In the museum of unusual marriages, the union of George and Kellyanne Conway was always a very popular exhibit. How could two people who seemed to disagree so vehemently in public keep it together on the domestic front? What do you say to your wife after publicly insulting the leader she is paid to promote? What do you say to your conservative husband after a hard day at the office of obliterating norms? And yet the Conways had been married for decades, had four children, and had at least until recent times always seemed such ardent supporters of each other. He encouraged her, for example, to take the job as Trump’s campaign manager.
So it was with some sadness that enthusiasts of unlikely marriages learned this week that the Conways didn’t make it. “We are in the final stages of an amicable divorce,” the couple wrote in the statement. “We married more than two decades ago, cherish the many happy years (and four corgis) we’ve shared, and above all else, our four incredible children, who remain the heartbeat of our family and our top priority.”
To many people, the surprising part of the Conways’ story is not that they split, but that they managed to hold it together for so long. Didn’t their strong views on the Administration make it impossible? Marriage therapists note, however, that political stars do not always have to align for a successful match; research suggests that about 10% of couples do not vote the same way. “Political differences like Kellyanne’s and George’s are not the best indicator of whether a marriage works or not,” says psychotherapist and author Daphne De Marneffe. “If the emotional relationship is working, the politics do not become a deal breaker. That said, the Trump era tested many couples—I’m guessing the worst political era for couples since the Vietnam War—and our polarized politics drives a sharper wedge when couples are already unskilled in managing their differences.”
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According to some therapists, politics is becoming more of a flashpoint in all relationships and people are not getting better at listening to each other with empathy. “Political identity has become so important, so many values are wrapped up in it now,” says Bill Doherty, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota, who also founded Braver Angels, a group that tries to bridge the divide between people of different political stripes and has hosted a number of public forums where married couples talk about their political differences. “We moralize everything. ‘If you hold a different view of affirmative action than I do, if you’re against it, you must be racist. You must want to keep people down,'” he says, describing the way opponents regard each other. “We’re not talking about public policy; we’re talking about your moral core.”
Other people were curious about the timing. Trump has now been out of the White House for more than two years. Kellyanne no longer represents him, George doesn’t tweet nearly so often. If the Conways could stick it out while Trump was in power, why split now that the crisis has passed? Therapists say this too is actually a common pattern. “Two people might pull together to get through something, but when the pressure is off, so is the effort,” says Scott Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, Colorado. “Other couples rally for a time against a stress, but the damage is greater than what they gained in a positive bond from what they went through.” Often there may be lingering scars that make repairing a marriage difficult; not only has the relationship been damaged, but the individuals have too.
There are different types of stressors on marriages, including external ones such as health issues, financial setbacks, or a sick child, and interpersonal ones, such as an affair or addiction. “It makes a difference for couples whether the pressure is purely an external threat or both external and interpersonal between the two partners,” Stanley notes. “That was clearly more the case for the Conways because they had two very different roles about something highly polarizing, publicly. That would have to be a really tough thing to handle.”
While the couple didn’t go into details about what predicated the split, Kellyanne’s memoir Here’s the Deal, in which she accused George of “cheating by tweeting” and her media tour for the book offered some broad hints. “George became an expert on many things people wanted him to be, and all I really wanted was my husband and the father of my children as I always had him,” she told CNN, noting that she was not made aware that her husband would be publicly criticizing her boss ahead of time. “He can change his mind about Donald Trump. This is a free country. George owes no allegiance to a political party or a presidential candidate. But his vows to me, I feel, were broken, because we were all in.” George, for his part, says he took to Twitter to get his frustrations off his chest, so he wouldn’t scream at his wife.
Nobody, of course, knows what really happens in a marriage, but it’s possible that the Conways were so preoccupied with political issues, not to mention an adolescent daughter who went viral feuding with her mom on social media, that they simply didn’t have the bandwidth to do the amount of relationship maintenance necessary to keep the flames lit. “Evidence from the UCLA Sloan Center study of dual career couples in Los Angeles shows that the majority of couples today focus on careers and children, and then their lives devolve into a very long to-do list that they get through together,” says John Gottman, who with his wife, Julie, has researched marriages and counseled couples for several decades. “That’s why these late-divorcing couples appear to others to be a mystery. They don’t fight a lot, they’re a good team, it’s just that they’ve let the love die without even a whimper.”
People who want to stay married, therapists note, have to at some point prioritize their relationship. The Conways may have felt that the struggle for the future of the U.S. was worth every ounce of energy they were putting into it, but somewhere along the way lost the notion of themselves as a team. “When there is some big external force trying to rip a couple apart, one of the worst things would be for either or both partners to think they are alone with it,” says Stanley. “People need to see some effort, some support, some investment in making it work, in trying to protect ‘us’ and our family. That’s where regular little sacrifices come in. It can’t be only one trying to win the battle.”
Most couples’ disagreements are not on quite as bright display as the Conways. But therapists warn that any time differences are aired publicly, it’s important to be respectful. When discussing political subjects with family and friends, for example, Doherty suggests opening with “I know [my partner] has a different view on this, but where I am right now is such and such.” In other words, what is most effective inside families is usually the opposite of what is most effective on Twitter. “From my perspective as a couple therapist, the most striking thing about the Conways’ public presentation is how unprotective of the marriage and each other they were,” says de Marneffe. “That is in itself a terrible prognostic sign for the future of any marriage.”
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