”. With confirmation bias, people seek out news sources that reinforce what they already believe. When we find a source that contradicts what we believe, we immediately turn it off, get angry, or try to discredit the source. Picture liberals watching Fox or conservatives watching MSNBC for an idea of what I’m suggesting.

Now, I do my best to be even-handed with my advice and leave my personal beliefs out of things. Sometimes I fail, but I hope that you can concede, at the very least, that I attempt to present an objective model of reality. It’s not about what I want to be true; it’s about what is true. It’s not about “right and wrong”; it’s about “effective vs. ineffective” and so on.

Recently, I got into a few tiffs with readers on my Facebook page (follow me, we can argue with each other!) One disagreement occurred when I posted a study that showed that holding out before having sex was a good idea and that having no-string-attached sex didn’t make women happier in the aggregate.

In the other study, a group of married men were told to be 100% agreeable with their wives. Instead of being happy with this, the wives got bossy and power-hungry, quickly destroying their husbands’ self-esteem.

In both examples, readers who felt personally indicted attacked the study. If you’re a sex-positive woman who likes to sleep with men on the first date, how DARE anyone tell you that for the majority of other women, it’s not a good idea? If you’re a proud woman, how DARE anyone suggest that women don’t respect conciliatory men? That can’t be true! There must be something wrong with the study!

I know science isn’t perfect. I know people have agendas. But I’m not one of them. My only agenda is to get to the truth. A few months ago, a study came out that said that women didn’t want men picking them up for first dates. I thought this was a shame and I said so – much to the disagreement of my readers. But I never attempted to refute the study. Whether I like it or not, the study reflected the reality that women are mistrustful of men. SHOULD they be that fearful? Personally, I don’t think so, but I can’t change reality.

Which brings us back to Sophie, with the intransigent conservative husband.

Needless to say, I’m not surprised, since conservatives are, in fact, more likely to view compromise as a bad thing. Feel free to read this lengthy article for a more thorough explanation. Here are the big takeaways:

Conservatives, argues researcher Philip Tetlock of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, are less tolerant of compromise…

A 41 percent plurality of Republicans surveyed in a USA Today-Gallup poll shortly after the November 2010 election said that political leaders should stand firm in their beliefs even if little gets done, compared to just 18 percent of Democrats. Nearly three fifths of Democrats, 59 percent, said leaders should be willing to compromise to get things done, compared to just 31 percent of Republicans.

A similar Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted in early December 2010, found that Democrats believe that elected officials should “make compromises to gain consensus on legislation,” as opposed to “stick[ing] to their positions even if this means not being able to gain consensus,” by a margin of 63-29, while Republicans were split, 47-47.

No one wants to be told that they’re “wrong”. Everyone wants to be listened to and respected.

Is it possible that these studies were biased? In the realm that anything is possible, I suppose. Is it possible that this is a big liberal media conspiracy? Not really. If we assume Occam’s Razor – that the simplest answer is the right one – then in a statistically significant sample culled by respected news outlets – Gallup, Wall St. Journal, NBC – conservatives are simply less likely to believe in compromise.

If you’re a conservative and you’re reading this right now, a few things:

  1. I didn’t make these studies up.
  2. I have conservative friends and married into a conservative family. (yes, it’s the “some of my best friends” defense!)
  3. I think conservatives have many valuable ideas that liberals can co-opt.
  4. I did not say that YOU can’t compromise or that NO conservatives can compromise.

Literally, all I did was report the results of a poll that said, in the aggregate, that conservatives are less likely to believe in compromise. So if you’re getting angry and instead of believing the study, want to argue with me and REFUTE the study, you’re suffering from confirmation bias.

This the only reason I’ve hijacked Sophie’s easy question – not to make a political point, but to make a behavioral one that you can apply to dating. No one wants to be told that they’re “wrong”. Everyone wants to be listened to and respected. While Sophie claims to try to understand her husband, Sophie’s husband doesn’t attempt to understand her.

If Sophie were a devout Christian with an outspoken intolerant atheist husband, I’d come to the same conclusion. But she’s not.

Listen, Sophie, I’m just like you. I’m a liberal and I take delight in the discussion of ideas. I don’t get upset at debate or disagreement. I like learning from others, especially if they’re well-informed and have a different perspective. My wife’s best friend’s husband, in particular, is a successful businessman and staunch Republican and I pick his brain every chance I get. But, after unintentionally pissing a lot of people off, I realized that other people can’t handle such disagreements. It’s either too personal (“if you disagree with me, you don’t respect me”) or it’s too futile because some folks refuse to even listen to dissenting opinions.

In such cases, literally the ONLY thing to do is agree to never talk about religion and politics. Personally, I find that really hard to do, which is why I can be happily married to my moderate wife (who doesn’t judge me), but have been warned not to open my mouth around her conservative family.

If you value your marriage more than you value your politics, you will both agree to disagree, cancel each others’ votes out, and pretty much never talk about it again.

I would love to have an informed conversation with them about our differences – maybe learn something I didn’t know, maybe teach them that liberals aren’t so bad. But I can’t, because they don’t want to hear it. Your husband doesn’t want to hear it, Sophie.

So if you value your marriage more than you value your politics, you will both agree to disagree, cancel each others’ votes out, and pretty much never talk about it again.

Would it be nice if you could have an interesting, open-minded discussion about religion and politics? Sure. But if the comments coming my way are any indication, I’d be shocked if you’d be able to… ?

P.S. I asked my more conservative wife if I should post this. She thought that conservatives would tune me out even though I didn’t judge conservatives at all. I told her that my readers were smart enough to understand that I was writing about how we all have confirmation bias, and that the best we can do is recognize it and minimize it. Prove me right, okay?