Differing political views in couples leads to conflict in relationships

Science and Health

In today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere, in Israel as in the US, some couples decide not only not to marry a person with antithetical views – but even to split up over such disagreements.

By one estimate, as many as 30% of Americans are in relationships with partners who do not share their political viewpoint. In the US, Democrats and Republicans have difficulty talking to each other and their views are polarized about media outlets’ credibility. Many Americans insist on watching Fox News and refuse to view CNN, while others do the opposite.

In Israel, where people who watch Channel 12 TV decline to view Channel 14 and vice versa, the population suffered nine months of bitter divisiveness, castigation, demonstrations – and even violence – triggered by the government’s rush to overhaul the judicial system. Many friendships were severed over the issues.

The potential strain of the media on relationships

How do couples with differing political perspectives decide whom to believe and what media to follow – and how do these decisions affect their discussions on political issues and their relationship in general?

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign communications Prof. Emily Van Duyn. (credit: Brian Stauffer)

To explore these questions, communications Prof. Emily Van Duyn at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted in-depth interviews with 67 people whose partners’ political views differed from their own. For these couples, seemingly mundane decisions about media consumption became “especially difficult,” Van Duyn said.

“Their cross-cutting political views presented many challenges for these couples,” said the professor, who earned her Ph.D. in communication studies at the University of Texas and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University with the Program on Democracy and the Internet. Her research explores why people talk – or do not talk –about politics and the role of digital media in facilitating a space for community and political discourse. She recently published a book called Democracy Lives in Darkness: How and Why People Keep Their Politics a Secret.

She has now published her new study in Political Communication under the title Negotiating News: How Cross-Cutting Romantic Partners Select, Consume, and Discuss News Together.


“Deciding which media to consume and whether to do so together or separately was difficult, because it presented them with a choice about recognizing their political differences and finding a way to navigate them,” Van Duyn said. “They saw the news as inherently political, and their selection of a news outlet or the act of sharing an article or video meant they were intentionally pulling their partner into a recognition of their political differences.”

News coverage activated differences between the partners that otherwise would not have emerged, sparking conflict as well as discussion. Conflict emerged in various ways, including disagreement over news sources and content, but also when one person failed to respond as intensely as their partner when the latter shared news that they found disturbing, Van Duyn added.

What happens when partners hold different political beliefs to each other?

Partners’ differing political beliefs and/or identities created a need to influence or negotiate their news consumption, a process that Van Duyn called “negotiated exposure,” which played out across public-facing media such as TV and those that are more private, like social media.

This process and the interpersonal conflict that resulted from it “often worked in tandem to reinforce one another and impact the relationship,” Van Duyn said. “Conflict resulting from news consumption often caused individuals to seek greater control of their news exposure, a reinforcing process that highlights the muddled order in how individuals simultaneously navigate news and relationships in contemporary democracy.”

She chose to interview only one partner from each couple so that participants would feel comfortable speaking freely without the concern of impacting their relationship or feeling constrained by their partners’ views. To protect the privacy of those interviewed, who were recruited through social media advertisements, pseudonyms were used in the study.

Of the participants, 39 were female. Most were in opposite-sex relationships and had been in their current relationship for more than two years. The majority (42) of the study participants were white, 11 were Black, three were Hispanic and 11 were Asian.

When the news began to take a negative toll on some participants and their relationships, these couples decided to avoid the news altogether and quit sharing articles or videos, because doing so triggered tensions that affected their emotional intimacy. Van Duyn said that some of those who chose news avoidance cited heightened conflict within their relationship or mental health concerns, such as anxiety.

A 46-year-old Virginia woman identified as “Wendy” in the study was a Donald Trump-supporting Republican whose boyfriend of two years was a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton. Wendy said that she and her partner compromised on which news programs they viewed on TV and when – with Wendy having control over programming during the morning hours and her boyfriend’s preferences taking precedence during the afternoon.

Since the couple fervently disagreed about then-president Trump, viewing TV news together created friction, especially when Wendy felt there was too much negative coverage of Trump and wanted to avoid it. Moreover, negative news stories about Trump made Wendy susceptible not only to her boyfriend’s criticism of her favored candidate – but also of herself.

Some couples sought a common media outlet they could agree on to co-view together, while others intentionally chose to consume news independently, whether in separate rooms or by scrolling their social media feeds on separate devices while in each other’s company. Others sought ways of consuming news with their partner that superseded their differences and utilized other news media privately, according to the study.

Nancy, a 49-year-old Michigan woman who had switched from voting Republican to voting Democratic in 2016 and 2020, said her husband was a Trump supporter who held political beliefs she described as “opposed” to her own.

News was a significant source of conflict between them as was Nancy’s ideological shift, which her husband attributed to her viewing CNN. Nancy, who worked from home, responded by watching CNN secretly during the day when her spouse was away and kept her political activity – working as a text banker for the Democratic party during the 2020 election – secret as well.

“The point in their relationship when couples’ political differences emerged affected how partners negotiated news with one another,” Van Duyn concluded. “While some were aware of their ideological differences at the outset of the relationship, other individuals found their shared tradition of amicably viewing the news together disrupted when their partners’ views or party affiliation changed. Negotiations around news selection in cross-cutting relationships involved a negotiation of political identity as much as of news exposure.”