For Abhishek Mankotia, a 29-year-old graphic designer, a relationship meant travelling together, taking in the beauty of the world, having deep conversations that were nurturing and nourishing, and creating a safe space where he could grow with his partner.
When he met his now former partner on a dating app, things looked hopeful – until they didn’t. Soon, Mankotia began to spot evident casteist undertones in the way his partner took pride in the problematic parts of his culture, including casually sharing how his family didn’t allow anyone from a lower caste to even enter their house.
“When he opened up about his upper-caste upbringing, I realised how he had been brainwashed as a child to believe in the superiority of his caste,” Mankotia told VICE. “He took pride in the fact that his family was referred to as ‘lords’ in their ancestral village.”
However, Mankotia was not yet ready to give up on the relationship. So, he made the effort to share the traumatic experiences of a close friend who was Dalit and also shared anti-caste literature with the intention of helping his partner broaden his mindset. “He’d say he wasn’t casteist because he had hooked up with people from different communities and castes – that [logic] was a shocker.”
Towards the end of their relationship, Mankotia said things did improve. His partner became more conscious of his caste privilege and the unapologetic pride he took in his casteist traditions began to fade. Though they’re no longer together, Mankotia is happy that they could work together towards addressing ideologies the other was uncomfortable with.
A romantic relationship is a meeting of two souls destined to be together, or so goes the cliché. But what if the said soul has sketchy views on abortion rights, dismisses all protesters as goons who unnecessarily block the arduous commute to Starbucks, supports the ban on Muslims entering the country, and worships politicians that thrive on the cult of personality?
Such relationships are not new among those who live their lives under the spotlight. Kim Kardashian and her now-separated husband, Ye, formerly Kanye West, have always been on opposite ends of the political spectrum. While Kardashian is a vocal supporter of planned parenthood, Ye calls it the “devil’s work”; misleading rumours of the popular Killing Eve actor Jodie Comer dating a Trump supporter recently led to fans having a Twitter showdown; actor Cheryl Hines tweeted that her husband, Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s comparison of the COVID-19 restriction to the Holocaust was “reprehensible and insensitive”; in India, the present Indian finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman’s husband, economist Parakala Prabhakar, wrote a column for a national newspaper on how the government was in denial of the economic slowdown.
Famous couples aren’t the only ones who end up sparring over political differences. According to research by dating platform eHarmony, the row over Brexit ended 1.6 million relationships across the United Kingdom. So, is it even possible to love someone with political differences? Relationship counsellor Ruchi Ruuh told VICE that it comes down to establishing healthy boundaries and communication.
“In every healthy relationship, the people involved usually practise [maintaining] a good system of boundaries. Enmeshed boundaries in any relationship can cause unrest, with political views being one of them,” she said. “To establish healthy communication, [each partner must] take turns listening to the other and responding. If at any point they disagree, [they must do so] with respect.”
Ruuh explained that it’s important not to bring up other issues – the kids, holidays, money – in such discussions. The way she sees it, learning to “normalise different opinions” is advisable, as having political differences doesn’t necessarily translate to there being no love in the relationship.
“Educate yourself about their political ideology,” she added. “It's always a good idea to broaden your horizons. You'll have a greater appreciation for [your partner] and healthier discussions around the topic.”
Shubhanjana Das, a 23-year-old independent journalist, believes that “politics” must be understood in a broader context than just having an allegiance to a specific political party or cause. The differences between her and her ex ran much deeper than disagreements over current affairs. “The first red flag, on our first date itself, was when he told me that girls don’t do anything beyond just being feminists,” she told VICE. “I don’t know what I was thinking to [have continued in] the relationship.”
One fine day, when he met her best friend, he declared how caste-based reservations in government jobs and education were wrong because casteism simply didn’t exist in India. That was the point when the argument escalated – with words and in volume – to the point that Das feared neighbours would call the cops on the both of them. The differences between them were so severe that no amount of discussion could have helped, Das said.
Psychiatrist Abha Bang Soni said that we must assess the importance of politics in our day-to-day life before navigating the dating space.
“There are levels of how important politics might be to [everyone] – from focusing on issues only during elections to actively engaging with them on a daily basis. If it’s the latter, you need to have clear conversations about politics on the first few dates, much like how you’d have conversations about your opinions on marriage, having kids, and living alone.”
In cases where political differences crop up much later in the relationship, Soni suggested that couples sit together and reflect on the core values of the relationship that brought them together in the first place. “Often, in the heat of such discussions, it becomes difficult to see through the haze, and you end up forgetting your [common] values and principles that aligned you in the first place,” she said. “It’s important not to belittle your partner and also to ensure that you’re not the one being belittled for holding strong opinions about certain issues.”
She said that in cases where differences are too polarised, a third person, in the form of a family member, friend, or therapist might help provide a more objective understanding of the relationship.
With Puneet Kaur, a 29-year-old marketing manager, the range of political differences between her and her ex became apparent to her only after they broke up. During the peak of various protests in India for fundamental rights such as the 2020-2021 India farmer protests against three Farm Bills passed by the government, and described as “anti-farmer laws” by farmer unions, her ex would often share provocative posts against protesting farmers.
“Even during the relationship, there was a lot of mansplaining involved. Whenever I’d try to have a conversation with him, he would simply say I just don’t get it and that things would become clear to me in time. He seemed like part of some cult – that was the level of his blind [devotion] towards the government. I was planning to marry him – thank God I didn’t!”
After that experience, Kaur has now made it a point to specify in her bio on a dating app: Please swipe in the opposite direction of your political inclination.
When political differences reach the point where your partner might end up invalidating your lived, traumatic experiences, the relationship is likely to crumble, according to Usman Riaz, a 27-year-old copywriter. Riaz is from the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the world’s most militarised zone with a long history of violence and unlawful killings.
“When the government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, a lot of things clearly changed for me as a Kashmiri Muslim. When I’d share stories with [my partner] about my past and the violence my community had faced, she’d dismiss them and resort to whataboutery,” he told VICE, referring to the practice of deflecting discussing a particular issue to bring up a counter-issue in which a seemingly similar injustice was done or a similar logic was employed.
Although this frustrated Raiz a lot, he said that there was no scope for conversation as the relationship was already dying. The experience affected Riaz’s mental health to the point where he started questioning himself. “You start thinking if you’re the one who is always wrong and if your experience is even valid.”
Relationship counsellor Ruuh, too, said that such experiences may adversely impact our perception of ourselves and the world. As was the case with Riaz, she said that one might feel gaslighted into believing something that one knows isn't true. If the other partner is even slightly manipulative, Ruuh warned, they might make you doubt your political beliefs by presenting false narratives.
“You might also feel shamed for believing in a certain ideology,” Ruuh added. “If your partner makes you feel inferior for believing in something, you might find it overwhelmingly difficult to express those thoughts openly.”
Another fallout of being with a manipulative person includes suffering a depressive episode around major political events, like an election, Ruuh said. Further, you might experience withdrawal symptoms and wish to retreat from social situations, feel worthless, irritable, sad, and even lose sleep, if feelings of being challenged persist.
Eventually, it comes down to recognising if the relationship is worth fighting for. Is there truly a healthy amount of mutual love between the two of you? Is there space for healthy disagreements while respecting each other’s political opinions and not infantilising each other? These are questions that should ideally have easy answers.