Bridging the Divide: How to Date Across Political Parties

For some couples, vows should read: “In sickness and in health—and through election season.”
Tom and Dana Manatos work around their differences. Photograph courtesy of Tom and Dana Manatos.
Tom and Dana Manatos work around their differences. Photograph courtesy of Tom and Dana Manatos.

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.

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