By one estimate, as many as 30% of individuals within the U.S. are in romantic relationships with partners who don’t share their political opinions. In today’s hyperpartisan climate, where Democrats and Republicans have difficulty talking to one another, and their opinions are polarized about media outlets’ credibility, how do couples with differing political perspectives resolve which media to follow? And the way do these decisions affect their discussions on political issues and their relationship usually?
To explore these questions, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign communication professor Emily Van Duyn conducted in-depth interviews with 67 people whose partners’ political opinions differed from their very own. For these couples, seemingly mundane decisions about media consumption became “especially difficult,” Van Duyn said.
“Their cross-cutting political opinions presented many challenges for these couples,” Van Duyn said. “Deciding which media to eat and whether to achieve this together or individually was difficult since it presented them with a selection about recognizing their political differences and finding a option to navigate them.
“They saw the news as inherently political, and their collection of a news outlet or the act of sharing an article or video meant they were intentionally pulling their partner right into a recognition of their political differences.”
News coverage activated differences between the partners that otherwise wouldn’t have emerged, sparking conflict in addition to discussion. Conflict emerged in various ways, including disagreement over news sources and content, but additionally when one person did not respond as intensely as their partner when the latter shared news that they found disturbing or alarming, Van Duyn said.
Partners’ differing political views and/or identities created a have to influence or negotiate their news consumption, a process Van Duyn calls “negotiated exposure” and played out across public-facing media corresponding to television and people more private in nature, like social media.
This process and the interpersonal conflict that resulted from it “often worked in tandem to strengthen each other and impact the connection,” Van Duyn said. “Conflict resulting from news consumption often caused individuals to hunt greater control of their news exposure, a reinforcing process that highlights the muddled order in how individuals concurrently navigate news and relationships in contemporary democracy.”
Van Duyn selected to interview just one partner from each couple in order that participants would feel comfortable speaking freely without the priority of impacting their relationship or feeling constrained by their partners’ views. To guard the privacy of those interviewed, who were recruited through social media advertisements, pseudonyms were utilized in the study.
Of the participants, 39 were female, 27 were male, and one identified as non-binary. Most were in opposite-sex relationships and had been of their current relationship for greater than two years. The bulk (42) of the study participants were white, 11 were Black, three were Hispanic, and 11 were Asian.
A 46-year-old Virginia woman identified as “Wendy” within 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 television and when with Wendy having control over programming through the morning hours and her boyfriend’s preferences taking precedence through the afternoon.
Because the couple fervently disagreed about then-President Trump, co-viewing TV news together created friction, especially when Wendy felt there was an excessive amount of negative coverage of Trump and desired to avoid it. Furthermore, negative news stories about Trump made Wendy at risk of her boyfriend’s criticism of her favored candidate and herself, personally.
Some couples sought a standard media outlet they may agree on to co-view together, while others intentionally selected to eat news independently, whether in separate rooms or by scrolling their social media feeds on separate devices while in one another’s company. In response to the study, other individuals sought ways of consuming news with their partner that superseded their differences and utilized other news media privately.
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 views she described as “diametrically opposed” to her own. The news was a big 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 through the day when her spouse was away and kept her political activity – working as a text banker for the Democratic party through the 2020 election – secret as well.
“The purpose of their relationship when couples’ political differences emerged affected how partners negotiated news with each other,” Van Duyn said. “While some were aware of their ideological differences on the outset of the connection, other individuals found their shared tradition of amicably co-viewing the news together disrupted when their partners’ views or party affiliation modified. Negotiations around news selection in cross-cutting relationships involved a negotiation of political identity as much as of stories exposure.”
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 with one another because doing so triggered tensions that affected their emotional intimacy.
Van Duyn said that a few of those that selected news avoidance cited heightened conflict inside their relationship or mental health concerns corresponding to anxiety.
The study, published within the journal Political Communication, was funded by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.