The other day, as I watched Laura Bush tell Larry King that she’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, I instantly pictured the Bushes having shouting matches at the dinner table, looking around furtively to make sure no one was witnessing the spat. Reading my thoughts, Larry asked Laura whether their politics were a source of friction between the couple. Unflinchingly, Laura said no.
“I understand his viewpoint,” she said. “I really do. I understand his viewpoint, and he understands mine.”
I’ve always been boggled by couples who have radically different politics—mostly pop culture couples, since I can’t recall many that I personally know. My mind was thoroughly blown when Claire Fisher, the super liberal art student on “Six Feet Under,” fell in love with a buttoned-up, pro-war corporate lawyer. I always wondered about pseudo-antagonistic friendships like that of bleeding-heart-liberal Liz Lemon and Nixon-loving Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock,” where Liz and Jack’s clashing ideologies never seem to get in the way of their mutual affection. I’m an uncompromising lefty feminist and, usually, my first prerequisite for a romantic prospect is that he be one, too.
And yet, I once had a relationship with a conservative guy. OK, it was six years ago—when I was just a freshman in college—and it was short-lived, but in its own little way, it was one of the most enlightening relationships I’ve ever been in.
A typical night: we’d be watching TV, and I’d go off on a tirade about the Iraq war or abstinence-only education. Then the dude I was seeing, who I’ll call Dave, would remind me, in a maddeningly measured tone, that his brother was in the Marines and that he grew up going to church. We would go at it, first uttering exasperated nothings, then clawing at facts and studies and tautological arguments. My brain would explode with anger, and I felt that nauseating feeling in my belly, the kind of nausea that few things besides politics can cause. Then we would have great, kinda angry sex, and forget about the whole thing—momentarily, at least, until the cycle would start again.
We eventually broke it off for reasons unrelated to politics, but the fact remains: Dave, a fierce debater outside my own liberal echo chamber, taught me how to stand my ground. I was forced to see the issues through someone else’s eyes, to have those difficult talks about the separation between church and state or about the core values of capitalism, to get past my own flood of words and learn to listen. It took bickering with Dave to really, truly know what was important to me.
Plus, being combative is, well … hot.
Especially if you spend your days talking and writing about politics, like me, those debate-free moments are downright refreshing. Political discussions can be truly draining, and sex can be the perfect mental vacation.
Of course, having a hot-sex affair with someone and marrying them are two different things. Given that Dave’s and my not-quite-relationship only lasted two months, I can’t speak to the staying power of this dynamic (although it’s worked out for the Bushes, who have been married for more than 30 years). I also have my steadfast bottom lines; for instance, I’d never be with anyone who had misogynist attitudes about women’s roles, in bed or otherwise. The same goes for racist, classist, and other prejudiced attitudes. Regardless of whom you vote for, there are some issues that are gonna be dealbreakers for your relationship.
Still, as Jaclyn Friedman so eloquently said a few months ago on The Sexist, “If I had a hardcore litmus test [for guys I date] … I would never get laid again.” Having flexibility and openness in a relationship, whether it’s serious or not, is productive and, for those of us who hover around the extremes of the spectrum, practically a must. For me, being forced to justify my principles sharpened my own nebulous ideas, galvanized me to act on what was important to me—and provided some seriously awesome sex in the process.