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Mixed marriages: Political differences don't have to wreck a relationship

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 9:14 p.m.
Mark Brewer
Illustration for politically mixed marriages Mark Brewer/ TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Jasmine Goldband
Mike and Diane Selembo of Monroeville pictured in front of their home with their dog,Tess. The couple identifies with different political persuasions that can cause tension in presidential election years. Photographed Monday, October 1, 2012. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

When Beth Franks voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 election, it turned her Lancaster Township home into a battleground state.

That tends to happen when your husband is a Democrat and a union man, to boot.

“When I voted in the Bush-Kerry election, he was so angry that I could vote for Bush over Kerry, I almost got thrown out of the house,” Beth Franks says. “That was our first big feud.”

Men and women have successfully overcome countless differences to forge harmonious marriages. Catholics marry Jews. Mac users sign joint tax returns with their PC user spouses. And with hard work, patience and understanding, a Steelers fan can learn to appreciate the adorable but misguided eccentricities of his wife, a staunch supporter of the Cleveland Browns.

But the looming presidential election can make for a tense state of the union in households where each partner has committed to a different candidate.

Arguably, the most famous politically mixed marriage is that of Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin. They've successfully franchised their differences in a commercial for Mistubishi Heating and Cooling, in which they bicker over the setting of the thermostat in their home.

“I distinctly remember turning the temperature down,” gripes Carville, the tenacious former campaign manager for Bill Clinton.

“I thought you were for change,” retorts Matalin, an adviser to the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Like money, sex or other contentious issues, a disagreement over politics can be a symptom of a deeper problem, says psychotherapist Lois Greenberg, who counsels couples at her Castle Shannon practice.

“There was a time when Republicans and Democrats were not war zones in or out of marriage,” Greenberg says. “The 20th century has brought such remarkable conflicts with such rigid differences that it's hard to be middle of the road. When you're living with someone, it's difficult enough to negotiate your differences so they don't become dissonances. It becomes a fight as opposed to a debate.”

Politics wasn't an issue when Beth and Joe Franks were high-school sweethearts. Now, things are a little different.

“The secret is, you don't let it bother you,” says Joe Franks, a Democrat and a member of Pittsburgh Sprinkler Fitters Union Local 542. “Everybody has their opinion about things. She's a little bit more well-educated, so to speak, because she has the time to listen, read and watch television, whereas I've got to work every day. I rely on union activities and union correspondence to make my decision for me.”

Her husband brought home an Obama sign for their front yard, Beth says. She burned it. Meanwhile, Joe is concerned about what his union colleagues will say if they see a Romney sign in their front yard.

“I say what I need to say, she says what she needs to say, and then I forget everything that she said,” he says. “She can't change my mind.”

Chris Retenauer of Blackridge is outnumbered 3 to 1 by his wife, Debra, son Kurt, 22, and daughter Olivia, 25. They're all Republicans.

“Where did I go wrong?” he jokes.

During family debates, Retenauer says he makes it a point to remind his wife or children whenever their stance on a particular issue is actually more liberal than conservative.

“It occurs spontaneously when something comes on TV and a comment is made,” he says. “It's not a regular occurrence. ... We go back and forth and back and forth until — boom! — it gets a little testy. It reaches a certain decibel level until we shut it off until the next time.”

Retirees Diane and Michael Selembo of Monroeville have clashed over her decision to vote for Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.

“They give you all this advice about getting married, but they never bring up that there might be a difference on who you're going to vote for,” Diane Selembo says.

“She expresses her views and I express mine and we go on with it,” says Michael Selembo, a lifelong Democrat. “It doesn't take over our lives.”

A couple's political differences can affect other areas of a marriage, says Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based GOP political strategist.

He is a founding partner at Purple Strategies, a consulting firm whose name derives from its blend of executives from red and blue states.

“One of the questions that is always asked when two religious faiths come together, is, ‘What faith are you going to raise the children in?' ” Haynes says. “This question comes again with politics. Is one spouse comfortable with the other spouse holding sway? Or is there going to be internecine argument over the indoctrination of the children?

Other issues to consider: political donations. Does a Democratic husband want part of their money to fund a Republican opponent, or vice versa? How long should a Democrat wife be expected to endure an evening out with her husband's Republican friends?

“It's sometimes hard enough to like all your spouse's friends to begin with,” Haynes says. “But when it's October and your friends want to talk about how Obama stinks, or your spouse's friends want to talk about what an idiot Romney is, what do you do?”

The secret is to listen to your spouse without trying to convert or dissuade them, Greenberg says.

“If your intention is tell me how stupid, idiotic or ignorant I am, we're really not going to resolve very much,” she says. “But if you're really curious about who I am and what I believe, we can have some wonderful dinner conversations.”

William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wloeffler@tribweb.com or 412-320-7986.

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