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Maturity is key to surviving a mixed-politics relationship

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Posted: Monday, October 29, 2012 9:36 am

Couples disagree on all sorts of topics -- and sometimes the issue is trickier than those easy, agreeable subjects like religion, money and child rearing.

Say, politics.

You've heard of red state, blue state. What about red husband, blue wife? Or vice versa?

Some couples land on opposite sides of the political fence, stirring the kind of dinner table discussions that might make you think twice about asking your spouse to pass the potatoes.

Political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin, married since 1993, have made a career out their opposing views. Squabbling on TV is one thing, but pillow talk and politics for the average couple can get dicey, sociologists and marriage experts say.

Some couples make it work, proving that chemistry can trump ideology, and love can conquer disagreements over health care reform. Some couples simply realize that arguing over politics produces nothing but headaches, so they avoid it.

Fortunately, most couples probably don't face a big political divide.

Research shows that couples tend to be in sync about politics, that opposites

really don't attract -- and not just when it comes to candidates. Sociologists call it "marital homogeny," and it's why folks often marry people of the same race and with similar religious and family backgrounds.

"The romantic comedy notion that opposites attract is cool for a story, but ordinarily doesn't play out for the average couple," said Dan Hawkins, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

There are exceptions -- those couples who joke about canceling each other out on Election Day.

Karl and Sallie Haas of Omaha have done that more than once during their 18 years of marriage.

Karl has voted Republican for president ever since he was old enough to cast a ballot. Sallie has backed mostly Democrats, with exceptions that twice included voting for Ronald Reagan.

Even though the Haases have differed over presidential picks, they don't get gridlocked.

They don't have time.

"We've got to get up and go to work and pay the bills," Sallie said. "We're more likely to argue over a call in a football game."

Bill Mueller and Kim Robak are a couple who really can't avoid talking about politics.

They are partners in the Mueller Robak lobbying and government relations firm in Lincoln.

Robak, a former Nebraska lieutenant governor who considered a U.S. Senate run this year, is a Democrat. Mueller is a Republican who is considered one of the leading lobbyists in the state.

They have no doubt canceled each other out a few times during their 26 years of marriage.

And not just for president. One of the best examples was in 1988, when Mueller backed Republican candidate Dave Karnes and Robak supported Democrat Bob Kerrey in Nebraska's U.S. Senate race.

Robak and Mueller even posted dueling yard signs that year.

Robak supports President Barack Obama and campaigned for him when he first ran in 2008.

Mueller said he has voted for Republicans and Democrats for president. He said he's undecided on whether he'll vote for Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Robak and Mueller, both lawyers, admit that they love talking politics and public policy. They respect each other's opinions and avoid letting the discussions turn heated.

They abide by the "spousal rule," something they developed while golfing together.

If one of them makes an unsolicited comment about the other's golf game, the other just has to say "spousal rule," and the comments must end.

They invoke it at home sometimes if a political discussion edges beyond spirited.

"We let it die down," Robak said.

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said conflict is a natural part of marriage. It's normal for couples to disagree on finances, children and even more routine topics like what color to paint the living room or what to have for dinner.

It's important that couples have a way of settling conflicts so they don't escalate. Told about the Mueller-Robak spousal rule, Wilcox said it sounds like just the right way to keep discussions friendly.

"There has to be a way of handling it in a mature fashion," Wilcox said.

Even though some couples differ on presidential choices, there's evidence that many are on the same side.

First, there's research showing that married people tend to vote for Republican candidates.

In recent elections, married voters have cast ballots for the Republican presidential candidate by disproportionately wide margins, according to Gallup. It's called the "marriage gap."

A Gallup analysis this summer found that married registered voters preferred Romney over Obama by 54 percent to 39 percent.

There also is research showing that even when couples begin their marriages on opposite political sides, their differences lessen over time.

Laura Stoker, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, said one of the possible reasons for that is that spouses influence each other.

The influence can be direct, like saying a certain candidate is a jerk. The influence also can be subtle, such as suggesting a spouse read a political column that supports one candidate over another.

Mary and Chuck Maxwell of Omaha, married since 1961, faced plenty of political disagreements during their first decade together.

"I wouldn't call them discussions," said Mary, a local humorist. "They were not well reasoned. They were occasionally loud."

Mary is a Republican and Chuck is a Democrat. Both have strong political roots.

Her father helped run the Nebraska campaigns for Republican candidates for president and governor from the 1930s through the early 1950s.

Chuck said he grew up in an Irish-Catholic family where if "you wanted to go to heaven, you were a Democrat."

They both said the Nixon years and Watergate provided plenty of ammunition for arguments.

Mary said that before she and Chuck got married, a Catholic priest told them never go to bed mad at each other.

"So for the first 10 years, we stayed up and fought all night," she said.

But since then, the two have been much closer politically.

Chuck said he was a big supporter of Democrat John F. Kennedy in the 1950s and 1960s. But Chuck said that in more recent decades he has voted for Republicans for president.

He said Democratic presidential candidates have become far more liberal than they were 50 years ago.

Mary said she and Chuck have their own spousal rule for political disagreements, one that got them over the hump when they first got married: "Don't take it too seriously."

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