In Washington, the idea of dating across the aisle often strikes people as inexplicable, even crazy—hardly the recipe for a successful long-term relationship. DC’s most famous bipartisan couple, former presidential advisers Mary Matalin and James Carville, attributed their marriage’s success to three things: faith, family, and good wine. “That’s how we do it,” Matalin said in a 2009 Larry King interview.
Lesser known and more surprising: Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, Paul Ryan, married into wife Janna’s long line of Oklahoma Democrats in 2000.
When Democratic congressional aide Tom Manatos met his now-wife, Dana, several years ago, he was dubious that they had a future: She was delightful, but she worked for Karl Rove. “That made my skin crawl,” Tom says. “The license plate on my car actually said DEMOCRT.” They discovered they had a lot in common anyway, wed in 2008, and now have two children.
Philanthropist and playwright Trish Vradenburg’s parents had other plans for her when she met the man who would become her husband. George Vradenburg explains: “[Their son-in-law] needed to be Jewish, he needed to be from the East, and he needed to be a Democrat. Much to their dismay, I was a non-Jewish Republican from Colorado.” Yet the couple married in 1968, two years after they met, and have been together ever since, founding USAgainstAlzheimer’s together.
So how do matches like these make it? We asked a relationship expert and the couples themselves.
Talk about issues and values, not party platforms
“Things get hot when people dig their heels in and regurgitate talking points instead of explaining their opinions,” says Jess McCann, a Falls Church dating coach and author of Was It Something I Said?: The Answer to All Your Dating Dilemmas. But, she adds, it’s important to address what values shape your beliefs about government, not just what party you vote for.
“If you talk about how you’re going to deal with inequality,” says George Vradenburg, “and you find that one [partner] wants everyone to have opportunities but doesn’t think government should create them and the other thinks government is the best mechanism for that, you’ll realize that even though you disagree, you have the same values.”
Challenge but don’t attack
Ask questions about a person’s beliefs—even if you don’t agree, you might learn something. And you should aim only to make your opinion clear and listen. “If you’re trying to win, you’ve already lost,” McCann says.
Dana Manatos agrees: “When we battle about the issues and know the other is not going to cave, we let things go. You have to be able to say, ‘I don’t agree with you, but you’re entitled to your opinion, even if it’s definitely wrong.’ ”
When raising kids, learn to compromise
Agreeing to disagree is healthy in some cases, but when kids come into the picture, you have to work together, McCann says. She cites an example from her own marriage: “My husband wants guns. I don’t like guns. But I’ll allow them in our home as long as they stay in a safe that’s opened with his fingerprint. I would prefer they not be there at all.”
Put your differences to work
Tom and Dana Manatos run a website that matches people with Hill jobs. What started as Tom’s Democratic listserv years ago has become a bipartisan joint project since their union. “We can find more people jobs this way,” Tom says. Similarly, George and Trish Vradenburg say their Alzheimer’s efforts are doubly powerful because they can lobby both parties effectively.
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.