Are You Undermining Your Relationships With Politics?

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I’m a political animal.

I was one of those people who helped end the Vietnam war.

A few years ago I gave two Congressional briefings on evidence-based sex education.

The president of the ACLU wrote the forward to my book America’s War On Sex.

And yet as a couples counselor and sex therapist, I see people injecting politics into their relationships in ways that undermine them, interfering with empathy and communication.

Too many people perceive and talk about political forces instead of personal characteristics or feelings.


For example, Luci and Salvador are in couples counseling. She’s frustrated that he’s nervous about too much intimacy (which he is), and that he inhibits his sexual desire (which he does). She ends up doing more than her share of the couple’s emotional work, and she feels unappreciated (which she is).

Her frustration is understandable. I’ve told her so, and I invited Salvador to understand this, too.

But she doesn’t say to him “I’m frustrated,” and she doesn’t say “please understand my point of view.” Instead, she talks about “gender roles,” and how society expects women to do their relationships’ emotional work. “Of course, we don’t get paid for that,” she says bitterly. “Men get the benefit, while we pay the price.”

Predictably, Salvador gets defensive, and feels he has to defend “men,” which is a fool’s errand. The conversation degenerates into an argument about who has it worse, men or women, which gets them nowhere. Most importantly, her disappointment and resentment get lost in the shuffle, along with his anxiety and confusion.

She’s right about the social forces at work here—and I tell her so. But he’s also right when he says being male has disadvantages, and he’s right when he asks what this all has to do with him anyway. “I didn’t create this male-female arrangement,” he says, “and I can’t fix it.”

At that point Luci should say, “just listen to me and my sadness,” but she doesn’t. And he should say “tell me more about what it’s like for you,” but he doesn’t. Instead, they keep arguing about men and women, and feel further and further apart from each other.

Of course it’s important to understand the social forces that influence us. At the same time, it’s crucial to remember that relationships consist of actual people, not abstract social forces.


Another battleground for political discussions within relationships is pornography. If both partners agree that watching porn is OK, they’re fine; if they agree that it isn’t OK, they’re also fine. When a couple is in conflict about porn, however (almost always a male porn consumer and a female wanting him to stop), the conversation should be about the two people in the couple.

Unfortunately, many women frame their objections in social, political, or cultural terms. They say “porn exploits women.” They say “porn makes men rape women.” They say “porn pressures women with unrealistic expectations.”

Now everyone’s entitled to their opinion (although science actually addresses and can settle a lot of these questions). Sharing differing opinions can invigorate a couple, and help them learn about each other. But when it comes to a couple deciding how to live, people generally relate to people, not social forces.

So if Sally wants Jose to stop watching porn, “porn exploits women” won’t motivate Jose. Instead, “I feel uncomfortable knowing you watch it, and I’m concerned it changes how you look at me” has a much better chance.

Indeed, when women demand that that their husband or boyfriend stop watching porn, they often assert that porn makes men rape. Now the science (and the FBI, CDC, and various other sources of data) is quite clear about this—except for a few people who are a special combination of manipulative, narcissistic and psychotic, porn does NOT make men rape.

But I don’t bring this up in session—because it’s irrelevant. When Sally says “I don’t want Jose looking at porn because porn makes men rape,” I simply ask “do you think porn will lead Jose to rape anyone?” If she says “yes” or even “I don’t know,” we now have a completely different conversation. If she says “no, of course not,” then I say that whether it’s true for other men isn’t relevant to their conversation.

Again, I’m fine with Sally proposing that Jose agree to live a certain way. Jose, of course, can agree, or respond with his own proposal. For the best chance of getting what she wants, Sally should talk about herself and her partner, rather than political or social forces.


I recently received an email from a trans person (age about 30) who wanted my input on a situation they’re in. It was easy to be sympathetic—this person’s mom still couldn’t use her adult kid’s preferred pronouns, and wouldn’t correct her friends who think that her adult kid (whom they haven’t seen in 15 years) is still the gender they were assigned at birth.

The person who wrote me is clearly in pain, and obviously deserves to be loved and respected for exactly who they are. However, calling their mother “transphobic” doesn’t clarify things or bring them closer—it confuses things and keeps them apart. Insisting that mom change a lifelong habit as a precondition to rapprochement is a poor strategy—and is bound to fail. Seeing mom as an oppressor who needs to be educated—which is so different than the way mom sees herself—is not loving.

If the person involved weren’t trans, this would be easier to see. In a more typical situation, we encourage people to see each other, get to know each other better, and move toward each other, seeing what they have in common. If, say, a husband insists “a woman should be in the kitchen, and not have feminist ideas,” we might say “don’t think of her as a woman, but as a person; think of her ideas as hers, not as alien thoughts implanted into her passive brain by a dangerous movement.”

Like everyone else, every trans person has the right to decide what’s important to them. But that right should come with an intelligent understanding of how one’s priorities affect someone else. If someone doesn’t share a trans person’s view that gender is the most important category in human life, that doesn’t make them transphobic.

If someone is confused about (or bored with) a trans person’s journey—or someone’s journey to the Priesthood, or freezing their embryos, or becoming vegan—that doesn’t make someone an enemy. Feeling frustrated or misunderstood—even about the central matter in your life—doesn’t give you permission to be hostile or aggressive.

Similarly, insisting that someone join you in blessing your lunch as a way of validating your spirituality will create relationship problems. And if I insist you join me in catcalling every woman who walks by as an endorsement of our friendship, I will lose more than a few friends.


Unlike in many other countries, American are pretty free to choose our identity; how to express it; and how to request respect from others. Whether we’re part of the dominant culture or not, we should all be thoughtful about how to navigate identity issues, requesting and exploring and inviting rather than demanding and judging and attacking.

Labelling and interpreting others’ behavior as expressions of political prejudices may make some people feel better and more connected to their identity community. But it’s a poor strategy for creating understanding.

“You seem uncomfortable with the fact that I’m gay” is a far better way of maintaining a connection with someone (and the only way to educate them) than calling them homophobic. The same is true with calling someone racist, ageist, or any other label. It isn’t that the labels might be inaccurate, it’s that labels interfere with communication.

Which, theoretically, is the point of talking about these things in the first place.
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