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Politically divided couples navigate a period when elections are divisive — and inescapable

Updated: Jul 26

by Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune

A house divided against itself can, in fact, stand, but it’s no small feat during an election cycle.

“We’re happier when we’re not discussing politics,” Deerfield’s Marla Davishoff said. “And it’s hard not to discuss politics during elections.”

“I’m not all that concerned with elections in the first place,” her husband, Craig, said.

“And him saying that makes my blood boil,” Marla Davishoff said.

Couples who land on different spots along the political spectrum have always been a cultural fascination. (Mary Matalin and James Carville! How do they do it?) But in a climate where politics have become so divisive — and so inescapable — the challenges of such pairings are amplified and, in some cases, emotionally wrenching.

“It’s intense,” said Don Cole, clinical director at the Gottman Institute and a licensed marriage and family counselor. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it. More and more in the counseling office when we get to the point of ‘What are your deep differences?’ they’re political. I didn’t used to hear that. They used to be about spending money, raising kids, taking care of elderly parents. Deep divisions over politics is new.”

Thirty percent of married households contain a politically mismatched pair, according to FiveThirtyEight, a site that analyzes polling data. One-third of those couples are Democrats married to Republicans, the site found, and the others are people who identify as partisan married to people who identify as independent.

Certainly, plenty of other passions and pursuits can spark and cement a couple’s bond. But when midterms are breathing down our necks, those shared passions and pursuits can take a backseat to politics.

“You can’t not talk about it,” said Palatine’s Aaron Del Mar. “We get 25 pieces of mail a week. We get constant robocalls and texts.”

Del Mar was born and raised in Chicago by a “hard-core Dem” mom, he said. His partner, Sara Cox, was raised in a family of Republicans. As they grew older and established their own lives and values, each shifted away from the politics they were raised with.

Del Mar is a Palatine Township Republican committeeman and was appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner to the Illinois International Port Authority earlier this year.

Cox identifies herself as a liberal Democrat.

The couple live together in Palatine, where they’re raising six kids — three from his previous marriage, two from hers and one they had together.

“I know she’s not going to vote for some of the candidates I need to win,” Del Mar said. “This election has a direct effect on my job. If Bruce Rauner doesn’t get elected, there will be significant effects on the Republican Party in Illinois, and I’ll be directly affected. But what am I going to do? Tell her how to vote? No way.”

They had one fight, over immigration, that ended with Del Mar leaving the house and sleeping in his office.

Things have gotten so extreme, and I don’t think it’s good for our country or our relationships.

“How can you explain taking those kids away from those parents?” Cox said, starting to revisit the fight. “You know what, let’s not talk about this right now. Our political beliefs are a separate entity from our relationship. When we have those debates and conversations, it’s almost like we’re different people, and then we go back to our normal lives, which are so chaotic with kids and everything.”

Cole counsels couples to discuss what leads them to their political beliefs, rather than staying stuck on the beliefs themselves.

“How does this relate to their childhood or their past? Why do they feel this? Why does this matter to them? Why is this the hill on which they’ll die?” he said. “You have to try to understand the emotions and the feelings and the needs of the person who’s in opposition to you. It’s hard, but it’s the only way that gets you to a place of, ‘I disagree with you, but I understand why you believe that.’”

The Davishoffs spent the first 20 years of their marriage politically synced. Both identified as Democrats and voted as such. But Craig Davishoff, over the last five years, has moved away from participating in politics.

“I would prefer there not be any government in our lives,” he said. “I think government is a problematic concept, and I would prefer it to go away and allow us to live our lives freely.”

“And to me, to say, ‘I don’t believe in government’ is irrelevant because we live in a society that has a government,” Marla Davishoff said. “Our role is to elect people to represent us and to vote for candidates who reflect our beliefs.”

The Davishoffs have two sons, 15 and 18, both of whom have special needs.

“We’re part of an organization called Illinois Parents of Adults With Developmental Disabilities, and they put out a list of candidates who they believe are going to support individuals with disabilities,” Marla Davishoff said. “When I go into the voting booth, that’s pretty much how I vote.”

It frustrates her, she said, that her husband may choose to stay home on Election Day.

“As a caregiver to our boys, I’m the one who is dealing with government agencies and going to their doctor’s appointments and having IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings, so the idea of not voting just seems like a luxury that you can’t afford when you’re taking care of kids with disabilities who rely on the government,” Marla Davishoff said.

Craig Davishoff said he deeply respects the research and time his wife devotes to making an informed vote, but that doesn’t change his core belief that government is the cause of, not the solution to, our problems.

“Marla describes her Republican friends who believe in keeping more of their own dollars to take care of their special needs children, which is an idea she can respect among her Republican friends,” he said. “But when I make that same argument, I’m met with a brick wall.”

He’s eager, he said, for Tuesday’s elections to come and go.

Del Mar and Cox said they’ve learned to identify when a debate is going off the rails.

“We’ll say, ‘We have to stop talking about this. We can talk about it later, but it’s getting too heated,’” Cox said. “Things have gotten so extreme, and I don’t think it’s good for our country or our relationships.”

Cole said couples who weather their differences — political or otherwise — work to keep contempt out of their discussions.

“Once we start vilifying and using attack language — ‘If you think that, you’re an idiot!’ — that’s the most destructive things in marital communication,” he said. “When you imply your partner is somehow mentally, emotionally, spiritually inferior if they think that, it’s very hard to repair from that. There’s got to be respect in the way you discuss your disagreements.”

Again, no small feat. But a healthy foundation on which to build a home.

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