Sleeping with the enemy

Do you have to have similar political or religious beliefs to your partner to get on? Laura Marcus investigates

In the early 1980s stand-up comedian Jenny Lecoat caused a bit of a storm when she wrote an article in Cosmopolitan declaring she would never sleep with a Tory. Times change. Today Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan writes frequently about her Conservative-supporting husband whom she calls “Tory Boy”. Yet despite their vast political differences, they now have a child and seem settled and happy. Their differences have certainly given Mangan plenty to write about.

Similarly in the US James Carville and Mary Matalin are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. He’s a powerbroker and adviser for the Democratic Party and has worked on Bill and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. She’s a top Republican who’s worked for Bush. Both are TV stars. They’ve been married 20 years and have two children. In a country where divorce is as common as hay fever, they’ve clearly lasted and survived despite wildly differing ways of looking at the world. At a time when politics is again becoming more extreme and polarised, how do they cope? “We never discuss politics at home,” is the couple’s stock answer.

Also in the US, Republican governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger was married to prominent Democrat Maria Shriver for 25 years. Here in the UK, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons is on the opposite side of the political spectrum to his Labour-supporting wife Sally.

So not everyone takes Lecoat’s position. Perhaps if everything else works, it doesn’t matter if your politics or other values differ vastly? Tracey is a Labour supporter married to a Tory – Tory Tone, she calls husband Tony. She says until the last election she had no real idea just how much of a Tory her Tone was. “We were at loggerheads the whole time. It’ll sound daft but it really wasn’t obvious till then that he was such a massive Tory.”

Tracey and Tory Tone – she’s a part-time primary teacher, he’s an estate agent – have just moved from London to Chorlton in Manchester, renowned for being a liberal, leftie kind of place. “I’m terrified he’s going to put his foot in it with our new friends and people we meet up here! I’m really ashamed of him.”

“He’s aware of how I feel so I try to turn it into a joke – hence the Tory Tone moniker.”

So how come they’ve been together 13 years and have three kids? “We met while travelling – doing that whole backpacking thing. Completely missed Labour coming in 1997 and never realised how different we were. It was all very laid-back then. Now we’ve had children and have proper grown-up jobs it’s all very different.”

Like Carville and Matalin they cope by not discussing politics. “It doesn’t affect our relationship,” says Tracey. “He’s fully aware of how I feel so I try to turn it into a joke – hence the Tory Tone moniker. And in all other areas we’re pretty similar, always got on well. Soulmates even. Don’t think we’d ever split up over it – well, unless he started dressing like David Cameron!”

Another political couple, Atul Hatwal and Ella Mason, resportedly take a different approach. He’s editor of Labour Uncut, she’s a self-avowed economic conservative who worked for David Cameron’s team in the 2010 election. Rather than avoid talking politics at home, they’re willing to argue about the best way to cut the deficit. He says the key is knowing when to stop.

What about something as fundamental to your identity as religious belief? Can a believer possibly find happiness with a non-believer?

When website developer Phil, from Leek, Staffordshire, went on to the dating site OKCupid he knew Sarah was religious. So even though he’s an avowed atheist, he still decided he’d like to see her.

“As the rest of her profile strongly appealed, we got chatting online.”

“OkCupid is quite a sophisticated website. It takes a lot of information from you. When I first found Sarah’s profile under the religion section there were various options. She put ‘religious and somewhat serious about it’. I did find that a bit off-putting. It painted pictures in my mind of somebody who was very into religion and would be a proselytiser and want to convert me.

“But as the rest of her profile strongly appealed, we got chatting online and she seemed quite normal and lovely and the topic of religion simply didn’t come up till we met in person. That’s when she explained a bit more about it and what it entails. She’s a Unitarian and serious about it but it doesn’t involve church on Sundays and traditional prayer. The way she gets involved is through group activities, especially youth work to help kids gain more confidence in their lives.”

Phil is so relaxed about Sarah’s religion that he’s even been on these outings with them. “I went on one of their walks in the Peak District and found them to be a really lovely bunch of people – very accepting of me. They don’t mind that I’m not religious. I’ve made new friendships in a very surprising way to me. Certainly my background and contact with organised religion growing up hadn’t led me to believe it would be anything like this.”

Phil says to keep an open mind and don’t narrow your search for partners, if you’re looking, to those who have exactly the same views. “I’d so glad I kept an open mind – got to know the person behind the religious label. Sarah’s brother is involved with a girl who’s an evangelical Protestant Christian and she has very firm ideas about the future of their relationship, getting married and how they would raise their children. That would be a sticking point for me.

“I’m still a very happy atheist. Sarah’s perfectly happy about that.”

“But you can’t know this till you know the person. I must say it’s broadened my mind and made me realise not all religious people are the same. Religion means very different things to different people. And I’m still a very happy atheist. Sarah’s perfectly happy about that and, in fact, we’re about to move in together. Religion hasn’t got in the way at all.”

For Joanne it’s a lot more than being a different religion. “I’m a vegetarian, I don’t drink and I’m a non-practising Jew. I’m married to a meat-eating, beer-loving atheist/non-practising Christian. But it works!”

Does it bother Joanne that husband Robert eats meat? “Obviously I’d be delighted if he became vegetarian but I can live with it that he’s not. I think his meat-eating would bother me far more if he wasn’t careful and considerate about what meat he buys and where it comes from. The smell doesn’t bother me but the sight sometimes does. I’m willing to pay for meat when shopping, but I never prepare or cook it. I was raised in a meat-free household, I have no idea to prepare or cook it and no inclination to learn.”

“I think eating dead animals is selfish and unnecessary. I would feel disgusted with myself if I ate dead animals. But this is my personal thought process and not a universal fact. My husband feels differently and that’s his choice.”

At least not drinking doesn’t mean Joanne gets lumbered with the driving – she doesn’t drive. “It’s only a big deal when other people assume I’m pregnant or boring because I don’t drink. But none of this is a problem. I think they are just surface issues although I can appreciate some vegetarians may see things differently.

“I don’t think having the same beliefs is what matters. What matters is whether you’re able to respect and accommodate your differences. My husband isn’t a vegetarian, but he is hugely respectful of my choices. And nobody wants to marry a clone of themselves.”

That said, Joanne still thinks single people do need a checklist when looking for a partner. “Oh yes, I had a checklist and I stuck to it. What I would say is: think about what actually belongs on the checklist in the first place. Rather than looking for a vegetarian, I wanted someone who was either vegetarian, or respectful of vegetarianism, and not obsessed with having to eat meat with every meal. I think my checklist worked fine because it was realistic.”

So perhaps Lecoat was wrong. Couples can live with huge differences, even when politics, religion or diet matters hugely to them.

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