CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As U.S. politics continue to heat up ahead of the 2024 presidential election, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are offering a peek into the struggles of American couples with opposing political viewpoints. American politics have been extremely polarizing for quite some time now. Republicans and Democrats, whether it be on Capitol Hill itself or on social media, appear incapable of civil interaction on a disturbingly frequent basis. Now, researchers say the biggest trigger for political fights between romantic partners is news media coverage.
The team at UI set out to investigate what impact this has had on the estimated 30 percent of American adults in relationships with partners who do not share their political views. Communication professor Emily Van Duyn held in-depth interviews with 67 people dating someone with opposing political views. For these couples, study authors explain, decisions that appear mundane on the surface like choosing which TV channel to watch can be “especially difficult.”
“Their cross-cutting political views presented many challenges for these couples,” Prof. Van Duyn says in a university release. “Deciding which media to consume and whether to do so together or separately was difficult because it presented them with a choice about recognizing their political differences and finding a way to navigate them.”
“They saw the news as inherently political, and their selection of a news outlet or the act of sharing an article or video meant they were intentionally pulling their partner into a recognition of their political differences.”
Notably, news coverage in particular activated differences between partners that would have otherwise remained hidden, ultimately sparking conflict as well as discussion and debate. Political conflicts between partners materialized in various ways, such as disagreements over news sources and content, or one person failing to respond as intensely as their significant other after the latter shared a particular piece of news they considered especially disturbing or alarming.
These differing political beliefs or identities in relationships created the need for couples to influence or negotiate their news consumption. Researchers call this process “negotiated exposure,” and it was apparent across public-facing media like television as well as those that are more private in nature such as social media.
This process, and the interpersonal conflicts stemming from it, “often worked in tandem to reinforce one another and impact the relationship,” Prof. Van Duyn comments. “Conflict resulting from news consumption often caused individuals to seek greater control of their news exposure, a reinforcing process that highlights the muddled order in how individuals simultaneously navigate news and relationships in contemporary democracy.”
Notably, Prof. Van Duyn opted to interview just one member of each relationship. The team did this so that the interviewees would feel comfortable talking freely without any concerns of possibly impacting their relationship or insulting their partners’ views. To protect everyone’s privacy, participants recruited through social media ads used pseudonyms.
Among all of these individuals, 39 were women, 27 were men, and one person identified as non-binary. The majority of participants were in heterosexual relationships and had been seeing their partner for more than two years. Most were White (42), while 11 were Black, another 11 were Asian, and three were Hispanic.
One participant was a 46-year-old Virginia woman identified as “Wendy” in the study. Wendy was a Donald Trump-supporting Republican, but her boyfriend of two years was a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton. Wendy explained to study authors that she and her partner compromised when it came to watching the news; she had control over programming during the morning hours and her partner took over the remote control during the afternoon.
Still, due to their opposing views on then-President Trump, co-viewing TV news together created serious friction in the relationship. This became especially true when Wendy decided there was too much negative coverage of Trump and wanted to avoid it. Additionally, study authors say negative stories about Trump made Wendy not only vulnerable to her boyfriend’s criticism of her favored candidate, but also of herself, personally.
Meanwhile, other couples looked for a common media outlet they could agree on to watch together, while others simply chose to watch news separately. Some people searched for ways to consume news with their partner that superseded their differences while simultaneously watching other news media on a private basis.
Nancy, a 49-year-old Michigan woman who switched from voting Republican to voting Democrat in 2016 and 2020, explained her husband remained a steadfast Trump supporter that held political beliefs she described as “diametrically opposed” to her own. News was a major source of conflict between the couple, as was Nancy’s ideological shift in general, which her husband blamed on her viewing CNN.
So, while working from home Nancy responded by watching CNN secretly during the day while her spouse was out of the house. Furthermore, she even hid her political activity (working as a text banker for the Democratic party during the 2020 election) from her husband as well.
“The point in their relationship when couples’ political differences emerged affected how partners negotiated news with one another,” Prof. Van Duyn concludes. “While some were aware of their ideological differences at the outset of the relationship, other individuals found their shared tradition of amicably co-viewing the news together disrupted when their partners’ views or party affiliation changed. Negotiations around news selection in cross-cutting relationships involved a negotiation of political identity as much as of news exposure.”
When the news began to take a negative toll on some participants and their relationships, many couples decided to avoid the news altogether and stopped sharing articles or videos with each other. It just wasn’t worth the toll it was having on their emotional intimacy. Prof. Van Duyn notes that certain participants who adopted news avoidance did so because of conflicts within their relationship or mental health concerns like anxiety.
The study is published in the journal Political Communication.